Is the digital swarm now in control?
Or, a few reflections on the Western response to Russia/Ukraine
“The equation of science with technology may unleash power great enough to satisfy a dizzying array of the appetites of all. It may help distinguish a class or faction best positioned to lead or win battles for political control in an environment such as that which technological science creates. What it does not do is deliver what, even under its sway, we see as our highest possible longing. In this sense, it is not the solution to our ultimate problem. It cannot save us.” ~James Poulos, Human Forever
I’m about halfway through Poulos’ latest book, linked above. And I am now going to share a photo of the book and also of our living room from a couple of evenings ago, because by golly it looks so cozy and don’t you wish you were here?
Very good. It is a difficult book to summarize, but it is at least partially about how the medium makes the man… the technological environment we live within affects what we think matters in a human life, how we behave, what we think it means to be a human. The invention of the smartphone Poulos sees as a dividing line more significant than the internet, probably more significant than the printing press.
Whether fifteen or five hundred years hence, everyone born into the cyborg age, the world of smartphones and everything after, will face one consuming, ruling challenge: recovering a robust and common sense of their humanity in an irreducibly plural world swarmed through with digital tech.
The technological environment we live within now is one of constant sensory-overload, always-on, in-your-face digital information. Space for the quiet, thoughtful man has been almost eliminated. You know everything right now and you are expected to react to everything right now.
Poulos again, quoting Jean Baudrilard:
“The info-technological threat is the threat of an eradication of the night, of the precious difference between night and day, by a total illumination of all moments… It’s a good thing we ourselves do not live in real time! What would we be in ‘real’ time? We would be identified at each moment exactly with ourselves. A torment equivalent to that of eternal daylight - a kind of epilepsy of presence, epilepsy of identity. Autism, madness. No more absence from oneself, no more distance from others.
Poulos also talks fairly often about the “swarm”, you saw the word above, that we live now with swarm technologies, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around everything he means when he uses that word. But it comes to mind when I think about, for example, the demands we’ve seen on social media these last couple of weeks for corporations to pull out of Russia (often to exactly zero effect on the Russian government, but at least the people making the demands get to feel good about themselves). Turn the clock back to 1990, and could CNN have fomented such a boycott movement? Perhaps, but it would have taken more time (and just being slower allows time to think), would have had a different character, and could have been more easily critiqued coming from a single source.
By contrast, when the present technologically-assisted swarm foments that kind of corporate pressure… although there are louder bees and quieter bees, ultimately nobody is in charge. It is, just, 100,000 people digitally rubbing on each other, responding to each other faster than any human can really think, and voila the swarm moves in a certain direction. And if you try to say “but this doesn’t even make sense”, by the time the swarm is moving you’re already too late, they can no longer hear you, or would care to.
In the present spacetime, the digital swarm mercilessly effaces the ‘disinterested bystander’ by swamping him or her with a sensory overload of information that forces frenetic imitation, not calm separation. “World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation”, as Marshall McLuhan suggested.
Poulos talks about political leadership trying to program the swarm with its values, which is a different thing than directing it the way a general might direct his troops.
This piece of writing is just a post to notice this behavior and ask the question, without answering it, “what do we do about this?” We do seem to live in a particularly shallow, crazy time. We seem to run from one moral panic straight to the next, or from one mass hysteria straight to the next. (And I said this back in 2020, you know. COVID would “end” when we found something new to obsess about. No decline in case numbers or whatever would suffice, it must be replaced by some new obsession. And so it was.) Moral panics existed before the smartphone, of course, they are not new, but having a national culture that runs from one to the next on a ever-shrinking timescale is new. How do we overcome the negative behaviors our technological environment now encourages? (“Finish Poulos’ book and you’ll know the answer” someone might say… well I’ll let you know in a week or two about that, perhaps.)
So, about the present madness
Maybe I should stop writing right here after having asked the relevant question. But if you continue to read, let me make a few observations about the Western response to Russia/Ukraine. My point here is not to “take sides” or really make much of a comment on the war at all, but rather to notice the swarm phenomenon in our response, and parallel it to the swarm phenomenon in the COVID response. (Although, again, to even try to be a disinterested observer makes you an enemy of the swarm. If you are not 100% with the swarm, you are against the swarm.) In particular:
The groupthink wave
Just like in early-COVID there seems to be a “groupthink wave” phenomenon, where (in this case) various institutions and corporations rush to “cancel Russia” and anything Russian. The behavior is not, in many cases, carefully considered and principled, but rushed out to show that they Care as much as anyone else about the Latest Great Cause. And indeed, it seems that many of the cancellations:
Will have basically no effect on the Russian government and serve only to punish the common people.
Represent the deployment of a big weapon that is going to teach not only Russians, but also many other people around the world that they need to become less dependent on centralized technologies or money controlled by someone else (often, right now, someone in the United States). These people will now diversify their assets/resources and work on creating home-grown and home-controlled solutions… and I tend to favor that decentralization anyway, but it is going to make it difficult to deploy this weapon ever again. Was it worth it?The decision to push almost 3 billion people (Russia, India & China) into trading with each other in currencies other than the dollar, will go down as one of the most short-sighted and self destructive policies in US history. https://t.co/JhUzCDz67Z
Sunderland Global Media @Sunderland_GMBREAKING: Russia's state owned Sberbank is to replace VISA and MasterCard with a new "MIR" card system in partnership with China's Unionpay.By weaponizing the banking system against enemies outside and within, advanced economies are losing their 'risk free' status. This may not change the global currency order for now, but could lead to a wild scramble for gold and other tangible assets.
I didn’t have much left in my Coinbase account anyway, but when I saw news this week of them blocking 25,000 Russian-linked addresses, even I moved some of my remaining funds off exchange and into a private wallet.
Or, this is more of a joke, but you know… (via Sal).
Daily Wire @realDailyWireNetflix, TikTok Suspend Operations In Russia https://t.co/fqdJu7SUPG https://t.co/Hsoh7w3Aaa
All Russians are bad
Many of the same folks who spent two years vilifying “anti-maskers” and then “anti-vaxxers” found a new target in anyone who wasn’t 200% anti-Putin… or in some cases, just anyone who was Russian. And not just on social media… many, too many, examples could be provided, but here are a few:
YES, GO AFTER THE CARDIOLOGISTS, THEY ARE PUTIN’S ACHILLES HEEL. And yet if you read the replies, to the above or below, many people have actually talked themselves into the idea that anything that harms Russian-anything is part of the Great Noble Effort. Or at least that is what they say.
We are a very sane people. How about dead Russian pacifists? They are definitely the problem.
Samuel Moyn 🔭 @samuelmoynTolstoy canceled 🤦♂️ https://t.co/ZXgyWocDMD
I find the above interesting because she did speak against the war, but there is this language about the opera being unable to convince her to denounce Putin. Imagine being an opera singer in New York being asked by your employer to denounce Putin if you want to keep your job. Took about fifteen seconds for the swarm to put loyalty oaths back in style.
Or… and let me tell you, pretty sure it’s not all those Trump voters in NYC leading the ethno-hatred cancel mobs:
McCarthyism was terrible! By the way, are you or have you ever been a Russian citizen? Or maybe you just even have a kind of Russian-sounding name or like Russian food? One can’t be too careful these days.
Syringes down, Ukrainian flags up
Social media profiles that were peppered with emojis of syringes and masks pulled them down and replaced them with Ukrainian flag emojis. (My point here is that the people forming herd #2 are largely the same people who formed herd #1, and what do we make of that?) And again, it wasn’t just a social media phenomenon:
Why it’s just another simple, easily understood problem
The same people who thought that COVID-19 was a simple problem with an easily discerned Team Good (them) and Team Bad (anyone whose opinions differed from their own in any respect whatsoever), spent ten minutes learning about the Russia/Ukraine situation and concluded that it also was simple problem with an easily discerned Team Good (them) and Team Bad (anyone whose opinions differed from their own in any respect whatsoever).
Someone else’s summary
Or, to quote someone else’s observations who noticed some of the same:
Lockdowners are also warmongers.
Men terrified of COVID now want to fight in war.
Covid virtue signals out, Ukrainian flags in.
Toxic masculinity in war is cool, Feminists silent
Westerners prefer defending other nations than own
As with Covid, there is only one acceptable opinion
What do we conclude from all this?
What do we conclude from this, and what do we do about it? Well I’m not sure what we do about it. Let me just share a few thoughts and you may certainly add more in the comments.
One, it’s pretty easy now to understand how a population could be revved up to a point where it would support the confinement of an ethnic population perceived to be insufficiently patriotic. As we also saw during COVID, apparently it takes almost no effort at all to push a good fraction of the population into cheering on all manner of historical evil. And once again, the people who look back at history and say “wow, if I had been there for that terrible moment, I would have stood against the herd!” seem to be the absolute quickest, when that moment does come again, to join the herd. Conclude what you will from that.
It’s not about any principle, it’s about what a good person I am
Two, there are many people out there with very weak attachments to any particular principles who just want you to know that they are Good People. Many of us have been critical, these last two years, of people who proclaimed their devotion to the “principles of public health”. And a lot of that criticism came down to the argument that the principles of public health, at least as applied from 2020-2022, were trash. They represented an obsessive focus on controlling one disease no matter how much harm those control efforts caused to literally everything else that matters in a human life. Well now it sure appears like a lot of that argument was wasted effort because many of those folks were, in truth, a good deal less devoted to the principles of public health, and a good deal more devoted just to signaling that they are The Good People according to the Latest Great Cause. (And that doesn’t mean they don’t also personally believe it internally, mind you. But it would mean that they aren’t in control of their thinking, someone else is.)
On a slightly related note, the following tweet got me thinking a little bit:
You know I am generally a pro-decentralization kind of guy, and one of the positive things you can say about green energy is that it allows for easy decentralization. Solar panels on your roof decentralize power production. After two years of seeing the Left turn in a moment against a long list of things they were supposedly for (or for things they were supposedly against, like ethnic discrimination), I could now even see them turning against green energy if the right circumstances presented themselves and the swarm moved in the right direction - particularly, if decentralized energy production was used to evade state or corporate control. And indeed, we almost saw that in early-COVID - remember California (adopting a tactic straight out of China) threatening to cut off electrical service to churches that kept meeting against state orders? What if one of those churches had said “OK, go ahead, we have our own power production anyway?” I don’t think the herd would have just accepted that, the herd would have demanded that, somehow, the churches be brought to heel.
Hollywood makes us think every moment should be an epic battle
Three, have we all been programmed by Hollywood to desire our lives to be nothing but one epic battle after the next? (Ah, but it is, understood as part of God’s great story, you say! OK, but that epic war the world denies.) We want the glory of heroism without the effort (or the circumstances, or the time commitment) heroism actually requires. Many years ago The Federalist had an article about “Selma envy” which I think made this point. People want whatever today’s media conflict is to be “the civil rights battle of our time!” It usually isn’t, and/or it isn’t that simple. And (see #2), when it is (like maybe the government of Canada is beating peaceful protestors in the streets, say) the people with Selma-envy tend to line up on the wrong side. I thought Slothrop’s little thread below was illustrative.
Same old pattern, don’t raise questions about my perfect goodness
Four, inasmuch as a lot of this is motivated by the desire to feel and signal what a good person I am, a pattern we seem to regularly repeat goes something like this:
Take a complex issue.
Almost immediately frame it as Team Unmitigated Good v. The Bad People.
Signal that you and your corporation are on Team Unmitigated Good.
Shortly thereafter, begin efforts to silence even those just saying “it’s not that simple.”
This is not a new human behavior per-se, but it is certainly one accelerated and amplified by the always-on always-here technological environment. “You must pick a team within five seconds of learning about the topic and you will be burned at the stake if you change your mind” is not helpful.
The fear of being cast out
Five, one reply I got on Twitter as I wondered about this phenomenon… how much does this explain the herd behavior?
THE END. This post is very long already, so I’ll stop now. But I do certainly welcome your thoughts on all of this.