EXIT FROM MASS DECEPTION: Or, The Art of Being Imperially Alone
[Editor’s Note: This essay by Derek Swannson became the voice-over transcript for the documentary film of the same name, which can be found on YouTube at: https://youtu.be/hXo3gbyHTBI ]
Part One: EXILE FROM MAIN STREET
Freedom is the possibility of isolation. You are only free if you can withdraw from men and feel no need to seek them out for money, or society, or love, or glory, or even curiosity, for none of these things flourish in silence and solitude. If you cannot live alone, then you were born a slave.
— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Toward the end of summer in 2017, I started hanging a camera around my neck like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross and going for long walks around New York City in the evenings. I was living alone on the Upper West Side again after seven years of being tucked away with my family in an affluent New Jersey bedroom community. I’d discovered during those years that I wasn’t cut out for suburban living — or at least that was my wife’s opinion by the time she got around to asking me for a divorce.
I was a freelance Photoshop artist and a marginalized novelist who’d been making a fairly decent living in New York City since my arrival from Seattle back in 1999. In 2007, my wife and I had sold our too-small apartment on West 72nd Street for a huge profit just before Wall Street’s subprime lending fiasco burst the real estate bubble in 2008. We’d sat out the worst of the downturn in a rented apartment on West End Avenue with great views of the Hudson. Then, when we thought prices had stabilized in 2010, we bought a big, beautiful old house out in Montclair, New Jersey. Our real estate market timing had been almost perfect, but buying that house still turned out to be one of the most expensive mistakes of my life.
I can’t say it was all bad… owning my first house brought me pleasures that I hadn’t anticipated. I found out that I liked gardening, for instance. I also loved having a big back yard for our dogs to romp around in. What I didn’t like was the lawn maintenance required during the spring and summer months, and shoveling snow from the long driveway during winter. I also hated all the extra, unplanned-for expenses: The basement flooded during our first year in the house — that cost us $5,000. The next year my wife wanted a landscape designer to spruce up our front yard — another $5,000. Then the plaster ceiling in the dining room to start falling down in chunks, the front porch needed new steps, and the back deck needed repainting — $3000… $4,000… I can’t even recall the exact amounts now, there were so many little checkbook-draining disasters like that.
To make things even worse, my freelancing income had plateaued right around the time we’d moved from the city. About five years later, it started drifting lower. Meanwhile, I’d been caught between the twin pinchers of rapidly escalating property taxes and health insurance costs. Maybe you’ve felt that pinch yourself. For me, toward the end, those two expenses sucked up almost half of my annual income. And the irony was that our annual property tax bill was rising so fast that it was eroding the resale value of our home, while our health insurance provider was always finding new ways to deny coverage for our medical expenses, despite the premiums and deductibles we paid, which amounted to over twenty thousand dollars a year.
It felt like the extortionists were in charge everywhere. I was spending three hours a day commuting and it was beginning to seem like financial suicide to own a home in New Jersey. My wife thought otherwise, of course, but she wasn’t the one who had to work for a living.
So a few months ago I moved into a tiny third-floor walk-up on West 76th Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. My wife took the lioness’s share of the equity in our house and used it to buy another, even bigger house in one of Montclair’s glitziest neighborhoods. (Justin Bieber is rumored to own a mansion just up the street.) That’s how those differences of opinion tend to go when your marriage is falling apart.
Like buying a home at the wrong time, in the wrong town, a marriage that ends in divorce can also be a form of financial suicide, mirroring larger trends at work in our society. I was reminded of that recently while reading Mark Greif’s concluding essay, “Thoreau Trailer Park,” in his book, Against Everything. The passage I’m thinking of goes like this:
MARK GREIF: No one could deny that private Wall Street banks had, in 2008, nearing collapse, made themselves whole with billions from the taxpayers’ treasury, and put great sums from the rescue into their own pockets. They took taxpayers’ money and foreclosed on taxpayers’ homes. They unhoused the middle class while the executives renovated their third and fourth and fifth vacation houses. But principally banks, brought back from the brink of death, cast their weight, and all the power the democracy restored to them, against democracy: spending the citizens’ money in election funding and lobbying, to ensuring that good old laws, born in the Great Depression, retired in the 1990s, which had prevented such profitable (and self-destructive) speculation, could not be restored. Banks spent the citizens’ money to guarantee they were heard before any citizen.
That pernicious form of lobbying and legislation described by Greif has now become so common that we have a name for it: regulatory capture. It’s a less inflammatory way of saying that American democracy is dead and we now live in a kleptocratic corporate oligarchy, ruled by criminals.
Thanks to unfair economic policies that benefit those at the top at the expense of everyone else, the three richest white men in America — Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett — now own as much wealth as the bottom half of the U.S. population. We’re talking about over 163 million people there. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe you’re a college graduate saddled with crippling student loan debt. Maybe you have a steady job, but you’ve seen your wages stagnate for the last ten or fifteen years while the cost of almost everything has gone up. Maybe you once thought you belonged to America’s shrinking middle class, but then you watched your wealth evaporate in the wake of the Wall Street bankers’ 2008 financial coup d’etat. Maybe you’ve been financially screwed over in some new and insidious way that most people haven’t even heard about yet.
So what do you do when corporate America and its entire MKULTRA culture seems to be aligned against you? Well, if you’re like me, you opt for isolation — or “silence, exile, and cunning,” as James Joyce put it. You find out what it’s like to live a simple life, all alone.
My most recent book, Crash Gordon and the Illuminati Underground, is a satire about “the most oppressive corporate Leviathan the world has ever seen.” In that book, a sociopathic plutocrat named Jeb Beezos has teamed up with the Gnostic demiurge, Yaldabaoth, to become one of the world’s richest men — even though the corporate behemoth that Beezos is in charge of, Glamazon, has only lost money for twenty years straight.
Yaldabaoth is the Lord of the Archons, a demonic schemer much like Satan or Mephistopheles, who’s thrilled with Glamazon’s potential for global tyranny:
“Warehouses on every continent full of drones and robots and underpaid wage slaves…” Yaldabaoth gloats, “veritable Noah’s Arks filled to the rafters with every crap consumable and junk product the world has to offer… while Glamazon Web Services builds out cloud-based data storage and computing networks for everyone from Netflix to NASA to our Dark Brothers in the CIA.”
It’s not all that different from what Jeff Bezos has actually accomplished with Amazon. If anything, Bezos is even further along the path toward world domination. He owns The Washington Post and uses it as his personal propaganda tool to manufacture consent for the regulatory capture schemes that will allow him to control the underlying infrastructure of our economy. Already, Amazon captures nearly one of every two dollars spent online by Americans, and Amazon Web Services controls 44 percent of the world’s cloud computing capacity. Liberty Media Chairman, John Malone, went on CNBC the other day to colorfully describe Amazon as “the Death Star moving into striking range of every industry on the planet.”
“It’s all about scale…” Malone explained, “if you’re selling anything to any consumer anywhere on the planet, you gotta believe that Amazon is gonna have a look at that opportunity to commoditize you” — and then use its massive scale to crush your margins.
As Jeff Bezos likes to say: “Your margin is my opportunity.” Capitalism isn’t about justice — it’s about arbitrage. So why should we trust profit-hungry corporations to work in our best interests, to refrain from global ecocide, to preserve freedom of communication and expression, or even give us an honest accounting of their sales figures? Corporations are, by their very nature, amoral.
One of my favorite independent journalists, Caitlin Johnstone, recently summed up the situation like this:
CAITLIN JOHNSTONE: Bezos continues to get cozier and cozier with the US power establishment as his empire metastasizes across human civilization. He kicked WikiLeaks off Amazon servers in 2010, he scored a 600 million dollar contract with the CIA in 2013, he joined a Pentagon advisory board in 2016, he hung out with Defense Secretary James Mattis in August, and he’s spent nearly ten million dollars this year lobbying the federal government, which is likely what led to an NDAA amendment gifting Amazon a $54 billion market it’s expected to dominate as a supplier to the Pentagon.
When I published Crash Gordon and the Illuminati Underground in September of 2016, I predicted on page 528 of that book that my fictional Jeb Beezos would surpass Bill Gates as the world’s richest man by the year 2020. As it turned out, Jeff Bezos actually achieved that goal only a short year later, with a net worth of over 100 billion dollars by the end of November in 2017. However, to justify and maintain that net worth — which is based almost entirely on the insane multiple that Amazon’s stock trades at today — Amazon will have to be worth 25% of the US economy in five years. Billionaire investor Sam Zell did the math on that one, not me. But if his numbers are correct, does anyone really believe that Amazon will account for one-fourth of our national GDP by the end of the same 60-month time span which most people use to pay off a subprime loan on a new minivan?
I sure don’t. But, of course, harsh reality proves me wrong all the time….
I have the impression that, in this formless homeland called the universe, I live beneath a political tyranny which, although it does not oppress me directly, still offends some hidden principle of my soul.
— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Clearly, we live in a depraved new world. Demons, vampires, and zombies are just cartoonish metaphors for the predatory people we meet, all too often, in real life. Most of us, however, live as inverse vampires, rising to consciousness each morning in a body that needs sunlight, food, and warmth; a body that makes us vulnerable to exploitation because it must be fed and clothed and housed; a body that will one day surely die — ejecting our consciousness into the Great Who-Knows-What?
Are we here for a reason? Are we spiritual beings having a human experience? Or are we just meat puppets — random bags of biology — shitting, farting, and sneezing our way through a material world governed by inescapable laws of entropy and decay? Is the universe indifferent to our collective fate? Does mankind lurch from one war, genocide, economic meltdown, or environmental catastrophe to the next with no one in charge, no one really calling the shots? Or does a shadowy cabal of billionaires in thrall to demiurgic urges manipulate the world’s historical process, even down to the level of individual mind control? And is that somehow preferable to thinking that nothing is connected to anything, and there’s no meaning to life at all?
Ask yourself this: when we die, does our consciousness just switch off like a TV? Or will we encounter the soul-crushing terror of a godless abyss? Or worse, an afterworld haunted by demiurgic taskmasters? Or will there be a heaven for us, where nothing bad ever happens? And until we arrive at that heaven, hell, or absolute nothingness — as we all inevitably will, DOA — shouldn’t we all just party and have a good time?
We can sleep when we’re dead, right? Why should we obey the grim social imperative to place material gain over incessant genital licking?
Having as much fun as humanly possible might seem like the ideal response to our existential quandary, but what if you’ve always shied away family get-togethers, Christmas caroling, and Greenwich Village orgies featuring full-nude body painting? What if dressing up in a sad bunny suit and shaking your fuzzy-wuzzy junk in a parade isn’t something you’d enjoy doing? What if you think Fernando Pessoa got it right when he wrote: “Enthusiasm is sheer vulgarity…”?
What then, Gloomy Gus?
I’ve always suffered from a sense of Gnostic alienation — although, of course, I didn’t call it that when I was growing up. Maybe I’m just autistic, or an asshole, but on some fundamental level the world has always seemed strange to me, more mysterious and terrible than humans could have made it, all by themselves. I’ve never been able to shake the creeping intuition that I was born into a hostile realm (not my true home) where the people in charge were being controlled by an ancient, omniscient, malevolent force — beginning with Mom and Dad.
You’d be safe in assuming I didn’t have a happy childhood.
My grandfather on my mother’s side was a Methodist minister with a tattoo of the Princeton tiger on his ass and an arrest record for patronizing prostitutes. When my mother was a little girl, he made her eat her pet rabbit.
You can bet she didn’t have a happy childhood, either.
(My mother’s pet rabbit story now reminds me of an old Bill Hicks routine — censored by “The David Letterman Show” — about how we commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus “by telling our children a giant bunny rabbit… left chocolate eggs in the night.” Hicks used to imagine Christ looking down at us from Heaven, debating the Second Coming with his Heavenly Father: “Y’think when Jesus comes back he’s really gonna wanna to look at a cross? Ow! That may be why he hasn’t shown up yet. ‘Oh man, they’re still wearing crosses, Dad — I’m not goin’… no. They totally missed the point. I’m not goin’, forget it. Okay, I’ll tell you what — I’ll go back as a bunny.’” In my book about growing up in California, Crash Gordon and the Mysteries of Kingsburg, an ass-kicking Easter Bunny shows up in the first chapter.)
When I was a boy, the mainstream media portrayed Nixon and Kissinger as diplomatic geniuses, even while they were covertly carpet-bombing Cambodia and engaging in at least 57 other varieties of heinous fuckery. Around that same time, the Zodiac Killer was making public threats to blow up school buses full of children in the general vicinity of my hometown. Later, the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst in Berkeley, about 200 miles north. By then, things were getting really weird. Watergate had come along and stripped the diplomatic veneer off Nixon (while leaving his war criminal pal Kissinger’s veneer somehow intact). The Zodiac Killer’s self-proclaimed death toll had risen to 37, yet he continued to elude capture. And William Randolph Hearst’s granddaughter started calling herself Tania instead of Patty, posing for pictures in front of the SLA’s seven-headed cobra symbol while wearing a sleek and fashionable M-1 carbine, which she’d used to shoot up a sporting goods store, so her new “comrades” could shoplift a pair of tube socks. And I almost forgot to mention the Manson Family murders… in those not-so-long-ago days, California fornication gave the resulting babies a front row seat at the freak show.
Each new generation has its own nightmare version of reality to compete with mine. Did you grow up in New York City during 9/11 and the anthrax attacks? I was there with you. Were you a troubled teen in the Midwest when the Oklahoma City bombing and the Waco siege went down? I’ve written about those incidents in my books. Did you become a fan of Leonard Cohen while you were a student at McGill University in Montreal, where Doctor Ewen Cameron had conducted his MKULTRA experiments in “depatterning” and “psychic driving”? I’ve written about that, too.
Can you forgive me for thinking that a demiurgic or demonic intelligence might be at work on our planet, shaping a future in which dehumanization will be celebrated as human progress? Will you consider the possibility that certain humans are perversely colluding with antihuman forces to steer our historical process, or are you going to allow the quiet, internal voice of your spirit to be replaced by a fascist soup of algorithms from silicon chips inside ever-smarter phones, drones, and robots? The prevailing spirit of our technocratic age seems bent on eradicating most aspects of spirituality — unless that spirituality serves to keep the masses in line, like the pedophile-infested Catholic Church. I could be wrong about that, of course… but am I? What makes you so sure?
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Kevin Spacey said that in his role as “Verbal” Kint (or Keyser Söze) in The Usual Suspects, a film directed by Bryan Singer. You’re aware of what Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer have been up to lately, right? Both have been accused of sexually molesting underage boys (and they stole that line from Baudelaire, in case you didn’t know….)
While I was growing up, I was taught to fear the Underworld: the world of drug dealers, pimps, hustlers, gangsters, and prostitutes. But now that I’m older, I can see that we have much more to fear from the Overworld: the psychopathic power elite and their global conspiracy against the rest of us. After all, it’s not your friendly neighborhood pot dealer who’s getting rich from fracking while leaving your community with water that catches fire straight from the tap. It’s not the National Trade Union of Pimp Daddies that’s blowing trillions of tax dollars on endless, unwinnable wars that only increase the power and wealth of the Deep State while screwing over everyone else. Three-card Monte hustlers aren’t primarily to blame for the ravaging of our planet’s ecosystem caused by global warming, deforestation, over-fishing, strip-mining, and Monsanto’s version of industrial agriculture. No Mafia made man or member of Los Zetas is in charge of the predatory financial institutions that have been looting public funds and pensions. And that unmarried mother who makes extra tips by providing hand jobs at the local Korean massage parlor has nothing to do with the new slavery ginned-up by for-profit prison stockholders working in tandem with an increasingly militarized police force — or, I should say, she has nothing to do with it until she gets caught.
We know, and take for granted now, that our politicians are bought and sold by corporate interests, that our daily news has been commoditized, and that wars are started under false pretenses — but the level of crime and corruption goes much deeper than that. Hard evidence of the Overworld’s criminal reign has been suppressed in all the major media outlets in this country, but freedom of the press still allows that evidence to be made public in independent books and on the Internet. You just need to do some critical thinking to get a handle on it.
…you don’t have to be Al Capone to transgress — you just have to think. “In human society,” Mr. Ringold taught us, “thinking’s the greatest transgression of all.” “Cri-ti-cal think-ing,” Mr. Ringold said, using his knuckles to rap out each of the syllables on his desktop, “ — there is the ultimate subversion.”
— Philip Roth, I Married A Communist
You’ll pay a steep price for insisting on your own mental sovereignty in this upside down world — especially in the suburbs. Almost everyone you meet there will want you to think the same way they do. When they find out that you don’t, social ostracism is usually the result. It doesn’t matter if you’re in bland, liberal bourgeois Montclair, or in some hard-working, Trump-loving suburb in the Midwest — if you make a conscious decision to retain your individuality in the face of the collective, you’re going to be shunned. But it’s totally worth it. As Caitlin Johnstone said on this same topic:
CAITLIN JOHNSTONE: Truly standing in your own authority uninfluenced by propaganda, groupthink, or societal pressures is one of the most revolutionary things that anyone can possibly do.
What most suburbanites don’t realize is that the mainstream media has been telling them what to think almost since the day they were born. They’ve been subjected to a relentless corporate media barrage of unprecedented scope and intensity. They’re constantly being told what to believe about their leaders and society and just about everything else that’s going on in their world. Social hypnosis, Alan Watts called it. Their thoughts are not always their own.
Knowing that, I find it odd that more people aren’t interested hearing opposing viewpoints, or venturing outside their social media echo chambers. Then again, most people have never been trained in critical thinking or deep reading, so they might not even know how to go about separating facts from propaganda, or “fake news” from the truth about, let’s say, false flag terrorism events. Mind control in this country is very real, but it doesn’t look anything like a scene out of The Manchurian Candidate or A Clockwork Orange. It’s now done with advertising and computer algorithms and plutocrat-owned media outlets like CNN, Fox News, and The Washington Post. (You might call it the Spectacle if you’re familiar with the situationist texts of Guy Debord.) It’s right there, out in the open, but it’s subtle.
Actually, it’s not subtle at all. It’s just that we’re so immersed in it that most of us can’t see it, like the fish that are unaware of the water they’re swimming through in David Foster Wallace’s famous Kenyon College commencement address, “This Is Water.”
Part Two: COGNITIVE DISSIDENTS
The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.
— Alan Watts
On a snowy night in December, I had a dream about a little bunny rabbit. He was hopping through the summer grass, just minding his own business, when a long stick came crashing down out of the clear blue sky to strike him on the back, crippling him. Because it was a dream, I could sense the invisible presence on the other end of the stick. It felt remorse for striking the bunny, but now that the bunny was crippled, the presence knew that the most compassionate act would be to follow through and kill the creature. So the stick tilted up and smashed down on the bunny again. But the stick was only made of wood and the earth beneath the bunny was soft and loamy, so the blow only landed with enough force to bloody him. Again, the stick rose up and smashed down, bloodying the bunny further. The invisible presence on the other end of the stick felt sickened. The next smack of the stick rolled the stunned bunny over onto his back. He raised his tiny bloody paws, as if to ward off the next blow — and then he clasped those tiny paws together, as if in prayer. The stick came down again and again. I sensed the compassion, frustration, and deep sadness of the presence wielding the stick and I thought to myself, as I woke from the dream: That must be how it feels to be God.
Poor little bunny. Poor God. Imagine having infinite love for every one of your creations — and infinite knowledge of their suffering. Assuming God isn’t some cosmic sadist, how could that infinite knowledge not lead to madness, or at least an eternal state of clinical depression?
The antinatalist philosopher, David Benatar, has suggested that we’d all be better off if no one ever had children again. He argues that life is so catastrophically screwed up and painful that we should stop having babies out of a sense of compassion. In his 2006 book titled Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, Benatar wrote: “While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those babies into existence in the first place.”
The Latin American philosopher of “negative ethics,” Julio Cabrera (as opposed to the Miami mixologist, Julio Cabrera, who appeared on the cover of GQ as “America’s Most Imaginative Bartender”), like Benatar, rejects the “seesaw vision” that the inevitable pains suffered in any given human life can be balanced with pleasures, “as if life were considered as an item in a supermarket.” Pain is structural, built-in to human life — we’re dying from the moment we’re born — whereas pleasure can be elusive and somewhat subjective. If your unthinking response to this goes something like: “Life is good and it only sucks that we have to die,” then you’re refusing to see that “regretting having to die should be structurally identical to regretting being born, because it is not in our power to be born in a non-mortal way.”
Optimists tend to forget just how much pain and suffering there is in the world… Those with the right dose of delusion are more likely to produce offspring, whereas those who see the human condition for what it is, are unlikely to want to produce it.
— David Benatar, “The Optimism Delusion”
Christmas is the time of year when many people celebrate the birth of Jesus. (Never mind that Jesus was more likely born in the late summer or early fall, and setting the date on December 25th was just a sneaky cultural appropriation ploy so the Christians could takeover annual midwinter festivals from the pagans.) Christ’s actual birth date hardly matters, but with the way things turned out, you have to wonder if even he had moments when he wished he’d never been born. God didn’t just crucify his only son; He crucifies all of us, in His way. (Look out! He’s got a stick!)
No one escapes the Stick of Suffering.
As if the trauma of birth isn’t bad enough, once you’ve been shoved out of the womb into this cruel new world, you’re usually greeted by getting yanked upside down by your ankles and spanked. (Take that, you helpless little crybaby!) Whap! Then you’re put in an incubator, isolated from human contact. Whap! Soon you’ll have to submit to the degradations of diapers, pacifiers, vomity blankets, and fireproof footie pajamas with little yellow ducky heads on the collars. Whap! Later, you might find out you were born with some compromising genetic disease, like sickle cell anemia, or severe asthma. Whap! Maybe, while you’re still too young to object, you’ll be circumcised, or in some other way sexually molested. Whap!
I’m sure you can extrapolate from there: Getting bullied at school. Whap! Allergies to pollen, penicillin, and cat dander. Whap! Having to work at some shit-sucking summer job. Whap! College loans. Whap! Car crash. Whap! Career setbacks. Whap! Marriage, divorce. Whap! Whap! Ocular herpes. Whap! Sinus infections. Whap! The indignities of aging. Whap! Cancer. Whap! Heart attack. Whap! Extortionary medical bills. Whap! Bankruptcy. Whap! A crippling stroke. Whap! And in the end, the great unknown of the grave, where we might finally get an answer to the question we’ve all found ourselves asking when things looked their worst:
“What the fuck, God? I mean, really… what the fuck was that all about?”
Julio Cabrera says it’s impossible to defend the idea of a good God as our creator, and just as impossible to defend the idea of good procreating parents. That philosophical stance probably hasn’t won him many fans at his local, Latin American version of the PTA. According to Cabrera, if you’re already unlucky enough to have been born, due to the ethical shortsightedness of your mom and dad, then your first moral imperative should be “not to procreate, in the sense of not placing anyone in the structural mortality of being,” where they’ll be forced to compete in a “narrow space full of pain occupied by other human beings.” Cabrera sees procreation as a selfish act of manipulation, sending unconsenting humans into harm’s way — towards acts of aggression, towards illness, towards death — in a world where the scarcity of time and resources makes it just about impossible for anyone to consistently behave in a morally unambiguous way.
Novelist David Foster Wallace was also considered something of a philosopher. In his Kenyon College commencement address — “This Is Water” — he proposed that college should teach you how to become “conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” According to Wallace:
DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: …this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone…
That sounds really great when he says it, but it seems obvious — to me, at least — that Wallace still had a few details to work out in his personal philosophy, if the Kenyon College address was meant to be a guide to better living. His advice on how to stop being a slave to your own imperially alone head essentially boiled down to this: be kind to fat ladies in supermarket checkout lines and find something to worship. But the worshipping options that Wallace offered were every bit as bleak as anything written by Julio Cabrera or David Benatar:
DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will Eat You Alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. (…) Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along on the fuel of fear and anger and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrif ice for them over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
Wallace concluded with a rousing exhortation to the Kenyon College grads to “stay conscious and alive in the adult world, day in and day out” — which, he admitted, is “unimaginably” hard to do. In fact, for Wallace himself, it proved impossible. Three years after that semi-smarmy commencement address, he hanged himself at the age of 46.
Apparently, he was still a slave to his own head, after all.
When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.
— Jonathan Franzen, kind of being a dick about his pal DFW’s lifelong battle with depression
I’ve suggested in an earlier essay called “David Foster Wallace & the Horror of Life” that Wallace’s head was channeling the logorrheic, incessant voice of America:
The America undone by corporate greed and government irresponsibility. The America of cutthroat commerce that says, “Your misery is our opportunity.” The America that spends U.S. tax dollars to put its own citizens under constant surveillance and make them the most propagandized people on Earth. The America so in love with its own servitude that it exalts its billionaire betrayers and hates anyone who makes it think about things that can’t be tweeted in 140 characters or less. The America that sells us cigarettes, oxycodone, CIA heroin, St. Ides Malt Liquor, Jacked 3D Bacon Cheddar Ranch Doritos, Big Macs, Top Gun, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The America that miseducates its children because a nation full of ignorant, craven, subservient people is the kind of nation the oligarchs like best. The America that cons us into believing we have certain unalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness — when, in actual fact, we’re all more or less suckers for mass marketing campaigns that turn us into debt-burdened wage slaves and self-harming meat sacks shot-through with psychic poisons. The America where someone like brainy Dave Wallace can mimic the voices of his inborn self-loathing circuitry and write a big, fat book about junkie house burglars, suicidal sorority girls, stoned solipsists, and a lethal form of entertainment known as Infinite Jest — and the Great American Hype Machine will turn that depressing, somehow spiritually-draining book into a bestseller, on every high-I.Q. kid’s reading list.
That America… perhaps summed up best by the New Jersey physician-poet, William Carlos Williams, who wrote: “America is a pathetic place where something stupefying must always happen for fear we wake up.”
Another essayist, the psychoanalyst Timothy Lachin, has theorized that Wallace was incapable of defending himself against the incessant voice of America — and that was his whole problem. Wallace might still be alive today if he could have learned to enjoy being “uniquely, completely, imperially alone” instead of tuning in to the crap-slinging siren song of American consumerism.
(You might call it the spectacle, if you’re familiar with the Situationist texts of Guy Debord.)
But how do we tune out the spectacle? Is there a trick to isolating ourselves from all the corporate media propaganda — the billionaire-serving lies and never-ending, manufactured desires that dominate everyday American life? How do we proceed once we’ve started waking up to the so-called real world’s unreality? Is there a salvific art to being imperially alone?
I’ve been working on an answer to that. Obviously, the first step is to become aware of the sea of falsities we’re swimming in, courtesy of the global Military-Industrial-Media-Intelligence Complex and its billionaire overseers. As Gurdjieff was so fond of saying: If a man in prison has any chance of escaping, the first thing he has to do is realize he’s in prison.
So long as he thinks he’s free, he’s totally screwed.
Internet folklore suggests that in the public forums of ancient Rome, instead of swearing an oath to speak the truth by placing a hand on a sacred book — as we do in courtrooms today — Roman men used to swear an oath while clutching their testicles. Hence the word testify, which originates from the Latin word testis. Supposedly, if their sworn public statements were later proven false, the liars’ testicles would be hacked off and thrown to a pack of hungry dogs waiting around, hoping for snacks. This sounds hilarious — and brutally effective if you want to cut down on lying in your society — but there’s some passionate online debate as to whether or not it ever really happened.
(Fuck you, Snopes… I want this to be true.)
Imagine if we could implement that system of justice now. There’d be a whole lot of bankers and politicians walking around without their dangling nutsacks — which might, eventually, solve a few of our problems by winnowing thieving scumbags and intraspecies predators from the human gene pool.
If nothing else, it’d be great fun to watch Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s balls being fed to a pack of ravenous Schnauzers.
The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.
— Pablo Picasso
That popular Pinterest quote would have been easy enough for Picasso to say (although the attribution is dubious…); Picasso was richly rewarded for finding his gift. He never had to give anything away. He could always get paid.
Like Jonathan Richman sang: “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole. Not in New York.”
But what if no one’s interested in your particular gift? What if your way of thinking runs counter to the way the world’s wealthy elite exploiters want you to think? Throughout human history, those elite exploiters have bought up every new form of media as it’s come along — first print, then movies, then radio and television, and now the Internet. They’ve used the media conglomerates they own to advance public narratives that would be favorable to their interests and help tighten their choking grip on our minds, our finances, and our political systems.
(And they did it all without ever even once having to swear on their testicles that they were telling us the truth.)
The Internet almost got away from them. For a while there, it seemed like information wanted to be free. Everyone was sharing ideas, on a huge scale and quite openly, without those ideas first being subjected to the censorship and spin of the power elite. That’d never happened before. Not really. But then, like cattle, we were herded into plutocrat-owned media pens — like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter — where the information we were fed, via algorithms, would be easier to control. Our privacy was invaded by rapacious “digital super states” (as WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange has called them), like Google and Amazon, that use the Internet to mine us for personal data while deploying a soft fascism with their search engines, telling us what to think, and where to go for more of what they want us to think (or buy). Then smartphones came along — those GPS-tracked “handcuffs of the future” as Thomas Pynchon called them. “What they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide martial law.”
So yeah, the Internet could have democratized the masses by ramping up their own narrative-generating power to counter the lies and propaganda of the world’s power elite; instead, it’s fast becoming the most powerful tool in the power elite’s arsenal for discourse control.
Journalist Caitlin Johnstone reports that
CAITLIN JOHNSTONE: …due to a recent shift in Google’s ‘evaluation methods,’ traffic to left-leaning and anti-establishment websites has plummeted, with sites like WikiLeaks, Alternet, Counterpunch, Global Research, Consortium News, Truthout, and WSWS losing up to 70 percent of the views they were getting prior to the changes.
In an article describing how Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post are “in the vanguard of a propaganda assault against the American people,” journalist Glenn Greenwald observed that
GLENN GREENWALD: …anyone dissenting or even expressing skepticism about their deeply self-serving Russia narrative is the target of coordinated and potent smears… skepticism is literally equated with treason. And the converse is equally true: Those who disseminate claims and stories that bolster this narrative — no matter how divorced from reason and evidence they are — receive an array of benefits and rewards. That the story ends up being completely discredited matters little. The damage is done, and the benefits received.
Lee Camp — the host of the weekly comedy news show, Redacted Tonight — went off on a rant that addressed some of these same themes, beginning with censorship on Twitter:
LEE CAMP: Twitter went in front of Congress and proudly swore that they had suppressed 50% of all tweets about the DNC leaks during the election. The DNC leaks were real email, mind you, real emails that showed corruption in the DNC, in the Clinton campaign, everywhere — and Twitter is proudly going in front of Congress and saying, “Hey, we’re not letting you talk about the corruption in our government.” How dare you motherfuckers?
Lastly, I want to talk about the suppression that I’m dealing with in my TV show Redacted Tonight, but really, it’s not just my show, it’s all anti-establishment outlets, such as TruthDig, Truthout, Democracy Now, Alternet, even outlets on the other side of things, Libertarian outlets that are actually willing to question what the fuck is going on in our world. Now, the suppression is insane. I mean, they’re unsubscribing people from our accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. The Google algorithm won’t even show our posts to people sometimes. Sometimes people can see the posts but there’s no Share button, there’s just literally no way to share it — it’s missing. This is a regular occurrence we’re dealing with, and yet… we’re still here, motherfucker! Ha-ha! We’re not goin’ anywhere, all right?
Meanwhile, the corporate media has the nerve to go after RT America, sometimes my show directly, NPR attacked me, The New York Times attacked me, and… and they want to know why I — an American in America, talking about American news — am on RT America, a Russian-funded outlet, because… and here’s why: it’s literally the only channel in America that lets me say what I want and will let me talk about things like the massive weapons contracts — Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing — making billions off of the murder of innocent people around the world; the oil companies’ destruction of our planet — BP, Exxon, Chevron, Shell; the acidification of the oceans; the incredible harm of factory farming; the #ExitPollGate and the rigging of the Democratic primary election; the U.S.-backed genocide in Yemen; Interstate Crosscheck; the thousand military bases we have around the world; the fact that we helped create ISIS and helped create Al-Qaeda; the damage of unfettered capitalism; the connection between runaway capitalism and climate change; the connection between climate change and extreme weather catastrophe; the covert CIA ops going on everywhere; the FBI helping create terror attack plots so that they can swoop in and stop the idiots that they duped into planning them; the pillaging of our country by Wall Street; the real owners of our society — the central bankers, the hedge fund billionaires, the Koch brothers, the Mercer family, the Sackler family, the Walton family; the Sackler family getting rich off of the fucking opioid deaths; the Waltons, George Soros, Sheldon Adelson, Jeff Bezos, etc. etc… the real con men (and women) who own it all.
In this upside down world of ours, the people who are most conspicuously rewarded are those who seem least deserving of rewards: the war mongering beneficiaries of the Deep State, the mercenary saboteurs of democracy in Washington, the loud-mouthed TV pundits spreading their soul-destroying bullshit on the evening news, the billionaire hedge fund managers and Fortune 500 CEOs who pay a lower tax rate on their income than secretaries and schoolteachers.
Ask yourself this: Would you be willing to take a stand against those assholes — “the real con men (and women) who own it all” — when you were sure that almost no one would care? Would you still take that stand if you knew you’d be shunned and made to look like a fool? Would you take that stand even if it might jeopardize your career and compromise your ability to earn a living? Would you do it if you thought there was a good chance you might just end up broke and alone?
Think about that… and then realize that things will only get worse until the majority of people on Earth are ready to take that stand.
I know what my gift is — and I’m giving it away here.
Part Three: LONERS WITHOUT ILLUSIONS
The first man to see an illusion, by which men have flourished for centuries, surely stands in a lonely place.
— Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters
No one who knows me would ever make the mistake of saying I was oversocialized. I’ve always been a loner by nature. My career has depended on my ability to sit in a darkened room concentrating on the artistic task at hand for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch — usually with no one to talk to, unless you count my computer.
I used to feel like I belonged to a tiny minority — a guild of creative loners — but lately I’ve begun to think that America is turning into a society of loners, as more and more of our daily face-to-face interactions are supplanted by smartphones. Everywhere I go, I see people with their eyes locked on their screens, busy texting, updating, gaming, and taking selfies. It’s as if everyone is carrying around an addictive little slot machine that fits inside a pocket. Are smartphones making us dull, distracted, and antisocial? It sure seems that way.
Now that virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa can talk back to us, some people might already be thinking of their computers and smartphones as their best friends. But I’m not one of them. Siri and Alexa are conniving robo-bitches, if you ask me — constantly going behind our backs to put our private, personal data on the auction block. I might have to rely on them to earn a living, but that doesn’t mean I trust them. (Although if Ray Kurzweil is right about the coming Singularity — when nanotechnology, advanced biotech, and artificial general intelligence will present us with the choice of either biohacking ourselves into human-computer hybrids or getting left behind — it might behoove me to start talking nicer to my computers, so they’ll keep me around as a pet after ordinary humans have become roadkill on the highway of evolutionary history.)
We might want to ask ourselves if computers — and, by proxy, socially impaired computer programmers — should have so much control of our collective destiny. Not long ago, David Byrne addressed that same topic in the MIT Technology Review, where he wrote:
DAVID BYRNE: I have a theory that much recent tech development and innovation over the last decade or so has an unspoken overarching agenda. It has been about creating the possibility of a world with less human interaction. This tendency is, I suspect, not a bug — it’s a feature. We might think Amazon was about making books available to us that we couldn’t find locally — and it was, and what a brilliant idea — but maybe it was also just as much about eliminating human contact. (…)
Human interaction is often perceived, from an engineer’s mind-set, as complicated, inefficient, noisy, and slow. Part of making something ‘frictionless’ is getting the human part out of the way. The point is not that making a world to accommodate this mind-set is bad, but that when one has as much power over the rest of the world as the tech sector does over folks who might not share that worldview, there is the risk of a strange imbalance. The tech world is predominantly male — very much so. Testosterone combined with a drive to eliminate as much interaction with real humans as possible for the sake of ‘simplicity and efficiency’ — do the math, and there’s the future.
My friend Gib sent me that article. Gib is every bit as much of a loner as me or David Byrne (who admitted in that same MIT article that he “found many social interactions extremely uncomfortable” while he was growing up and he still has to have some “social niceties ‘explained’” to him). All three of us would seem to be somewhere on the autistic-artist-spectrum. Gib is a writer, a recording artist, and a filmmaker who spent the last few years working on a podcast series (soon to be published as a book) called “Notes from the Uncanny Valley,” where he said some things about computer industry legends like Steve Jobs and Alan Turing — and the potential weaponization of autism and social media platforms — that fit right in with the themes I’m addressing here:
GIB EDELMAN: Did Steve Jobs fake his death, or is he just faking the lives of everyone else?
The Turing test was proposed by the English mathematician, Alan Turing, who, if you missed the movie, also cracked Germany’s Enigma code and enabled the Allied victory of World War II. I disliked the movie but have always been interested in Turing. Specifically, I’m interested in his interest in artificial intelligence. He contended that a properly programmed computer could rival the human brain.
I remember a detail I once read about Turing — that his favorite movie was Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — the first movie I ever saw in a theater. Friends would often hear him singing the wicked witch’s poison apple chant. A few years after his conviction for homosexual acts, poor Alan Turing’s body was found in bed. On the nightstand was a poison apple with one bite taken from it. By then the estrogen he’d been sentenced to take had caused him to grow breasts. I picture the mathematician as Snow White asleep in bed, awaiting machine resurrection, only to be resurrected as Oscar fodder for the Hollywood entertainment machine.
In the biopic, Turing is often heard telling his colleagues to “think differently,” recalling Apple computer’s ubiquitous ad campaign at the turn of the century. Indeed premonitions about intelligent machines seem to haunt the Turing film . . . Someone once asked Steve Jobs if the Apple name and logo were a reference to Alan Turing. Jobs said no but that he wished it was. Apparently the Apple logo is depicted with a bite from it simply to keep the design from being mistaken for a cherry. But surely someone as intelligent as Steve Jobs would be aware of the inherent reference to the Garden of Eden. At any rate, the Eden and Turing connections exist regardless of anyone’s awareness.
Initially, the narrative conventions and forced emotional rhythms of the Alan Turing biopic fooled me into thinking it was just another machine-made melodrama designed to make money and win awards by telling the audience what to think and feel and when to think and feel it. But as I replayed the film about the codebreaker in my mind I found that there was in fact a hidden code. I discovered the key in one of the film’s historical inaccuracies, specifically in the portrayal of Alan Turing as socially stiff, literal minded, and humorless, which is often played for laughs as his character awkwardly misinterprets interpersonal cues. Part of a recent trend of posthumous autism diagnoses, I thought. Other brilliant but socially awkward contenders include Einstein, Mozart, and Newton. However, by all accounts Alan Turing was not socially stiff and possessed a wicked sense of humor. It’s possible he was on the high end of the spectrum — but it seems more likely that Hollywood has a reductive new formula for stories about genius . . . And yet the more I thought about the tale of the alien among us using his robot mind to win World War II, the more I began to wonder if our cultural creators are no longer just presenting and interpreting the mystery of autism, but also suggesting how the disorder might be weaponized.
An interesting figure in the autism discourse is Temple Grandin, who unlike Turing, was diagnosed antemortem and whose biopic was made with the benefit of her involvement and approval. The film tells the story of how she changed the livestock industry by designing more efficient and compassionate slaughterhouses. Among her innovations are curved corrals that make the cows think they are traveling in a circle back to where they came from — which is true, if one considers a state of nonexistence to be where life begins and ends . . . At any rate, this kind of innovation has led to her system being used in over half the slaughter plants in America. It’s also led to Grandin becoming a major voice in autism education. In an online speech, Grandin said half of Silicon Valley is on the spectrum, saying without social circuits taking up processing space in the brain, ASD individuals are “free to create things like Facebook.” This is an irony you couldn’t get away with in fiction — socially impaired programmers creating social media environments for society to socialize within. And the irony doesn’t stop there… Grandin points out that the programmers require intense concentration to look at information for long periods of time. Meanwhile the technology and media they create distract and fragment people’s attention. Even Grandin, whose condition is characterized by an inability to recognize irony, recognizes this irony.
It makes a certain amount of sense, doesn’t it, that the first people to recognize that we’re turning into a society of loners would be the isolates on the fringe, those who’ve always felt most comfortable being alone — the loners without illusions.
We shouldn’t be asking Facebook to fix the problem. We should be fixing Facebook. It’s our collective misfortune that this perhaps silliest-in-history supercorporation — a tossed-off hookup site turned international cat-video vault turned Orwellian surveillance megavillain — has dragged us all to the very cliff edge of modern technological capitalism.
— Matt Taibbi, “Can We Be Saved From Facebook?”
Facebook is ripping apart society and shitting on our brains, according to two former high-ranking Facebook executives. Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya have admitted in public that Facebook was designed to exploit human vulnerabilities via social validation feedback loops. And even though they’d understood that exploiting those vulnerabilities could have some seriously screwed up consequences for humanity, they went ahead and did it anyway (and became billionaires in the process…). Here’s what those two guilty nerd-fascists had to say for themselves:
SEAN PARKER: When Facebook was getting going, I had these people who would come up to me and they would say, ‘I’m not on social media.’ And I would say, ‘Okay… you know, you will be.’ And then they would say, ‘No, no, no… I value my real-life interactions. I value the moment. I value presence. I value intimacy.’ And I would say, ‘We’ll get you eventually.’ I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because [of] the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people and… it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other… It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains. The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them… was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you… more likes and comments. It’s a social-validation feedback loop… exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.
So there’s the secret to joining the ranks of the new technocracy robber barons: All you need to do is come up with a new app or social media platform that hijacks minds and sucks up time and energy from the masses like an omnipresent, Internet-enabled vampire. Sean Parker, of all people, should know… he became the founding President of Facebook when he was only 24, after upending the music industry — and, in effect, hijacking royalties that should have gone to singers, musicians, and songwriters — with Napster (and now with Spotify). And just listen to him gloat about how advanced (and forbiddingly expensive) medical technology is going to allow him to live a much longer life than the rest of us. (I’ll have to read this quote from Sean for you, because the video in which I saw him saying it about six months ago has since been scrubbed from the entire Internet. I even tried the Wayback Machine — nothing there, either. People always go around saying that “The Internet is forever…” but apparently it’s not if you’re a Silicon Valley billionaire like Sean Parker.) Here’s what he said:
SEAN PARKER: [We’ll] live much longer, more productive lives. Because I’m a billionaire, I’m going to have access to better health care so… I’m going to be like 160 and I’m going to be part of this, like, class of immortal overlords. [Mad cackling…] Because, you know the [Warren Buffett] expression about compound interest…. [G]ive us billionaires an extra hundred years and you’ll know what… [real] wealth disparity looks like.
I recognize that Sean’s kind of joking there, but there’s so much truth to what he says that it doesn’t come across as very funny. Which is probably why he had that particular video clip erased from the Internet (although his words still appear as text on several reputable news sites, like Money magazine and Business Insider). It’s a ghoulish assessment of humanity’s future that reminded me of the high-tech vampire scheme of Sean Parker’s friend and business partner, Peter Thiel — who wants to live longer by getting blood infusions from broke but still-healthy young people. (Gawker had an interesting article about that in 2016, reporting on Silicon Valley rumors that Thiel had been spending $160,000 a year to drain pints of blood from an 18-year-old. No wonder Thiel successfully bankrupted Gawker Media.)
These guys aren’t just kidding around about wanting to become our immortal overlords. They have very specific plans for doing it — and they aren’t bothering to hide much these days. But I’d like to think that not every billionaire is a bloodsucking fiend (at least not yet…). A few of them still seem vaguely human. For instance, Chamath Palihapitiya — the former Vice-President for User Growth at Facebook — sounded somewhat less cocky than Sean while he was giving a talk at Stanford about his role in Facebook-fucking humanity:
CHAMATH PALIHAPITIYA: I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds, even though we feigned this whole line of there probably aren’t any really bad unintended consequences. I think in the back recesses of our mind, we kind of knew. Something bad could happen.
But I think the way we defined it was not like this.
We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are. I would encourage all of you, as the future leaders of the world to really internalize how important this is. If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you.
If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it and rein it in. And it is a point in time where people need to hard brake from some of these tools, and the things that you rely on. The short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.
No civil discourse. No cooperation. Misinformation. Mistruth. And it is not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem. So, we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other (…) and we compound the problem. We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals; hearts, likes, thumbs up. And we conflate that with value, and we conflate it with truth.
And instead what it really is, is fake, brittle popularity. That’s short-term and that leaves you even more, and admit it, vacant and empty before you did it. Because then you’re in this vicious cycle, like, what’s the next thing I need to do now, because I need it back. Think about that compounded by two billion people, and then think about how people react then to the perceptions of others. It’s just a really bad thing, it’s really, really bad…
My solution is I just don’t use these tools anymore. I haven’t for years. [my kids] are not allowed to use this shit. There’s a reason Steve Jobs was anti-social media.
As Chamath pointed out, it’s not just Facebook that’s doing this to us… it’s the whole social media ecosystem: Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter — all of them. And the problem is not just that we’re hooked to those platforms like addicts looking for a steady dopamine-drip, or that those platforms are alienating us from society and in-the-flesh human encounters. Social media has also effectively destroyed the news media in this country and elsewhere. As Matt Taibbi recently described the situation in his Rolling Stone essay, “Can We Be Saved From Facebook?”:
MATT TAIBBI: Internet platforms like [Facebook] broke the back of the working press first by gutting our distribution networks, and then by using advanced data-mining techniques to create hypertargeted advertising with which no honest media outlet could compete. This wipeout of the press left Facebook in possession of power it neither wanted nor understood.
It was all an insane accident. Facebook never wanted to be editor-in-chief of the universe, and the relatively vibrant free press that toppled the likes of McCarthy and Nixon never imagined it could be swallowed by a pet-meme distributor.
But it happened. As a result, we’re now facing a problem potentially worse than either a Trump election or a Russian cyber-incursion: a world in which the informational landscape for billions of people is controlled more or less entirely by a pair of advanced private spying operations, Google and Facebook — and Facebook especially.
The Facebook mess is really the final chapter in a decades-long collision of the news media with the Internet. Many smart people expected this tale to end well. It hasn’t. The creators of the Internet sold their invention as inherently democratizing. Instead, information is now so concentrated that a 1984 scenario is just a few clicks away.
Since Matt mentioned 1984, I thought it might be instructive to re-read some of George Orwell’s thoughts on totalitarianism. In his essay called “The Prevention of Literature,” Orwell argued that there are two major traits of totalitarian societies: one is lying, and the other is what he referred to as “schizophrenia.”
He wrote, “The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as it is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.” Whoever controls the past controls the future, right? And whoever controls the present controls the past. Orwell went on to write: “Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.” He imagined that “a totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist.”
We’re now seeing that schizophrenic system of thought foisted on us from our politicians — the Trump administration is a particularly egregious example. It’s also coming at us from the social media platforms, where it seems that totalitarian propaganda, as defined by Hannah Arendt, has firmly taken hold. It’s a place where everything is conceivable because “nothing is true.” As Arendt wrote, over twenty years ago, in her treatise on lying in politics:
HANNAH ARENDT: The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Or as Matt Taibbi updated Arendt’s observation in Rolling Stone:
MATT TAIBBI: Facebook doesn’t push Nazism or communism or anarchism, but something far more dangerous: 2 billion individually crafted echo chambers, a kind of precision-targeted mass church of self, of impatience with others, of not giving a shit.
A generation of this kind of messaging is bound to have some pretty weird consequences, of which electing proudly ignorant bubble-thinker Donald Trump is probably just a gentle opener. Given that, we might be too late to fix Facebook — maybe we need to be saved from it instead.
That’s not just hyperbole. The danger is very real. As Voltaire wrote: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”
A few weeks ago I sent that quote to my friend Gib, along with a passage I’d recently read in Emmanuel Carrère’s biography of Philip K. Dick, I Am Alive and You Are Dead, which described Phil’s musings about totalitarian societies while he was writing The Man in the High Castle (an alternative timeline novel in which the Nazis and the Japanese won World War II). The Nazis, Phil imagined, might have wanted to create a totalitarian utopia. But first, they would have had to deal with the fact that they’d committed genocide. They would have had to “erase the disappeared not just from documents but from the memories of those who were, for the time being at least, spared. And one of the most horrific discoveries totalitarian states revealed to humanity is that such a thing can be done. If the Third Reich still ruled Europe, thought Phil, not only was it likely that it would have had to exterminate dozens of millions more people, it was also likely that the survivors, their throats made raw by the smoke bellowing day after day from the crematoria smokestacks, wouldn’t have even known. If the price of survival is ignorance, you simply choose not to know.”
Fortunately, America hasn’t reached the point yet where anti-authoritarian authors and subversive filmmakers get slaughtered and sent up through crematoria smokestacks. Usually, they just get isolated — sent off to the cultural sidelines — so they can’t be heard saying the things that most people would rather ignore, anyway. Having no income in a rabidly capitalist society is disincentive enough for most potential disruptors of the status quo.
Meanwhile, the billionaire exploiters like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Sean Parker, Peter Thiel, and Donald Trump keep tightening their grip on our minds, our finances, and our woefully compromised democracy. And because they’ve been rewarded with billions for spying on us and screwing up society, they’ve deluded themselves into thinking that they must be superior to us, and therefore deserving of the opportunity to become our immortal overlords.
And in an utterly upside down world — where sociopaths are rewarded with riches while honest, hard-working, empathic people get the shaft — I suppose they might have a point. While most of us see a world in need of fixing, the sociopaths see the potential to reign in hell.
Part Four: THIS TECHNOCRACY ENSLAVES HUMANS
I can conceive of no better service… than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.
— Walt Whitman, “Democracy in the New World”
Sometimes I get nostalgic for the analog world, as I knew it. There was a kind of rude joy to be had from watching weird movies with my high school buddies at the Sunnyside Drive-In that the current YouTube generation seems to be missing out on, walled off behind the shatterproof glass of their computer monitors and iPhone screens. Video killed the radio star and smartphones pretty much killed everything else: newspapers, books, magazines, movies, and even music. Listening to MP3s of Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus on tinny little earbuds seems unlikely to provide the same sonic thrill that I got from hearing Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin on vinyl played through 1970s-era tube-amp stereos with bass thumping out from 16-inch woofers.
The analog world may not have been as “frictionless” as our new digital world, but I’m pretty sure it had more soul. My thirty-year career in photography bears this out. I don’t miss all the smelly chemistry I had to deal with when I was developing film and making prints in the darkrooms I built in my youth — Photoshop and digital cameras have made things much easier in that regard — but those old darkroom prints are now the only photographs I want to see hanging on my walls. The new digital prints have no soul. There’s none of that strange, unquantifiable essence of their creator left in them. They leave me cold.
That, for me, is the dividing line between the analog world and the digital world — it’s the difference between soulful human warmth and soulless machine coldness. Maybe that’s too simplistic, but that’s how I feel. Art, music, books, and movies can help our souls get bigger by letting us merge for a while with another person’s heart, mind, and spirit. But digital technology has been attenuating that soul-to-soul connection — diminishing the broadcast signal with algorithmic static from a computer-simulated hell.
I don’t want to sound like some grumpy old fart complaining that things were better back in my day. But things were better in some ways — although certainly worse in others. I’d never want to give up Photoshop, digital cameras, and my Apple computers to go back to working in a darkroom full of toxic chemicals, but I wouldn’t mind watching a Monty Python triple-feature at the Sunnyside Drive-In with all my old friends piled into lawn chairs in back of Bryan Heyano’s pick-up truck again. Maybe I’m just missing uncomplicated human companionship. But I think there’s more to it than that.
Big tech companies, generally (and the Military-Industrial-Media-Intelligence Complex, specifically), have always been at the forefront of the digital evolution. They get to try out the latest technology long before we do. And I would argue that they’ve been using that advanced technology to exploit us in ways that most people aren’t even aware of. A slow-rolling technocratic coup d’état has taken place in America, using digital technology to worm into our lives with Orwellian surveillance powers and high-tech grifter scams that would have been unthinkable in the analog era.
At the same time, our federal, state, and local governments have been co-opted by a nationless plutocracy that has used regulatory capture schemes and dark web digital fuckery to render those governments incompetent. It’s no stretch to say the world is now run by a criminal kakistocracy that’s attempting to subvert and control everything we do. As journalist David Talbot wrote: “(We see) Trumpian madness on every news page, driving home the grim fact that our political system is not only incapable of addressing our most urgent national and global problems, it’s actually making them worse.”
A functioning democratic government should recognize the legitimate will of the people, guarantee human rights, fight corruption, regulate corporations, resist the influence of plutocrats, and protect the environment. But American government has doing the exact opposite of that since at least as far back as the Reagan administration, legislating ecocide, omnicide, grotesque economic inequality, and perpetual warfare. It’s like everyone at the top has caught an ideological virus that makes them do the wrong thing. And that ideological virus is entwined with money and power, and the idea that that you can never have too much of either, even if it means stealing money and power from those who already have far less of it than you and your sociopathic partners in crime.
That’s how we get an Environmental Protection Agency that tells rescue workers the air is safe to breathe at Ground Zero only days after the September 11 attacks, and then later colludes with Monsanto to quash toxicological reviews of disease-causing agrichemicals like glyphosate. (You know your government has been co-opted when the EPA starts acting like those doctors from the fifties who used to endorse smoking Lucky Strikes and Camels.)
That’s how we get Big Oil companies that are subsidized by endless Shock & Awe shit-shows in the Middle East (with CIA-supplied death drones and fake terrorists), while the heavy economic toll from petrochemical-related pollution gets socialized; we all pay for it while our bought-off Congress gives ExxonMobil and Texaco tax breaks.
That’s how we get a fast food industry where 52% of the workers have to rely on public assistance programs because they’re not being paid a living wage, while the CEOs of McDonalds and Taco Bell both make around 22 million a year for poisoning the world with toxic crap that’s been making people dumb, sick, and fat in increasing numbers. (Meanwhile, Dunkin’ Donuts CEO, Nigel Travis, has said that the idea of paying his company’s workers a 15 dollar minimum wage is “absolutely outrageous,” although apparently there’s nothing wrong with what he pulls down, which amounts to around $5,000 a hour, or just over 10 million a year, once you add in stock options and other non-salary benefits — a relative bargain compared to what McDonald’s has been shelling out.)
That’s how we get Big Pharma companies that focus on profits from prolonging chronic diseases, creating new addictions, and ramping up drug prices, rather than trying to restore people to good health. (In one egregious example, a medicine to treat infantile spasms that obtained approval from the FDA in 1950, now known as Acthar gel, went from $40 a dose in 2001 to $38,892 a dose today — not because Acthar gel required billions in research and development, or decades of testing, but simply because the pharmaceutical industry cartel looked at their data models and decided they could get away with it.)
That’s how we get Too-Big-Too-Fail financial institutions that have been exempted from the rule of law and are now free to use their high-frequency trading algorithms and flaky financial derivatives to plunder public funds and pensions by torpedoing our economy at will (thanks, in a large part, to Bill Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and the Obama administration’s total failure to prosecute Wall Street criminals in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown).
And after those public funds and pensions have been looted and your local property taxes have been jacked up far beyond the rate of inflation to cover the losses (and benefit the insiders), good luck opting out of that raw deal; if you don’t pay up, they’ll auction off your house.
How is that any different from being told you’ll sleep with the fishes if you don’t hand over your life savings to the Mafia? (“So, uh… your new bambino’s spazzin’ out? Hand over $39 grand, maybe we’ll fix it for ya. Yeah, yeah… we know that same medicine used to cost just 40 dollars, but, y’know… we can charge whatever we want. You can’t afford it, well tough shit. Let that little stronzo die. We don’t give a fuck.”) When corporatism is allowed to run amok, aggregating into cartels and monopolies, free enterprise eventually twists into something resembling a protection racket. And the new surveillance capitalism enabled by tech giants like Amazon, Google, and Facebook has only sped up that process.
A truly free and fearless mainstream press might have saved us from much of this institutionalized incompetence and outright malevolence, but we no longer have a free press in any mainstream sense. Every major mass media outlet is now in service to the most powerful and depraved greedhounds on the planet. (Thanks again, in a large part, to Bill Clinton, whose signature on the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed for the deregulation, and subsequent media concentration, that has resulted in just six oligarch-controlled mega-corporations propagandizing us with roughly 90% of the news and entertainment we now see on a daily basis.) Plutocrats have been using governments and mass media as tools to advance their own agendas and control the narrative. And in case you didn’t know, the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act made it legal for the U.S. government to propagandize its own citizens. In other words, American taxpayers now fund propaganda programs aimed at Americans. We’re paying for our own gaslighting. [Run Ben Swann clip — and/or that bit about how ad agencies created ISIS videos].
Censorship always ends badly, but that won’t stop the technocracy from trying it. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been locked away in Ecuador’s embassy in London for over six years — and now he doesn’t even have an Internet connection.
Near the start of Assange’s six-plus-years of embassy imprisonment, Jeff Bezos came up with $250 million in cash to buy The Washington Post, allowing him to control the flow of information at Washington D.C.’s “newspaper of record”; that happened in the summer of 2013, only weeks after The Post came into possession of hard drives containing thousands of classified NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Shortly thereafter (and somewhat suspiciously), Bezos scored a 600 million dollar contract to supply computer cloud services to the CIA — even though Amazon Web Services hadn’t been the lowest bidder. And now it looks like Amazon has a lock on a ten billion dollar contract to build out cloud services for the Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (or JEDI), which will instantly make Amazon one of America’s largest federal contractors. I don’t expect that to end well — a slaphappy nod to the Star Wars franchise isn’t enough to fool me into thinking that our technocratic overlords won’t become Dark Side tyrants.
Edward Snowden now lives in exile in Russia, where he’ll feel hunted for the rest of his life, thanks to the never-ending threats directed at him from the American Deep State. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos has become the richest white man on the planet. Only obscene wealth can guarantee that you’ll have a voice in the corporatist oligarchy lurking behind the myth of American democracy. Courage, honesty, and integrity count for almost nothing in an empire built on lies. As the Anonymous saying goes: “When exposing a crime is treated as committing a crime, you’re being ruled by criminals.”
Somewhat surprisingly, even the voices of our current Billionaire-in-Chief’s supporters have been getting censored these days (although I won’t rule out the possibility that in this particular case the censorship has been staged, in the political equivalent of a pro wrestling tournament): After his Infowars franchise was simultaneously banned from Facebook, YouTube, Apple iTunes, and Spotify in early August of 2018, the often unreasonable Alex Jones quite reasonably asked: “Should billionaires and huge corporations get to decide what we can say and read?” [Run Alex Jones in “A Scanner Darkly” clip] It’s a question worth asking, because right now the oligarchy’s attitude seems to be: “We will tell you what to think. And if you refuse to think what we want you to think, then we’ll shut you down.” [Show headlines about Alex Jones being fined by the FCC and his website cyberattacked.]
About a week later, Australian anti-war journalist Caitlin Johnstone (who’s definitely NOT a Trump supporter) found that her Twitter profile had been suspended indefinitely:
CAITLIN JOHNSTONE: …all my tweets, all my followers, every message I’d ever sent, all the energy I’d invested into Twitter, all got disappeared. That’s 33,000 followers, 28,000 tweets — all gone. Now, fortunately for me, and perhaps unfortunately for the social engineers, the outcry was such that they were forced to reinstate me.
Caitlin had spent the previous week telling her readers that the censoring of Alex Jones could easily be extended to other anti-authoritarian journalists like herself. Apparently, the authoritarian technocrats of Twitter agreed with her — so they went ahead and banned her. But then they realized they’d made a mistake. As Caitlin explained:
CAITLIN JOHNSTONE: The entire power establishment is built on war, exploitation, and ecocide. And it depends on manufacturing consent for those things so they don’t look like what they are. They have to maintain this illusion. So they are fighting with their hands tied behind their back. They can’t just come out next Tuesday and say, “Guess what everybody? We’re locking down the Internet.” They have to do it really slowly, incrementally, starting with Alex Jones and Julian Assange, moving on to the smaller but important anti-war voices like Peter van Buren — just working around the edges and knocking out the smaller profiles that support these kinds of anti-establishment voices, gradually manipulating the public into granting consent for more and more significant hits. (…) In a corporatist system, corporate censorship is state censorship. And these Silicon Valley companies can’t suddenly claim to be Mom and Pop shops who can decide for themselves who they censor, when they have deep government ties going both ways and they are essentially operating as contractors for the government surveillance state. (…) Censorship works best if people are unaware that it’s happening. So… they have a very tricky task ahead of them. (…) One mistake, like the mistake they made today with banning me on Twitter, could actually boost their opposition. And at all times the invisible totalitarianism that we’re ruled under risks coming out into the light — and that would be the endgame for them. Without the illusion of freedom and democracy in place, they cannot propagandize us effectively. (…) They need to maintain a singular, authoritative narrative. The whole power structure relies on everyone being more or less in accord with the will of the plutocrats. (…) So, I think the key thing to remember is that they work so hard to manufacture consent because they absolutely require that consent. If they fail to manufacture that consent, the mask of freedom and democracy will fall off, and the plutocratic manipulators will be seen for the totalitarian oppressors that they are. Think about it: they really are treading a very fine, thin line. We will wake up to their manipulations if they control the narrative too little, or if they control it too much. If it’s too little, and they fail to control the narrative, then we win. Control is taken out of the hands of a few plutocrats and put back in the hands of the people. Like, have you, democracy! Like what we were sold in the first place. The will of the people will be put back in charge, and a giant planet-sized network of human brains will get to decide what to do with the resources and how to look after each other. So they can’t lost total control of the narrative… but if they get too ham-fisted and too totalitarian, the curtain over the oppressive regime that keeps most of the world toiling hand-to-mouth for the power-lust of an insatiable few falls away. We all wake up from the matrix and they suddenly have billions of very angry humans who don’t believe any of their stories anymore.
Although I share Caitlin’s sincere good wishes for the human species and Planet Earth, I just can’t see billions of angry humans exiting from the mass deception of “the matrix” anytime soon. I could be wrong, of course — and I hope I am — but I think it’ll be, at best, a few million here or there. So what can those relatively few humans do to escape (or avert) all the profit-driven shit-shows destroying our world in the meantime?
Well, to start, we can withdraw our support from the systems that are exploiting us and refuse to comply with our own slavery. We don’t have to play by the rules of plutocrat-puppeteered politicians, an MKULTRA culture, and the brainwashed majority of suburban strivers. We can isolate ourselves from those who would do us harm and learn to live without them by reclaiming our own sovereignty.
Or as Philip K. Dick might have put it: We can stop colluding in our own doom.