The Future Is More Fragile Than You Think
Thoughts on TED, Jason Silva, Peter Diamandis, and the construction of ideological hegemony
The current system of hyper-capitalism seems, on its surface, to operate without ideology. The structure is so totalizing that people accept it unquestioningly, internalizing it as a kind of second nature, as inescapable as Nature itself, or “first nature1.” But this system is an ideological construct that maintains itself via “hegemony.” The Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci defined hegemony as the “cultural, moral and ideological” leadership of one group over allied as well as over less privileged or “subaltern” groups and classes.
Mass culture, media, and school can be seen as a kind of factory that does not, essentially, produce things. What it produces are subjects, or “subjectivities.” The upper echelon elite who own and operate these systems understand that they are manufacturing “mind,” the worldview and mental content of the masses and multitudes. This is what Edgar Bernays called “engineering consent.”
The mass media, in its totality, syncopates and coordinates both the thoughts and the actions of the multitude. It creates “false needs” and stimulates artificial desires that then must be satiated via disposable consumer goods, to keep the machinery of capitalist production humming along. The political economic system replicates itself by taking over — colonizing — the inner psychic reality of the individual.
Within such a totalizing structure, most people behave like programmed automatons — responding instinctively to the incessant stimuli of sports, social media, video games, and stock tickers — until or unless some external event provokes a crisis, which may or may not break the trance. Even when an external crisis forces an existential or ontological breakdown, most people lack the intellectual tools to understand it, and/or the psychological resources to handle it. At that point, either they will find a way back into the hegemonic order (perhaps by shifting allegiances, such as from progressive “hope and change” liberal to Far Right QANON-quoting Libertarian) or they will go insane. It certainly seems like a growing number of people are on the verge of insanity these days—if they haven’t already gone over the precipice.
As someone who used to work in the mainstream media, writing for The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and so on, and published two books via Random House and Penguin, I gained some direct experience of how ideological hegemony is constructed and maintained. At The New York Times, for example, the editors rigorously police thought, attitude, and sentiment, adjusting language on an extreme micro-scale to reflect institutional bias. As an editor or a journalist for mainstream publications, you learn to shape your work so it fits within the narrow ideological confines of the institution. Eventually, this conformity becomes unconscious, meaning you are now a “professional.”
The media and cultural worlds in New York City are, of course, dominated by graduates from the Ivy Leagues. Establishment elites have developed self-perpetuating systems to maintain their privilege, controlling who gets to speak to the mass audience and who has influence behind the scenes. From much experience with these types, I would argue that the primary function of an elite Ivy League education is not to learn how to think authentically and courageously, but to learn how to maximize your personal advantage within complex, hierarchical, political structures. Such prestige-based systems require a great deal of intellectual and psychic energy to navigate successfully (the art world being one example, or Vogue magazine under Anna Wintour as an archetype).
The formats utilized by a media enterprise or media network are considerably more important than its content. To take one obvious example, we can consider the farcical structure of Presidential debates, which are designed to last a couple of hours with precisely timed, absurdly short responses—as if the candidates and the viewers all had something much better to do and could only fit this spectacle between other slots in their schedule. In fact, there is no reason that a presidential debate shouldn’t go on for many hours, with answers as long as they need to be, until all facades drop away and the viewers know anything they might want to learn about the candidates and their positions. But that would not serve the interests—the lies—of the corporate state.
Another example of an overly formatted media enterprise, cleverly contrived to perpetuate the invisible hegemonic ideology of post-industrial hyper-capitalism, is TED—TED talks and TED conferences, plus whatever else TED may be doing right now. The typical 10 - 15 minute TED talk has a particular rhythm and structure, much like the rhythm of marketing copy or advertising. The individual generally presents themselves masterfully, with little quavers of humor and humility at exactly the right points in their discourse (usually trained by a speech coach who specializes in such things). They focus on one isolated problem in the world, such as plastics in the ocean or the failure of marriage to satisfy people over the long term. They convey the sense that an answer to this seemingly horrifyingly intractable problem is close at hand, often mediated by some wonderful new technology they just happen to be helping to create. Given this confident short-take, the viewer leaves with the sense that civilization is working as it should, led by heart-centered entrepreneurs and scientists dedicated to making the world a better place.
The hegemonic discourse of final-stage capitalism is steeped in a magico-religious faith in technology as an instrument of human progress. “Progress,” in itself, is not something to be questioned. We are not meant to ask: What kind of progress are we actually making? And at what cost to this world we share with such varied types of fragile living beings?
Power, media reach, and wealth come to those who effectively parrot the corporate globalization technocracy agenda, who make this monological ideal of corporate / entrepreneurial progress that is turning the world into one sterile monoculture still seem somehow cool, which means rebellious and “disruptive.” Two perfect functionaries, feckless promoters of this planet-annihilating hegemonic system, are Jason Silva and Peter Diamandis. If Diamandis and Silva didn’t exist, it would be necessary for techno-capitalism to invent them—but of course, there are always smart, charismatic people ready to step into such positions, with all of the perks they inevitably bring (such as sponsorship and speaking opportunities at corporate galas that reap huge fees for something buzzy and brief).
I won’t go into Silva here—known for his breathless, hyper-active videos that collage together ideas grabbed from philosophers and psychedelic authors at high speed—but will focus, instead, on Diamandis. The titles of his books pretty much say it all. He has coauthored a trilogy on “Exponential Technologies”: Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think; Bold: How to Go Big, Create the Wealth and Impact the World; and The Future Is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies Are Transforming Business, Industries, and Our Lives.
As an example of “converging technologies,” the near-future prospect of robot soldiers and police used to suppress dissent and enforce things like mandated vaccines is chilling to contemplate.
Diamandis has mastered all of the tricks from Neurolinguistic Programming and lifestyle gurus like Tony Robbins: Always be emphatically, absolutely certain; never hesitate nor stop boosting your relentlessly self-promoting agenda. His books hard-sell entrepreneurial capitalism, technocratic control, and corporate globalization with a religious zeal. Here is a typical sample from The Future is Faster Than You Think:
There is little doubt that the decade to come will be filled with radical breakthroughs and world-changing surprises. .. Every major industry on our planet is about to be completely reimagined. For entrepreneurs, for innovators, for leaders, for anyone sufficiently nimble and adventurous, the opportunities will be incredible. It will be both a future that’s faster than you think and arguably the greatest display of imagination rendered visible the world has yet seen. Welcome to an era of extraordinary.
That technologically driven, entrepreneurial capitalism is inevitably a force for good is an article of faith for Diamandis and other pundits like him. The promise hides an obvious threat: Boosters of hyper-capitalism incite fear that if you aren’t “sufficiently nimble and adventurous” — if don’t whole-heartedly get on board their program of disruption (Crypto, nano-gadgets, AI, and so on) — you will be deservedly trampled upon, squashed underfoot. This is a subtle form of bullying. Diamandis writes:
Every time a technology goes exponential, we find an internet-sized opportunity tucked inside. Think about the internet itself. While it seemingly decimated industries—music, media, retail, travel, and taxis—a study by McKinsey Global Research found the net created 2.6 new jobs for each one it extinguished. Over the next decade, we’ll see these kinds of opportunities arise in dozens of industries. As a result, if the internet is our benchmark, more wealth could be created over the next ten years than was over the previous century. Entrepreneurs—including, thankfully, environmentally and socially conscious entrepreneurs—have never had it so good.
Whatever McKinsey says in their similarly self-serving report written to gain corporate contracts, it should be obvious to everyone, at this point, that, due to advances in both information technology and automation, jobs — many millions of them — are, in fact, disappearing rapidly.
Whatever Diamandis considers “wealth” to be, at some level, our capacity to own, build, and do things must connect to the health of our physical environment. We might have millions of entrepreneurs each possessing many billion dollars of financial wealth stored online in banks and cryptocurrency exchanges. But once the forests are gone, the oceans are empty acidic voids, and the planet is dead, that financial wealth won’t mean much. Of course, for hyper-capitalists like Diamandis, the climate emergency is just another wealth-generating opportunity for those who create “disruptive,” gadget-y, techno-futuristic solutions.
Unfortunately, ecosystems are not made out of software.
Once you have lost a rainforest that took many millions of years to evolve, you probably aren’t going to be able to put it back together, even with the latest robot drones, augmented-reality iPhone apps, and AI-powered nanobots. As Paul Cudenec writes in The Anarchist Revelation:
A critical mass of society still pretends that there is no actual proof there is any real problem, still believes that things can go on the way that they are forever, that a shiny sci-fi future is still just round the corner if we keep to the prescribed path of progress. It is happy to regard environmentalists as nothing but cranky killjoys — as if there were any joy involved in slowly choking to death in a puddle of toxic waste on a barren, polluted world in which our daily existence amounts to nothing but an empty attempt to hide away from that unbearable reality by surrounding ourselves with the phony comforts churned out by the machineries that have stolen from us everything good that we ever had.
In Diamandis’ drearily dystopian futurist “utopia,” instead of rainforests and intact indigenous communities, we get continuous monitoring and control, down to the cellular level and perhaps beneath it:
We’re moving from the world of the microscopic to the world of the nanoscopic. This has already led to a wave of smart clothing, jewelry, and glasses… Soon, these sensors will migrate inside the body. Take smart dust, a dust mote–sized system that can sense, store, and transmit data. Today, a “mote” of smart dust is the size of an apple seed. Tomorrow, nanoscale motes will float through our bloodstream, collecting data, exploring one of the last great terra incognita—the interior of the human body.
Diamandis can’t get over his breathless excitement at what’s coming: “Within a decade, we will live in a world where just about anything that can be measured will be measured, constantly. It’s a world of exceptionally radical transparency.”
One question someone might ask is: Once everything is measured, monitored, under continuous surveillance, antiseptically controlled, what then? I suppose the answer could only be:
We will live forever in hyper-mediated germ-free comfort-bubbles — at least until we can plug our consciousness directly into the Internet and fuse with AI, when, like larva metamorphosing into tiny angelic fruit flies, we escape biological constraints to enter a digitally simulacra of a hyper-policed, corporate-controlled heaven.
Let’s assume that we don’t go extinct over the next decades, but somehow quite a few of us limp through the imminent ecological catastrophe. How, then, do we avoid the technocratic nightmare of a technocratic trans-humanist future on a sterile wasteland (being sold to us by boosters like Silva and Diamandis, elaborated in Klaus Schwab’s Great Reset)? Can we do better than the Anarcho-Primitivist model (found in writers like Darren Allen and John Zerzan as well as the Dark Mountain Manifesto written by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hind) of total collapse and regression back to small scale communities using archaic technologies? If a sensible alternative can be imagined and defined, perhaps it is possible to realize it.
In future essays in this series, I will explore the contemporary “consciousness movement,” (yoga, meditation, shamanism, various forms of New Age-ism) which has lost its way. Distorted by the dictates of entrepreneurial capitalism and hegemonic neoliberalism, the consciousness movement promotes a consumer-friendly form of hyper-individualism as “spirituality.” The individual can find inner peace (through meditation, psychedelic therapy), and worldly success (by accessing psychic resources via “The Secret” or the “Law of Manifestation”). The movement lacks for a realistic theory of change or any approach to collective transformation that is not irritatingly vague and self-congratulatory (A kind of “Ascension Lite”).
Still, the consciousness movement is a significant phenomenon. Many millions of people no longer adhere to the scientific materialist worldview. This growing community actively seeks a new understanding and a better system of values. As we will discuss, recent scientific discoveries and philosophical insights into the nature of consciousness and the nature of reality could have profound social and political implications. Taken seriously, they give us tools for charting an alternative path to a meaningful future.
I hope so, anyway!
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The distinction between first nature and second nature comes from social ecologist Murray Bookchin.