Monday, January 19, 2015

Modern ruins

We live in a world in ruins. Every day, we walk and talk amongst these ruins - everything around us is to some degree in a state of decay. Every day we can see how ideas that were once modern trace themselves in the ragged, tired faces of our peers. The idea of a perfected world is a ruin once revered as a castle, yet its inhabitants seem reluctant to leave; everyone knows that our current way of life cannot go on forever, yet we still assume we will. Everyone knows that status quo is a reminder from a past with greater ambitions than the present, yet the thought of being reminded frightens us more than a potential realization that we ever forgot.

You only have to look at contemporary politics to see more ruins than is warranted. There is, to be sure, talk of growth and new constructions, but when push comes to shove it's only the same old same old. The thought of eternal progress, categorical purity, apotheosis hiding just around the corner of the next megaproject. The thought that problems can be planned away, the thought of central control, of five year plans, of market efficiencies.

Always the same question lurks behind these thoughts, the one question every politician and ideologue does everything to avoid answering: are we there yet?

The biggest ruin of them all, whose inhabitants seem to be ever resistant to the notion of moving out, is of course the notion that there is something to arrive at. That there is a "there", but not yet. That the present is an anomalous state of being, a waiting phase before history proper begins. You are free to choose your own props: the revolution, the apocalypse, a state of full employment, the ethnically cleansed motherland - choose your telos. It is a good map to these ruins of ours, telos. Everything will be fine after the revolution; the world as we know it just has to end first.

It is one of the greatest ironies of these modern ruins of ours. They remain.

We are not only surrounded by political ruins. There's plenty of physical ones too. Small factory towns whose main factory closed its doors and was promptly attacked by green growing things and forget alike; wharves that do not ship anything but nostalgia; city centers that fall apart because no one looks after them. In Detroit, whole parts of the city are uninhabited, and there are plenty of other places where the past insists without the cooperation of the present.

One of the most insistent and oft repeated messages we bombard our kids with is that we are entering new times. Some say these new times began at the end of the Cold War, others point to the beginning of the War on Terror, others to the advent of the internet, others to the financial crisis. There's plenty of news regarding the times about to begin, and news aplenty regarding those about to end.

Things do not disappear just because they are not newsworthy. Usually, they end up in storage spaces of different kinds, out of sights and minds. Sometimes, they are used in ways never intended. In other cases, such as with furniture, they simply remain in people's homes without much further ado.

The present - that thing we do when we do what we do - is a collection of thousands upon thousands of solitary things that happened to become the way they became, who insists on remaining. In that sense, the present is one big ruin, moving slowly and majestically towards the triumph of entropy.

What separates modern ruins from ruins in general, is that we for the most part already know that they are in fact ruins. We know it to such an extent that we tell our children: the industrial society is fading out, the information society is fading in. Even if few are so blunt as to say it out loud, the thought occurs: that many of our fellow human being are but living ruins from another time, whose only way to contribute to our modern contemporary world is to make room for it by dying. To no longer remain.

Growing up among ruins is one thing. Wanting to take care of them quite another.

Our children know that they are expected to live in the ruins of waiting, in preparation for a future that is very much not like today. It is a phenomenon that goes together with the telos of the day. The future is always-already a little closer than it used to be. A whole new world is within reach. It is, to be sure, already here, and those of us who arrived earlier than the rest of humanity will be all the merrier once company arrives.

New times. Yet, at the same time, very much remains of the old times, regardless of news to the contrary.

Strange times.

There will be much discord between the old political ruins and the new ones. When the salvation of the revolution will be replaced by the salvation of the global communication networks, the revolutionaries and the netizens will have interesting things to say to each other. Or whichever telos you prefer - the thought of getting there soon does not have to be a revolutionary thought, after all.

Some talk about "digital natives", to differentiate those who were born into the new world from those of us who remember the old world. Those who never lived without instant constant global communications, from those who once had the joy of discovering them. It is an intuitive metaphor - one intuits that it is reasonable to think there's a difference between those who grew up with something and those who didn't. Yet, at the same time, the notion of historical materialism is not new, and it is not a challenge to find modern ruins based on it.

Things do not happen with historic necessity. But there is no lack of effort to instill and imprint a feeling of inevitability in our postdigital newborns. Through the constant imprinting and overcommunicating that the new generations are living in new times, a feeling of historical necessity intuits itself. A feeling of sufficient intensity to rule out that these new generations want anything to do with any searches for lost times.

Modernity has never been kind to earlier times. They are lost for a reason. And why should it begin to show kindness at this particular time? It's almost there, yet.

Political ruins. Physical ruins. A time in economic ruins. A manifold of social ruins.

It is not surprising that this new time of ours sometimes feels very old.

At times, I think what's missing is a certain feel for the weight of history. Not the historical overload that Nietzsche went on about, but a more general feeling that those things that happen happen because of previous happenings. Those things that are are not random: behind many of even the seemingly most modest of things are thousands of dreams and ambitions. That things turned out the way they did is often a result of chance, but the massive amounts of thought and effort that went into attempting to nudge the odds of historical probability are hard to dismiss as mere historical accidents. There is a weight to these things.

Many have dreamt of making the world a better place. Many have acted on these dreams. Many have succeeded, many have failed. As these attempts have happened - all of them, many as they were - many things have been created, used, forgotten and turned into the ruins we know today.

The present is the sum of million dreams never fulfilled. Dreams and the millions who dreamt them. Millions of teloses never arrived at, whose ambitions were inherited by those who followed.

The present is a monument to the past, consisting mainly of the ruins we are remaining in.

The ruins of tomorrow will be the sum of what we choose to do in the ruins we happen to live in. Neither the revolution, apocalypse, full employment or any other telos will differentiate us from our children, and they will (just like us) live in a time where it is possible to create a better tomorrow.

The world will not end. Endings are good in stories, which have clearly defined beginnings, middles and ends. Only in stories will we live happily ever after, and only in stories will everything be solved by the time our telos arrives.

Only politicians, ideologues and dreamers dream of the end of the world. We, realists, historians and literary theorists, are stuck in an eternal middle section, until we end.

That, at least, is worthy of a monument. A monument to finitude, signed Ozymandias, asking:

are we there yet?

Originally published February 14, 2011

A story apart

Sometimes, life throws you into situations that are as complex as they are interesting.

The other day, I went to the dentist. This, as a starting point, is a complex thing in general, and more so in this specific instance. To begin this complexity, we have to note that there are two relevant dentists in this story. One of them is located 400 meters from my humble city dwelling, and you'd think this would be a natural place to go when going is needed. The other is some 30 kilometers away, out in the far off countryside, and for reasons of bureaucratic complexity, this is where I'm headed.

Because reasons. Most of them being related to having lived there once upon a time, but no longer doing so.

This is not the complex situation though. This is what you need to know in order to understand why I'm standing at a bus station far away from home, my head literally slackjawed from dentist druggery, the wind striking with random yet piercing coldness, the bus becoming ever later. The clock barely past eight in the morning.

As the lateness accumulated, we awaiters started to talk about what we were doing. Or, rather, were hoping to do once the bus had engorged and disgorged us - what the day entailed once we'd made it past the point of waiting.

Turns out, it was many things.

One person aimed to catch a train, going someplace far far away.

Another was just on their way to work, another ordinary nothing special day.

Another was to do some random university errand, some matter of bureaucracy.

Another was to meet someone. Or Someone, depending on how one interprets these things.

Another was on their way to a job interview. Nervousness abound.

Most were on their way someplace, and had a vested interest in getting there at the appointed and preordained bus time.


I had been where I was supposed to be that day, and could not care less whether I got back sooner or later. Time was not an issue. The bus being late, and the sudden upsurge of community spirit that followed from it, impacted me like a kick in the jaw. That is to say, not at all, due to being insensitized by drugs and city living.

Sometimes, life throws you into situations that are as complex as they are interesting.

Most of the time, they are very much not about you. But you can learn a lot by listening in. -

Saturday, January 17, 2015

At the gates of truth

If you look at the thing called Gamergate, it's easy to become despaired and confused. Despaired, because there seems to be no end to it. Confused, because what why how and why again.

How can it keep going? Why?

If you ask these questions using the hashtag, it is very likely you will get a response. Usually in one or two forms: either in the form of a canned, massproduced message about ethics in games journalism, or an equally canned message filled with utlranonsubtle passive/active aggression.

In either case, there will be little in the way of dialogue going on. Those who monitor and respond the tag, in all their sockpuppety forms, are not interested in listening to anything you have to say, and are even less interested in establishing lines of exchange. What will happen will be decidedly one-sided: there is Gamergate, and there is everyone else, and the latter has to be bashed in the head repeatedly with the message of the former. Bash all the SJWs.

Until ethics arrives, presumably.

This has implications for democratic theory.

Now, groups withdrawing from the rest of society is by no means a new thing. There's no shortage of historical examples of people departing from whatever is going on in order to do something else. Usually, however, these groups have had the explicit aim of having as little as possible to do with those left behind. It's a split both physically and socially - and neither group tends to be the worse for it.

In a pluralistic society, there's room for them. People going off doing their own thing is usually enshrined as a fundamental right - or, in the case of Silicon Valley startup mythology, a fundamental virtue. One group does its thing over here, another other there, a third one over there, and the democratic ambitions of the republic can on keep going strong. The fact that there are different groups doing different things is not a threat to democracy: to the contrary, many would leap at the opportunity to argue that this is the very core of a democratic society.

Goths being goths does not undermine democracy, as it were.

Thing is, though. This presupposes that these people keep two things: civilized and to themselves. They don't form roving bands of marauding raiders who lash out at anyone and anything they perceive as wrong, incorrect or simply not unconditionally agreeing with them.

Such as Gamergate.

As they grow ever more hostile to outsiders, they also turn ever more isolated from them. It's a circular process, where the hostility turns to isolation turns to even more hostility. Over time, the radical disconnect becomes sect-like - there is only one truth, and there are many who need to be bashed in the head with it until they understand it.

Until ethics arrives.

The democratic implications of this have little to do with Gamergate specifically, and more to do with the rise of other such radical splinter groupings. Groups defined by an aggressive communicative isolation, lashing out at anything and everything that is not themselves. Groups who, by virtue of this, becomes ever more suspicious of others, forming strong beliefs that there are forces at work to keep the truth from public view.

A common theme is conspiracy theories of how the media (as in, all media, at all times, all at once) is controlled by a very specific category with a very specific goal in mind. Be it Jews or feminists, the alleged control is greater and more far-reaching than anyone is allowed to know.

It's about ethics in journalism, to be sure.

How do we respond to the ever increasing number of groups who, by design or by chance, slip in to such a radical disconnect from the polity? How to talk to groups who, with the efficiency of ctrl+v, know exactly how to non-respond to anyone not of their own? How to account for such groups in a system of representative democracy?

Implications abound.

As an experiment, I shall post this to the Gamergate tag. As part of this experiment, I'd encourage the gaters to give a *nod* in acknowledgement that you've actually read this far. As a sign that you are, in fact, listening. Before engaging with the usual order of business.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Modernity is routine

Modernity is routine.

If you only take away one sentence from this, let it be that. It is the essence, the core, the Archimedean point - the point in general. The main theme and the main thrust. Not only of this text, not only of modernity, but also of that set of routines and recurrences that is your life.

Modernity is routine.

This sentence is, of course, not helpful in and of itself. Like all core statements, it needs to be surrounded by other statements that give it context and resonance. So that, when it is repeated, those in the know will nod and say "yes, that is indeed it, in more ways than I can recount".

Modernity is, to be sure, not just one thing. It is all the things, done over and over and over again, to the point that it has become - you guessed it - routine. But not just any old haphazard routine. No. It's designed routine, planned routine, large scale applied systemswide routine. Routine applied on stupendous scales, able to (re)produce desired results in the general case, and undesired side effects in many a specific case.

One of these systems is the worldwide road network, and the infrastructure that goes along with it. Especially the large scale megasuperhighways that scar the lands. If you look at them from the side, from beside them, they look ordinary enough, all grey and metal in motion and, most of all, boringly usual.


Thing is, though, that they form a system. There's not just one road. There's lots and lots of them, and they are everywhere, and you can get from anywhere to just about everywhere else by following the road. Wherever you go, there you are, and you get there in a car.

This is trivial and boring. I am not telling you anything you don't already know.

I just want to underscore that modernity is boring. Routine.

If roads are anything, it is predictable. You can look at them on a map, and they will go where the maps say they go. Follow the directions, and you will get from point a to point b, wherever those might be. Looking at them from another angle, roads are predictable in that you pretty much know what you'll see before you've seen them. There's asphalt, there are cars in motion, and after a while there is a tremendous boredom at seeing the same thing over and over again: cars in motion passing by, replaced by other cars in motion, replaced by other cars in motion, replaced by other cars in motion, forever.

Boring. Routine.

If we want to understand modernity, this is the key image. It's the same thing happening over and over again, and it is happening over and over again in accordance with some plan that was once put in motion. In this case, someone built the road system and the cars that use it. It didn't just happen automagically - there's no such thing as a free lunch, and the prices at the drivethru are somewhat outrageous to those who are not used to them.

There's also nothing more modern than working at a fast food drive in. It is routine to the core, and it is routine in a way that communication isn't really necessary for it to function. There is a system in place, and those who want to use the system can usually follow the script provided by it to get the desired results. Those who want to drive just have to follow the general rules of traffic; those who want to order a Big Mac only have to utter the formulaic words that signals this. This is sufficient for things to progress: you get to where you're going, and you get the formulaic food that is proffered. And not just you - that queue in front and behind you can get the same results from the same actions,

Everything is routine. The need for communication and innovation is kept to a minimum, and things can proceed in a fast and efficient manner. Which is the whole point of fast food. Fast, efficient and utterly forgettable.

Boring. Routine.

This type of interaction - formulaic, standardized, rulebound - is the stuff of modernity. It is what makes up most of our interactions with most of the systems in our life. Especially bureaucracies, which impose any number of peculiar formulas, standards and rules which each have to be followed in an impersonal manner. It is very much not personal. That is the whole point, it is what makes roads, fast food joints and bureaucracies alike so efficient: nothing is personal, everything flows better if everyone acts as the script dictates. You get going, eating, papering all that much faster if you just play along.

Follow the formulas, even if they don't make sense. Become the mass produced standard unit of our time.

At this point, I figure at least someone will want to object to the use of the word 'efficient', with regards to either traffic jams, overcrowded slow serving fast food places or slowpaced bureaucracies. Which, to be sure, is a good and valid objection. In fact, it is part of my point: modernity is routine, modernity is boring, and modernity is dysfunctional.

Apply this to literally everything, and you know the ins and outs of modernity.

Bureaucracy is the most pervasive and hardest to capture aspect of this. On the one hand, most of us are in any number of ways defined by it (not least through our experiences with and documentation from the school system); on the other hand, it is often perceived as something natural, something that happens to everyone as a part of life. On the one hand, it defines us as persons; on the other hand, there's nothing less personal than paying taxes.

The main point of Kafka's writing is this tension. On the one hand, there is this incomprehensible bureaucratic machine that defines us and demands answers from us. On the other hand, there is this undefined traumatic core that is what we refer to as "ourselves", the thing in us that is not answerable or indeed even translatable into bureaucratic machine language. Yet the machine demands answers, and we must provide them, or else.

What this 'else' is, is seldom elucidated (in Kafka or elsewhere), and likewise the demand is oftentimes inscrutable as well. We have to live up to some standard, follow some formula, or else we will be found wanting.

The English language has a strange juxtaposition of meanings: the words "exam" and "test results" can refer to both schools and hospitals. There are exams for students, and for patients, and neither of the two can be said to eagerly await the test results

Do they measure up, or are they found wanting, deemed insufficient?

It's nothing personal. It's just what the rules and numbers say. And yet, at the same time, it is very personal. It's routine procedure, and no matter how good or bad the results, you have to move out to make room for the next group to go through the same procedure.

It is time to move on from roads and bureaucracies to other things. To many other things. Mass produced things, to be precise. Here, too, the same applies: it is the same thing over and over and over again, producing the same things in untold numbers of thousands or millions. It is very standardized and very formalized: the factory makes no allowances for innovation, and deviation is defection. If any one thing is not like the platonic ideal, it is defective and slated for destruction. The platonic ideal being the standardized blueprint laid out in advance, as planned by the specialists who plan such things.

You see the similarities here, I'm sure. Do they measure up, or are they found wanting? These standardized demands work just as well on inanimate objects as they do on people. The factory is but another name for the school, and vice versa: they are both routine sites of production.

No child left behind, as the bureaucratic demand states.

These demands, be they made of people or matter, do not spring from nothing. In fact, they spring from the most specific of circumstances, and can thus be both more specific and absurd than we imagine. The biggest example being the demands bureaucracies make of us. If you know the discourses and dynamics of these bureaucracies, the demands may seem more or less reasonable. If you know that they use a certain metric in their planning, measures to alter this metric makes sense. If you, as is most often the case, do not know these discourses and dynamics, these demands seem arbitrary.

To take a brutally down to earth example: dentists. If they find something wrong with your teeth, they can and will demand that you open your mouth and let them drill in you. As in, literally drill inside of you. If you ask them why, they will either tell you in general terms (you've got a hole, my friend!) or try to explain it in jargon so advanced and specific that you don't have any chance of following. In either case, you have to take them at their word that there really is something wrong, and that this wrong really needs drilling. You do not have access to the specialized knowledge that would enable you to make that call. You can either submit and get drilled, or refuse and wonder if you're broken.

Should you choose to submit, you will once again find that the procedure is utterly routine. It may not be routine for you, but it is for them. They are professionals, and treat the same problems over and over and over again. They know the routine, and all you need to do is to sit down and shut open. That is all input that is needed from your part. The rest is up to them and their specialized knowledge, and even more so to their incomprehensibly large arrays of specialized tools.

You have to trust the routine. Trust the system. Trust that these people, who see you as yet another replaceable standardized unit soon to be replaced by another just like you, know what they are doing, and that they will do it well. It's not personal.

Only, it is.

This goes for many other things, as I have tried to illustrate. Modernity is many things, and it's the same thing over and over and over again. It's not personal, it's just following procedure. Yet it is personal, as it is your name on those papers, and your mouth subjected to that drill. It is you driving that car and you ordering that burger, yet this fact is utterly irrelevant to the outcome, as it is meant to be the same for everyone. Standardization is the name of the game, and boring routine is just that: more of the same.

More of the same is also the main product of modernity. As each specialized field of knowledge - such as dentistry - become more and more inaccessible to outsiders, it becomes that much harder to improve things across fields. It is that much easier to change things inside them. It is, to use an example I've used elsewhere, easier to design new variants of ketchup than it is to solve complex multifaceted societal problems. There is also more money in ketchup design than there is in world improvement. Which is why there is umpteen variants of ketchup available in stores, and a seemingly empty void where there should be suggestions as to how to improve our society.

Any one specific specialized field of knowledge is, as you might imagine, specialized on its specific thing. Dentists want to improve dentistry, ketchupmakers want to improve ketchup, car manufacturers want to improve cars, and so on for each and every thing. Everyone wants to improve, tweak and optimize their own routines, and in this local optimization the global issues are left untended.

It is, to return to the image of traffic, as if everyone is focused on driving the best they can from point a to point b. Everyone is focused in individual performance, resulting in that everyone gets stuck in the same traffic jams, honking incomprehensibly to each other as gridlock grinds movement to a halt.

Day after day. The same boring routine. Over and over again. And then more of the same.

Modernity is many things.

Most of all, it is routine.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Troll encounter

"Many moons ago -"

"There's only one moon!"

"Okay. A long time ago -"

"Time is not a distance, it does not have length."

"Back in the olden days -"

"Days are neither old nor young. They do not age, they pass."

"In the year of our lord -"

"There is no god."

"Look, do you want to hear this story or not?"

"Why did you mix senses like that? First looking, then hearing."

"Fine. I'm going now."

"But -"


Monday, January 5, 2015

Truth is trivial

The following is a true statement:

Some people learn better while on drugs.

We can determine that this is true based purely on grammar and statistics. It is a trivial move, yet it has nontrivial social consequences.

One of these consequences being that you probably don't agree with it, and have objections.

Thing is, the truth value is trivial in this case. All we need to do is to remember that humans are different from each other, that there are some seven-odd billion people in the world, and that there's bound to be a non-zero amount of humans who learn better while on drugs.

If this non-zero amount is also greater than one, then we have the grammatical minimum required to use "some". Which is all we need to get truth: some people learn better while on drugs.

There's bound to be objections at and to this point. Which is the point.

Truth is overrated. It isn't even the main point of our everyday communication.

When you read the sentence "some people learn better while on drugs", what you read wasn't that there's three or four persons in the world who do just that. What you read is more along the lines of social, political and ethical implications of such a statement. You tap into a vast, complicated and relentlessly interconnected web of assumptions, positions and opinions, contextualizing this one sentence into something much larger than the question of whether it is true or not.

Which, to be sure, makes uttering such a sentence something else entirely.

Social interaction is very seldom about truth.

Truth is trivial. The rest of it isn't.