March 11, 2022 Comments Off on Cabin fever
I was holed up in the mountains waiting for the weather to break long enough so that I could reach the flatlands without freezing.
There was a split blanket of gray across the sky that promised freezing rain or snow or sunshine, in other words, no promise at all. The constant fire indoors slowly reduced the green almond logs to a bed of red coals, throwing its heat out steadily, inviting a bit more proximity with each passing hour.
What is out there? How can you find it?
The surest way is to start walking. The next best option is to start pedaling. The lamest option is a car or an RV. The death option is social media or the Internet.
What is out there? How can you find it?
I think you have to first choose your search mode. Will you search as a human, or as a human interacting with the algorithm, or as a trans-human, integrated with and fully programmed by the algorithm?
Human search is unattractive and results in ugly feet, ugly faces, worn bodies, bowed backs, wrinkled eyes, scarred and wounded skin. Most embarrassingly it ends in death. Human search is analog and depends on the frail, incomplete, often erroneous functioning of the five senses as integrated by the crazy, idiosyncratic brain. The curse of human searching is that it produces profound inner beauty at the cost of extraordinary external ugliness. And the longer the search the more hideous the visage, however underlain with inordinate strength, wisdom, and humanity the spirit may be.
Search as a human interacting with the algorithm results in no inner beauty but achieves external perfection. Infinite filters, minute manipulation of appearance, and following the path that the algorithm knows you like based on your lifetime digital trail of breadcrumbs (cleverly dropped by the algorithm) leads you to a nirvana of appearance where everything looks better and prettier and happier than it did with the old analog Trinity of trial-error-ugly.
Search with the algorithm has the sad defect though of neither finding contentment nor creating inner beauty. It trades external appearance for wisdom, contentment, and mercy in exchange for likes, kudos, and swipe rights.
Search as a trans-human, with a downloadable consciousness, immortal and immoral, wholly independent of a physical body, is actually no search at all. And although it’s not yet in stores, it’s coming soon to a Target near you. Along with it will come omniscience, the instantaneous transferability of consciousness, and the consignment to oblivion of the questions “What is out there? How do I find it?”
The pure trans-human algorithm, in short, will allow everyone to feel individually omnipotent, though the true omnipotence will be exercised by the algorithm, each person’s personal iGod. For a small fee, of course. Oh, and you’ll be happy, too, or rather you’ll be emotionally inert because discontent, along with its mirror image, contentment, will no longer exist.
Yay. Such a utopia, where everyone is a Thing, at least those who can afford the software. That doesn’t sound like a great option if like me you are still non-downloadable consciousness residing in a meatbag.
So however ugly it makes you, human search seems like the best option for those who are still more analog, that is human, than for those who are more digital. Perhaps the best indicator of where you lie on the scale is your participation in digital social networks. High participation? Lots of accounts? Lots of online gaming? Then maybe the human way isn’t for you. But it is for me. It’s how I grew up, and my dabbling in digital life over the last two decades has convinced me that digital delivers the worst of all worlds. Digital life lets my appearance be created independently of my experience, or rather, my digital experience is my appearance. I don’t need to actually do anything in the analog, human world in order to appear digitally perfect.
The sky stopped its dithering and unloaded a few inches of white stuff overnight, effectively ending any plans for an early departure, or any departure at all. The northern escape route up and over the high Sierra passes became nothing but snow and ice, conditions that ruled out bicycling.
This unwanted and unexpected weather proved a lovely starting point for the things I intend to write, if I continue writing at all. That’s the nicest thing about not having a daily publication schedule, or any schedule to speak of. I suppose the second nicest thing is not having to fit almost everything into a morsel that readers can ingest during the pre-ride potty perch.
What is out there? How do you find it?
The omnipresence and omniscience of the algorithm have caused it to become the default manner in which we experience. Indeed, it’s not possible to explore without heavy reliance upon it. The weather app and Google maps are obvious pillars of exploration and experience but they only touch the surface of how deeply we now live at the direction of algorithms, or when called by their true name, machine intelligence and control. Ideas about where to go, what to do, as well as how and when to do it are piped into our brains by non-human commands, prompts, and ideologies.
It would be nice to live without those crutches, but, I fear, impossible.
However, it is possible to experience and explore with a stripped-down algorithm, living as it were more towards the human end of the scale. In fact, mental health requires it because the digital reality of #socmed creates such extraordinary cognitive dissonance when you actually do go outside and try to explore beyond the edges of your phone or computer screen. That’s why they have filters, avatars, and soon enough fully functional trans-humans, because the actual practice of riding your bike without digital enhancement results in the unhappy conclusion that you are fat, ugly, slow, lost, and old, all things that are robustly suppressed from your curated digital life via the algorithms of Strava, IG, and their ilk.
But back to the inconvenience of the snowstorm, because it created a nasty little analog obstacle that could be painlessly handled by photographing and posting on #socmed, or unpleasantly handled by spending more time in the cabin with nothing to do, or by going outside and freezing en route to a better space.
A fork in the road, as it were, and as with all such forks the best thing to do, in the words of Yogi Berra, was to “take it.”
Off the mountain
It’s hard to take the first step but it’s so easy.
After a couple of hours I had left the bitter temperatures and snow, and except for dodging patches of black ice, the drop down the canyon into the valley was uneventful.
At the bottom, green and sunshine bathed the earth as if spring had already arrived, rendering superfluous and hot the wool clothing required by only a few thousand feet of altitude up the road. The first campground wanted $28 for the privilege of water and toilet paper and proximity to noisy RV generators, but water was plentiful elsewhere, ducks and river make sweeter lullabies than generators, and toilet paper is one of the first things any thoughtful sojourner jettisons.
After some investigative stomping down trails, a beautiful campground revealed itself, well, beautiful except for the trash left by picnickers of fall. Coots, mergansers, cormorants, geese, and a pair of cinnamon teal fed along the shallow rapids by the far bank, and an area that is normally filled with people and their music provided silence and solitude along with a night chill that quickly reminded you of winter’s presence, however much in decline.
The morning arrived coldly, and there was no reason to budge from the warmth of the down except that little thing, hunger. After breakfast and coffee I headed down what ended up being close to forty miles of bike path. The sensation of riding along, wholly unaccompanied by cars or for that matter other cyclists, was divine.
Can you experience being alone via social networks? Or rather solitude–because almost everyone online seems frightfully alone.
Out here in the fields
Most people want to be free without ever really inquiring as to the nature of freedom. Whatever it is, as the old saying goes, it isn’t free. The cost and the failure to inquire are problems if you want to see what is out in the world, to try and understand whether your life has meaning and if so what that meaning is, aside from the dominant characteristic of an existence that springs from nature, which itself springs from the universe, a place that in its most fundamental essence is random and wholly without caring for you as an individual any more than it cares for any other atom, photon, quark, or collection of them.
The modality of freedom, in whatever degree, requires some corresponding form of independence and the ability to self-direct. Scientists seek autonomy in their research so that they can follow the clues; explorers seek autonomy to choose the best path; artists seek autonomy to create that which seems most fitting. And though the degree of autonomy sought is never the degree actually attained, its presence is necessary.
Independence and self-direction are of course the enemies of capitalism and of capitalism’s necessary components of authoritarianism and the sciences it develops to maximize profit. You want to explore? The first set of blinders lying in your path is the algorithm.
For obvious reasons the algorithm usurps independence of thought, or better said, it emphasizes and focuses one type of thought to the exclusion of countless others. That thought type is the one that centers on consumption and its counterpart, the free extraction of labor (think content creation on social media) for the profit of a business like Facebook, or your unpaid work of photos and product reviews which earns money for Amazon or which wholly supports a company like Yelp.
But the algorithm is only the first snare. The second is an outdated and rather quaint notion that nonetheless exists in ever smaller quantities, stamped out as it is by the algorithm, and that is the notion of humanity, of a collectively shared set of needs and values that identify us as a species.
Humanity gets in the way, still. The moment we seek to act independently we run into the opposition of other humans. “Why are you doing that?” “You should do something else.” “What you are doing is bad thoughtless silly wasteful harmful selfish dangerous insensitive childish unoriginal offensive illegal immoral impossible impractical illogical doomed to fail.”
On the one hand we are led by the algorithm and its capitalist overlords, on the other we are hemmed in by judgment, and since the judgment can now be immediately augmented and intensified through digital networks driven by (surprise!) the algorithm, a perfect prison strips us of freedom to act.
Even if you turn off the phone and cancel the accounts, there is little relief in store for the freedom seeker. Why? Because you quickly find that being free of others means others being free of you. Friends, family, people in the larger community, once jettisoned stay jettisoned. Who has your back? That would be … you. More importantly, who is left to give you a kudo, a like? Who is left to validate that amazing bicycle ride that is the most unique cycling event in the country? The absence of your hand-picked digital cheerleading squad means that the only person who will know about your amazingness is you. That’s worse than boring, it’s isolating and lonely.
It’s no wonder that fear of isolation drives people to the false security of digital appearance. Every costume masks a fear and the digital costume cloaks your fears of unattractiveness, poverty, powerlessness, failure, age, and worst of all, ordinariness. Freedom, the autonomy to direct your own actions and burn in hell as a consequence, is the greatest fear of all, that’s why it is costumed with job titles, addresses, silly cycling outfits, boob jobs, and voluntary enslavement to the algorithm.
And what’s most distressing is that the terror of being found out as ordinary is infinitely compounded by the algorithm, the very thing that was supposed to allay, then banish it, and vault you into the Kardashian sphere of amazing, of “most unique.”
Three case studies in freedom
In July of 2020 I ran across a guy named Dave and wrote about him here. A few days ago while pedaling down the coast I had to pull over and remove my jacket.
“Taking a break?” a voice called out to me.
There by the roadside was Dave, same jacket, same hat, same smile, but different bike and about thirty miles north from where we had first met. He was still living outdoors in Big Sur on his monthly income of $197. He was surprised that I remembered him, and we had a lively but brief conversation. “How have you been?” I asked.
“So good!” he replied. “Life just keeps getting better!” I wondered how many people feel that way.
“What about you?” he asked.
“Oh, still trying to make sense out of life,” I said, lamely.
“That’s your problem! It doesn’t make any sense. None of it. I didn’t realize it until a year or so ago, it hit me, there isn’t any reason or answer. And you know what?”
“I quit fucking looking. Gave up. Accepted it. And I have been so happy since that moment. Take it from me, there is no answer to learn, no dream to catch, no future. You’ll feel better when you quit looking, I guarantee it.”
We talked a bit longer and then I continued on. He was largely although not completely disconnected from the Internet, and had undertaken his search in almost purely analog fashion. He lived outdoors, got by on the beneficence of others, and even had a pretty fancy bike. He answered to no one, obeyed no capitalist overlord, managed no retirement account, and passed every day beholden, as far as I could tell, to nothing but hunger, exhaustion, and the elements. He looked gaunt but healthy and strong, warmly clothed, and well rested to put it mildly.
This guy’s search had an ending that was too nihilistic for me, but you can’t deny that he came by it honestly, with all his chips in. He has spent seven years alone with himself and his freedom, and has reached an outcome that is rational and content.
The price of this freedom, this contentment, and the analog search for it, at least for him, appears to be poverty, old clothes, and deep, enduring weathering upon all his features. If he were an Instagram filter it would be called “gnarly.” Dave is search in the old modality, where suffering accompanies revelation, where struggle leads to strength, where conviction is born inside and hardened through life, where the seeker is the measure of himself rather than the tropes, conventions, prejudices, and terrors of culture and the economic enslavement that direct it.
The second case study in freedom is a very different person, someone who once appeared to me as sincere and interested in the search for more than the superficial. One day by chance I discovered that he was a thrall to his digital persona. He was sitting at his laptop and I glanced at the screen. On it were several open social media accounts and he was madly typing as he tried to keep up with the second-by-second evolution of his digital self.
That’s when I realized that my perceptions of him, though largely shaped by in-person interactions, were in fact a function of the amazing life he presented in four or five digi-simul dimensions to himself and then to the world. And since I knew the details of much of his analog life, I could easily see how false and contrived his digital life actually was, not false because he said things that were in and of themselves untrue but because he omitted key facts, actually everything, that he thought might detract from his digital appearance. Massive and ongoing lies of omission are hardly unusual in social media realms; everyone in the digital sandbox knows that everyone else is distorting through their teeth. But as long as the dopamine comes, who cares?
This guy, who I’ll call the Semi-tar, serves as a counterpoint to unhoused Dave, his ragged clothes, his poverty, and his rough teeth. Semi-tar, like Dave, started out a a seeker, too. He was caught in the capitalist trap of being made to believe that he was financially inadequate, and so, living in one of earth’s epicenters of social status-seeking and conspicuously “understated” consumption, he had to continually present every endeavor as a smashing success, every acquisition as the embodiment of cool, every trinket and gold star awarded one of his kids as the mark of genius, i.e., his.
Like many caught in the trap, he strove to escape it but unlike Dave his technique was reliance on an ever greater arsenal of digital fakery, which in turn intensified the pressure for everything to be better than the last thing, which was already the best thing, such that superlatives became not indicators of degree but rather monikers that had to accompany every activity no matter how mundane.
Always wearing the right shade of casual chic, face always framed in the latest hairdo and glasses that said “older but still young af,” the right car for the right impression, and of course only the finest in cycling apparel and equipment; these and countless other accoutrements had to be dragged with him wherever he went and whatever he did in the impossible attempt to make the analog him match the digital him.
At my age you should know that the only secret to travel is to travel light.
Nonetheless he feebly searched for contentment, but since he had to carry all that shit with him, and since he had to appear perfect in all his digital dimensions, he never got anywhere with his search for meaning and worse, he became increasingly frantic about the enlightenment that eluded him. The failure to find freedom in digital appearances reflected itself everywhere. His unhappy home life, his stressed and unhappy children, his smashing successes that were purely ordinary, all these things resulted in a profoundly conflicted life that could only be endured with alcohol, and a lot of it. And of course when your freedom is simply the freedom to be drunk, your enslavement is complete.
If I know so much about Semi-tar it’s because I spent plenty of time in the same hell, and as they say, you can’t bullshit a bullshitter.
Whereas Dave, by exercising freedom in his pursuit of meaning, paid the price of external hardship for internal peace, Semi-tar is perpetually chained to the algorithms, still toiling at how to seem externally perfect, while inside he is empty, miserable, terrified, lost. He’s traded the possibility of and freedom for appearance and he represents almost everyone on earth who actively participates on social media networks. You cannot seek out meaning and find contentment while chained to the dictates of the algorithm because they are opposite outcomes.
The third case study involves trans-humanism. In a few years there will be a large class of people who do not simply interact with the algorithm but who are integrated with and directly instructed by it. The ultimate aim of computer science is to replace organic systems with digital ones and even though the ideal of that is represented by the cyborg or the more loveable C3PO from vintage Star Wars mythology, the actual form of the first complete trans-humans will be much more prosaic and is in fact already well on the way towards completion. These are the fully functioning avatars, digitally remastered versions of our ordinary analog selves.
The fully functional avatar will have all the advantages of the purely analog human in that is driven by and responsive to organic human needs and desires, and none of the disadvantages that leak out in the form of unpleasing appearance. No jowls, no saggy stomach, no bald spot, no weak chin, and more importantly, no imperfections in behavior. The fully functional avatar will be able to “succeed” at every task posed to it whether it be an exam, a singing contest, a bike race, or the answer to a complex problem. Underlain by an ordinary, stinking and sweating human body, the fully digitized conscience of the avatar will erase the cognitive dissonance experienced by current humanity exemplified by my acquaintance Semi-tar, that is, there will be no gap between the appearance of the avatar and the “things” that it experiences.
Whereas Semi-tar appears handsome and youthful and virile online, though at home he is spurned by his wife, the trans-human avatar will look handsome/beautiful and succeed at all of his/her romances. In much the same way that technology currently exists to trick the senses into believing that they have seen, heard, smelled, felt, or eaten something through manipulation of nerve receptors, the fully functional avatar will allow the sweating, stinking human underneath to actually experience sensual satiety without ever having to, for example, eat a cookie, drink a glass of water, or touch another body.
What does this have to do with the search for meaning? Everything, because it points out the end goal of the algorithm, which is to strip the organic human of its sense of agency and allow the sense of agency to be purely determined by the algorithm. In short, the predicate for the trans-human is a complete abdication of freedom, total enslavement. This forecloses any search for meaning and walls off any possibility of contentment. Mr. Semi-tar at least theoretically has the capacity to cancel the accounts and turn off the phone, but the trans-human is the phone, the social media account, the bank account, the clot of each and every digital agglomeration of data ever assembled about it. Because it truly is an “it.”
Sleight of mind
The key to understanding all marketing is the simple concept of opposition. The best marketing cloaks the product’s true purpose, which is always unnecessary at the price offered or is actually bad, with its inverse, which is always good.
Guns, for example, which are dangerous and made for control through killing and the threat of killing, are marketed for self-safety and freedom.
Phones, which are made to control behavior, are marketed for freedom (of work, play, communication, shopping, travel).
Cars, which are made to control movement of people, are expensive, dangerous, inconvenient, and dirty, and are therefore marketed for freedom of mobility, environmental cleanliness, convenience, economy, and safety.
Since the thing that all systems seek to exert is control, of course the most popular marketing deception is to emphasize a non-existent or significantly curtailed freedom. Wherever you see the words “free” or “freedom” in a marketing pitch, you can be certain that what is being sold is some form of quite odious control. Capitalism is a system of control that operates in the most minute spheres: control over location, time, the physical condition of each subject’s body, and the spiritual state of each subject’s mind must all be regulated in order to extract the most value from each subject for the longest period of time. When the subject is all used up, it is described as “retired,” a synonym for “free,” which is in turn code for “severely constrained by age, health, money, or all three.” Hence the fetishism of freedom that oozes out in some places and gushes out in others to counteract the cognitive dissonance that arises when capitalism tells you that, for example, you can achieve freedom simply by working harder, as if the invisible constraints of capital, age, inheritance, race, gender, geography, and class do not exist. Hence the fetishism of freedom surrounding retirement, telling subjects they are finally free to live the life they want even though they no longer have the body, mind, or money to do it, and are instead relegated to golf courses, senior apartment communities, and RVs.
Below are three of my favorite freedom tropes, each cloaking a terrible control, an enslavement, that people cheerfully regard as the apogee of freedom. If you really care about the search for meaning, about contentment, and about what avenues remain for you to explore the world, constrained as it is by digital controls, then you have to understand more than why freedom matters; you have to understand the imagery created by capitalism to prevent you from seeing how limited your freedom actually is and thereby preventing you from seizing it.
The freeway. I love the freeway as an almost perfect inversion of truth and falsehood in order to trick you into thinking that you are experiencing freedom rather than crushing control. The word itself is laughably false; there is nothing free about the freeway, either in terms of cost or liberty. The easiest part of the deception to analyze is the implication that freeways are economically without cost because they are “free” to enter and drive upon. All you need is a car, insurance, fuel, license(s), in many cases actual tolls (these are toll freeways, a beautiful exercise in dissimulation if ever there was one), taxes, and/or fee-based tickets to ride the conveyance such as a bus, that operates on the freeway. In this sense the freeway is a costway and it is described as free in order to cloak the extraordinary expense of building and maintaining what is in its basic essence a low-cost (for the capitalist) transit way for 18-wheelers delivering goods and services nationwide for corporate profit while paid for with public tax revenue.
The costway is an essential control feature of capitalism because it allows exact distribution of goods and services in such a way as to maximize profit earned by the capitalist and to minimize wages paid to the workers who drive the trucks. But in order to convince the paying public that the costway is a freeway, it is marketed as free access, and as a “way” that allows the free driver to escape, explore, and to exercise at-will mobility when traveling, especially to work. Of course anyone who has ever heard of rush hour knows that the costway is the least efficient way to get to work. Speaking to the slow speeds, the danger, stress, and wasted time, the costway delivers exactly the minimum freedom of mobility at the times of day when mobility is at its very highest value. How can the phrase, “I’m stuck in traffic on the freeway” make any sense unless you accept that “freeway” has nothing to with “free”?
Nor is the costway an arena that allows freedom even of the manner of driving. Speed limits, speed traps, road design, and the great bulk of a detailed state vehicle code strictly regulate the way that you can operate your vehicle on the costway, and indeed, which vehicles may even enter it. Rather than being a place where you can operate freely, the costway is a tightly controlled space that enforces its non-freedom with fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Exactly as in prison, you are free to do what they say you can do, that is, you have the freedom to obey.
The cultural marketing of the freeway is as an avenue of discovery and exploration. “Road trip,” “driving cross country” and the like are phrases that denote an open road free of barriers, allowing escape from urban or other confines in order to explore. Yet the freeway is precisely the arena that people seek to leave first when they want to see new sights. “Sightseeing on the freeway” is generally impossible due first to the high speed of travel and second due to the general ugliness of freeway corridors. This means that people remain on the costway not because it is an avenue of discovery, but because it is predictable, because there are plenty of motels and fast food, because you can’t get lost, because you can get help, because your RV rig doesn’t do well on twisting back roads, etc. etc. etc. They stay there because they are only comfortable when surrounded by the indicia of control. Control of food, fuel, direction, assistance, road quality, and speed are what keep people on the freeway, not freedom.
There is nothing real about the perceived and marketed freedom of the freeway. Yet we refuse to reject it in favor of cheaper, cleaner, safer travel ways because we have already accepted the untruth that it is free. The inability to recognize control makes the exercise of freedom impossible except by random chance or the dumbest of luck. This substitution of meanings, truth for falsehood, underlies the language of George Orwell’s book 1984, and is a core concept for participating in social media, where someone can, with a straight face, describe his bike event as the “most unique,” when any fool knows that uniqueness doesn’t admit of degree, and even if it did, that one silly afternoon riding here and there can’t possibly be any better or worse in a significant way from any other similarly silly adventure.
The free market. I love listening to people debate free markets because they always immediately agree that regulation is necessary. Libertarians and laissez-faire capitalists, those unicorns, even agree that somewhere, somehow, sometime, some type of regulation is necessary. Even those who think that there should be free trade of nuclear weapons, even among individuals, will agree that such weapons should not be sold to, for example, small children with severe mental illness.
Yet the phrase “free market” persists, though no one believes in it, no one advocates for it, and all such discussions are not about whether markets should be free but rather how much regulation is acceptable. From beginning to end, the only market that anyone can conceptualize is a regulated one, but the phrase “regulated markets” is used only in conjunction with non-capitalist despotic political systems, or with socialism. So why insist on describing any market as free? Obviously, to cloak the system’s real purpose, which is control of the very strictest kind, that is, control of capital and control of wages.
All economies by definition are control systems and they differ only in the degree and methodology of control. So why do we discuss the chimera of a free-market economy rather than the reality of our Control Economy Based on Regulation of Capital and Labor by Those Who Own the Capital? Again, obviously, because such a description reminds the subjects of the system that they are a) subjects and b) subject to someone else’s control, i.e. they are not free.
By calling it a free market economy there is a built-in explanation for why you are poor, or what is worse, why some are richer than you are, or worst of all, why you can’t afford the trinkets and symbols that connote success. The explanation is that you were free and are free to succeed, but you have failed due to your own deficiencies and bad choices, not because the system is regulated to assure the success of a few at the expense of the many.
A free market defends itself from criticism the same way that a coach rationalizes a player’s injury: you knowingly assumed the risks and you failed. A free market says that you were free to succeed and free to fail, it’s all on you. The rigged nature of the system is unassailed outside universities, themselves advocates for the rigged system.
Internet search. Although not described as free, Internet search is pushed as a no-cost method to obtain information, ignoring the cost of a device and the cost of accessing the Internet. Internet search is impliedly free, though in fact it isn’t, and its marketing inversion, switching bad for good, is one of the biggest swindles in history, used as it is to drive an entire system of control in the guise of providing information for free.
Internet search exists solely to take you to advertisers who have paid a fee to the company that owns the browser. It is extremely lucrative, so lucrative in fact that it is is very difficult to buy a Microsoft laptop, for example, and extricate yourself from the clutches of its built-in browser. But the marketing deception, the inversion of truth and falsity, occurs in the very word “search,” because Internet search is nothing of the sort. Search implies that you have autonomously chosen to look for something for some particular reason. There may be some type of starting point where an Internet searcher at one point did just that. But after only the briefest of uses, Internet search begins compiling a database about you that allows it to direct what you are looking for and what you are going to find. In the process it exposes you to hard core merchandising tailored to you, exactly you.
Contrast that with library search before computers. You would look up a term in a reference book and then look up all of the periodicals or other publications that dealt with the term in the library’s stacks. Of course this was its own form of controlled search, since you were limited to the entries in the reference and to the available books in the stacks. But those entries were never paid for and they never drew you back to a purchasing choice. More importantly, going through the stacks you did something that was called browsing. You randomly flipped through shit that caught your eye. But what caught your eye was truly random. No librarian arranged the books so that you would notice a cookbook by Julia Child and something about the food eaten by Mr. Pickwick in The Pickwick Papers. In this way, a natural sort of exploration has been stolen, and its meaning inverted by Internet search, where a browser is something that feeds you pre-selected items according to what it knows about you in a way to force your selection of something that is for sale.
Browsers do the opposite of letting you browse. They control what you read and constrain your freedom of thought. A whole body of research exists regarding the effects that this has on the organization and development of neural pathways. Suffice it to say that browsing and Internet searching decommission the ability of your brain to function independently. One example of this is the complete degradation of wayfinding by reliance on GPS. Another is the loss of memory that occurs when you read a factoid on the Internet rather than having to read through numerous articles to find an answer or, more dauntingly, reach conclusions of your own. The corollary to this degraded memory is that people who obtain their knowledge from the Internet have a massive proclivity to believe that the knowledge is something they came up with, discovered, or even invented. Internet search steals the neural function of search and analysis, strips memory, and replaces it with the appearance of knowledge. In fact, the more you use the Internet for search, the better you become at it even as your brain’s ability to recall what it has found precipitously degrades.
Free search, indeed.
Why should you accept the sales proposition that has been so skillfully engineered through the architecture of the Internet and its “free” functions of “search” and social media? That’s easy enough. You’re lazy. I’m lazy. Humans are lazy, as are dogs and cats and flies and bacteria because we are all subject to the physical laws that constrain the particles from which we are made, one of which, famously, is that an object at rest tends to remain so unless acted on by an outside force. We prefer to remain at rest due to our very nature, ergo sitting instead of walking, driving instead of cycling, t.v. instead of books, Google search instead of browsing the stacks.
Laziness used to be something called rest, and you did it because the physical demands of life were intense. Activity was the default and you snapped up the rest when you could get it. Now it’s the inverse. You needn’t expend any but the most minimal calories in order to live, and global obesity reflects it. That physical inactivity, thanks to the algorithm, has now infected the brain and actively robs each digital technology user of some degree of mental choice and self-direction, directly reducing the degree of actual agency we are capable of exercising. And as actual agency declines, more and more mental activities, to accompany the long-lost physical ones, are forfeited.
In case this sounds like sci-fi gloom and doom, rest assured that it is the actual chief sphere of computer research, that is, how do deliver stimuli to the human brain that are controlled by an algorithm yet that impart the “sense of agency” that is coextensive with human consciousness. Put another way, the completion of capitalism’s control over its subjects occurs when our mental and therefore physical behavior is directed by the capitalist at the same time that we believe we are directing it of our own volition. This is not a screed against capitalism. It’s an observation about how digital technology is used to control its subjects in a capitalist system. A socialist system or other economic/political system would have the same ultimate end, to make its subjects conform to the controls. Whether or not a socialist system would ever develop such technology is another question.
While the multitude plunge ever deeper into online appearance, forsaking it for physical contact with the real world, a/k/a experience, there are nonetheless those who recognize the deeply unsatisfying nature of the virtual, the digital, the fake. To describe it more explicitly, no one seeking contentment can ever find it through digital means. That’s because in order to find contentment you have to search for it, and in order to search for it you must, in some meaningful degree, have the freedom that comes not only with a sense of agency but with actual agency itself. Even full integration with the algorithm will not bring contentment because there will have been no search in the true sense of the word. Contentment will have been supplied, and it will only be satiety, nothing more.
As a manual for reclaiming first one’s sense of agency and finally, actual agency, the steps are simple but searingly hard. Abandon participation in social networks. Make purchasing decisions, including the comparisons that precede the purchase, in the flesh. However impossible it may be to completely abandon the Internet, reduce reliance upon it until you’ve reached the bare minimum, whatever that is. Frame your day in these terms: How much of it was spent looking at a screen?
But even this isn’t enough because all it leaves is a void, and the only way to fill that void in a truly human manner is physical experience with the non-virtual world. Simple as it sounds, this is even harder than reducing reliance on the Internet because we have generations of conditioning that greatly reduce our ability to use our bodies and minds, and worse, we live in such a controlled environment that each avenue of real world experience is thoroughly surveilled and controlled. Parks and roads, which are virtually all that remains of the public domain, are tightly restricted with curfews, fees, and use rules of every sort, while the remainder of the earth, the place that you would have had as your experiential domain a thousand years ago, is fully privatized.
One thing that bicycle touring teaches is the absence of free space and the tight limits placed on where you can be and when. Nonetheless, the few remaining public spaces are the only place left to exercise our historic need to move and seek, and with practice they can be adapted. Even more importantly, as more people live digitally, fewer people use the little public spaces available. In the short term this means opportunity if you want to enter those spaces, though in the long term the principle of “use it or lose it” will apply to those spaces as well.
If obtaining some measure of true agency isn’t motivation enough, there’s always this: the opportunity to sink into the living death of virtuality will always be there. The opportunity to search, to find, to live?