The Right To The Future Tense
Quick pre-newsletter caveat – this one isn’t very Christmassy. I wanted to write a nice festive end-of-year one, but then I finished reading a book about surveillance capitalism and I’d promised I’d put my thoughts on it into a newsletter, and 45% of the reason this newsletter exists is just to give me regular writing deadlines, so I gotta do what I promised. If I get round to doing one more newsletter next week, I’ll make it super festive and cosy and New Year-ish and Christmassy and nice. In the meantime, one last newsletter about being human before we all curl up for Christmas. Here goes:
I did it! I finished The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshanna Zuboff! It was really long and dense and probably doesn’t make even the top half of the list of books I’ve read that were fun to read. But it is fascinating, and scary, and probably quite important. The big problem with it is that, like a lot of very heavy, dense academic books, its ideas are unlikely to reach that many people because who in their right mind would sit down to read it, besides this idiot with too much time on his hands? So I thought I’d explore some of my take-home thoughts from it in this week’s Tape to save you all the bother of ever needing to read it! (Note – obviously I am not really equipped to effectively summarise that book, so if you are genuinely interested in this stuff, give it a read! It’s much better than I’ve made it sound here)
In a nutshell, Zuboff believes that “surveillance capitalism” (the name she gives to the new model of power that has emerged in the last decade thanks largely to the machinations of Google and Facebook and their wider impact on society) is as large and unprecedented a threat to our humanity as totalitarianism was in the 20th century. Chillingly, she repurposes a quote by Hannah Arendt about the fact that the reason totalitarianism achieved such a stranglehold on civilisation a century ago was because “it was so effective at solving society’s problems of the time.” The same is true of surveillance capitalism – the extent to which our entire realities, from the personal through the social to the professional, are wholly subjugated to tech companies, offers such obvious rewards in terms of convenience and stimulation that we are totally oblivious to the threats of this model, just as we are always oblivious to the unprecedented.
The long and the short of it is that we really need to fight for our individuality and our humanity, because we are all in the process of handing it over wholesale to private corporations who do not perceive or care about us as individuals, solely as sources of raw material that can be converted into capital. Zuboff asserts two fundamental human rights that are being eroded by the internet’s invasion into every facet of our reality – the right to sanctuary, and the right to the future tense.
The latter of these really interested me, because Zuboff delved into the etymology of a word that I use all the time in this newsletter without really thinking about its meaning. That word is “project,” as in, “I’ve started working on a new project.” Zuboff explains that the undertaking of “projects” is a fundamentally human impulse, because it involves the assertion of our right to determine our own futures. A “project” is something that cannot be simply ticked off a to-do list and completed; it requires an act of will in order to be undertaken, it requires that we project ourselves into an imagined future where we have completed this undertaking. We have to be able to imagine ourselves on the other side of a threshold, with the deciding factor between here and there being our own will to create that change and take on this work. It rang a lot of bells for me in connecting me back to some thoughts I’ve written about here before, about the difference between long and short feedback loops, and the reasons why one is so much more rewarding than the other, but so much harder to commit to.
This inherently human quality – our capacity to will ourselves into the future and take on projects that we shape into existence through nothing more than our own will to see them happen – is under threat from surveillance capitalism. Not as an unforeseen by-product of the behaviours of tech companies, but as their direct target. Companies like Google want to see a reality where our behaviour is not subject to our own will, but is entirely predictable, and even mouldable, via behavioural control methods. (Pokemon Go was a mass experiment in extracting capital from people via behavioural control, but there’s no time to get into that). Their goal is to fashion us into a species whose behaviour is entirely derived from social conditioning, not from individual decision-making or acts of will. Their target is independent thought. They have gone on the record with this at their own conventions – it’s their stated intention.
The Ideal Life App
All this reminded me of a hypothetical question my friend Emily asked me several years ago:
If there was an app that knew you so well that it could accurately, to 99.9%, tell you what the best thing to do was at every decision-point in your life in order to always access the ideal life for you, would you use it?
At the time, this was a slightly fanciful idea that expanded on the algorithms in, say, dating apps or things like TripAdvisor into a Black Mirror-esque scenario where your entire life – where to go on holiday, where to eat dinner, what shows to go and see – were reduced to a simple in-app algorithmic equation telling you what to do. Today, it’s not even that outrageous an idea – Zuckerburg has openly said that something incredibly like this is his ultimate goal for the Metaverse. One of the key points Emily clarified in her initial idea was that this hypothetical app always got it right – the suggestions it made were the things you would most enjoy in any given situation, and the app always moved you towards your ideal outcomes, simply removing the decision-making process from you and instead reducing it to what it knew about you.
I said then that I wouldn’t use the app, and having read Zuboff’s book, I think it’s even more important that we start resisting similar sorts of efforts to control and predict our behaviour, in defence of our right to the future tense. Why? Because I don’t think the ideal life is the outcome we really want. I think what we want is our life – the life we choose for ourselves. And that will include mistakes. It will include wrong turns that teach us lessons. It will include happy accidents where delight comes out of disaster. It will include embarrassment, and failure, and discomfort, and error. And the pain of those wrong turns are bearable precisely because they’re a product of our own will – we make them happen by making the choices we make. When our lives are mapped out for us by external forces with the promise of “perfection,” then no amount of pain or error could be remotely bearable. When we will our own lives into being, then the hurt that comes from a “wrong” choice gives us so much, even if it takes us a long time to see it and understand it. Letting our lives be controlled by surveillance capitalism’s methods of behavioural control also means letting all our choices be based on our past selves – “You’ll like X because you liked Y” – rather than letting us imagine potential versions of ourselves in a possible future where our decisions were based on nothing other than the desire to try something. “There was no reason at all for me to try this, but I’m so glad I did” is one of the nicest feelings in the world.
When you attempt to remodel society into something where people’s own will is something you can accurately predict and influence, then a huge part of our humanity is lost. I think it’s a part worth fighting for. Mind you, I’m typing this up in a tab in Google Chrome, so clearly there’s a bit of work to be done at my end when it comes to pushing back against all this stuff. Might install Duck Duck Go as my first flag-in-the-sand in defence of my right to be human.
What about you guys? Would you use the app, if it always showed you the “right” choice? Or is there a part of yourself that’s protective of your right to make the wrong choices, as long as you make them yourself? I’d love to hear what you all think!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Not sure, tuned out of comedy news a bit for the Christmas break, but I’ve been to see two incredible live shows this week. If you can get tickets to Derren Brown’s Showman at the Apollo Theatre or the stage adaptation of My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican, do try to go, they’re two of the most magical things I’ve ever seen on a stage.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Probably the little white and blue tree spirits in My Neighbor Totoro waddling around in the flesh. As I mentioned in this newsletter before, when I saw the film it didn’t actually do that much for me, but seeing those little guys as real physical creatures, I absolutely fell in love with them.
Book Of The Week – I’ve just started Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Enjoying it so far, although between this and A Little Life, I kind of wish writers would stop mystery-boxing characters’ trauma as a plot device. There’s something kind of unpleasant about reading something and constantly being nudged to think “Ooh, I wonder what the horrific childhood incident was?” It would be nice if there were more stories that treated a character’s trauma simply as a fact that they have to carry with them, rather than as a fascinating personality quirk or a puzzle for the reader to solve.
Album Of The Week – Absolute Loser by Fruit Bats. After my slightly disappointing first foray into Fruit Bats’ discography last week, I’m happy to report that this is brilliant. It’s much more the kind of thing I was hoping for from them off the back of Bonny Light Horseman – it’s got more of a country twang and the songwriting has just come on leaps and bounds from their earlier stuff, as far as I can tell.
Film Of The Week – Wild Men. This is a Danish film about a guy who has a mid-life crisis and goes to live in the woods as a Viking. I watched it thinking it was going to be one of those quirky European comedies where the jokes only come once every fifteen minutes, but they’re the funniest jokes you’ve ever seen. As it turns out, there are jokes, but it’s more of a violent drama than it is a comedy. Still very good, though. But you need a strong stomach to get through some of its gorier scenes.
That’s all for this week! As ever, I’d love to hear what you all think, and if you enjoy the newsletter enough to recommend it to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves until next time, and Merry Christmas!
PS To restore a bit of festive cheer into a decidedly un-Christmassy instalment, here’s a silly sketch about nutcrackers I made. Enjoy, and have a great Christmas break, all of you: