Things are moving so fast now, despite how it may seem as we stare at the pattern on the rug in lockdown, that my usual insightful assessments are buckling under the strain. But now I can read or watch things I might have saved for when there was more time. There's more time now. And a few thinkers really help to make sense of it all.
Arundati Roy's brave and compassionate front-line report in the Financial Times, for instance, from a continent already sinking neck-deep into fascist oligarchy, utterly unprepared for the third Horseman as it gallops through palace and slum alike, tears at the heart.
Bob Pollack gave an inspiring and mind-opening talk on edge.org, in frank perplexity, both as a scientist and as a religious man, at our lack of coherent response, for three decades and more, to the clear signs of biosphere collapse.
"The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" is all of two inches thick. And that's what it takes, in Professor Zuboff's lean and concise prose, to lay out the detailed history, structure and ramifications of a new capitalist economic logic that now dominates the economy, and the "herding" software now widely believed to have swung the 2016 election. I remember the reports that web-bots assembled rallies, complete with counter-protesters, in the real world. The scale of this thing is both invisible and insidious.
And carefully if futilely avoiding, you know, the 800-ton retail gorilla, I went to PM Press for "Birth Strike", in which Jenny Brown makes the case that the whole controversy over Roe v. Wade has been a generations-long distraction. Because motherhood produces future laborers, autonomy for women is de-facto control of the condition and capacity of the labor pool, by the labor pool. This threatens ROI. Hence industry drives constraints on abortion, birth control, speech, organizing and wages. We had assumed these strictures religious, with politicians falling into line as if it were their own idea; but it was t'other way around. The USA is the only country where backers of such policies were at all secretive.
Could the young tech giants that give us all these free "social"-media services really stoop so low as to steal our privacy and use it to influence elections, without our knowledge? But Zuboff leaves nothing to the imagination. Still, who would have thought that turn-of-the-century (our great-grandparents' century-turn) industrialists ever considered trying so deviously to fiddle with the birth rate with the bottom line in view? But Brown reveals that in fact, this has been a massive, ongoing project around the world for more than a century. And who among us in the US ever thinks of India as anything but the peaceful, fragrant land of yoga and curries and George Harrison and Enlightenment? Aren't they the ones who invented enlightenment? But Roy has the poetic gift of taking us directly to the heart of the matter. Finally, doesn't everyone agree that growth measures our collective success? But Pollack points out that humanity has overridden the process of natural selection a hundred-thousands times over. Dominion? We broke it, we bought it. De-facto stewards of Earth "R" us.
All the black-helicopter conspiracy-theories, political talking-points and bot-generated internet memes pale in significance: our technology has become our yoke; our bodies belong to our employers as if we were truly enslaved; the country of Buddha and Daruma and Gandhi has made exalted paragons of Hitler and Mussolini; and evolution itself has been defeated.
Humanity seems to be undergoing something like massive rogue cell-division, and this on the verge of our own extinction. We see those stringy chromosomes polarizing, pulling apart, a membrane forming between them, dividing two organisms. But something is off. The pair is not balanced. As Pollack reluctantly notes, these new cells proliferating with such mindless abandon are not participating or cooperating in the body from which they spring. Something in their DNA has them crowding out necessary, functioning tissues with hungry, expanding neoplasms, corrupting and destroying vital systems. They've gone into business for themselves. The only other life-form that behaves in this manner has a dark and terrible reputation. Eventually it kills the host.
Looking into ourselves from these different angles, in the glare of this big viral mirror that now holds us spellbound, puts things in a new perspective. Choices appear, some false, some malignant, all of them beckoning urgently.
How are we to deal with these mountainous, tectonic-scale issues? Who has a grip, or anything to hold onto? As "social" media sections off our individually-wrapped lives into tranches and bundled derivatives, can we even see anything that isn't refracted, reflected, photoshopped and faked to a fare-thee-well? Your face is mirror-imaged by default in a Zoom video, had you noticed? (Somebody had: there's a setting for that now.)
Most of us have strong opinions about abortion, equality, sustainability and survival. But our opinions may not exactly be our own. What really moves affairs is what we don't even know is invisible. Invisible, because the larger part of language, the unseen and unspoken background we take for granted, gives our words meaning; and invisible, in that real causes lurk where we never look. Mirrors (even metaphoric ones) are good in the latter instance.
To have so many staring into the same one at the same time is unprecedented. In the reflection we are beginning to arrive at a collective understanding that nothing was what it seemed. Our separate world-views are being trued-up, to everybody else's, and to a common shared actualness.
Meanwhile, the balance of power has shifted at a scale commensurate, and maybe correlated, with these big perplexing changes. A lot of very solid-looking institutions are seen to be obsolete. The same is true for a lot of systems we have both relied upon and been oppressed by, and this probably has little to do with the clever machinations of bad actors. It's better explained as the collapse of an unworkable and top-heavy paradigm.
In a new paradigm, power will change hands in surprising ways. No dictator can exist if there is nobody watching, whether in fear, or hoping for a piece of the action. The razor-edged market-segmentation machine bogs down when everyone's gaze is locked on the same microbe. Today the isolation is lifting, and we can see each other, and ourselves, as never before.
This is a new paradigm. None of us gets to be a spectator. We are each thrown up against the same question, of what's really possible. Not to answer quickly, but in our own words, and with each step we take as we make our words real. It's not so important what we look at, as where we look from.