This is part two of an essay on René Girard’s influence on Peter Thiel. Part one ran last week and you can read it here.
In my previous post, I examined social theorist René Girard’s influence on tech investor Peter Thiel. Previous observers have picked up on Thiel’s remark that Girard’s mimetic theory helped him identify the promise of social media, but they have left out a crucial dimension of Girard’s thought: mimetic violence, also a central preoccupation for Thiel. In what follows, I will make the case that Thiel invested in and promoted Facebook not simply because Girard’s theories led him to foresee the future profitability of the company, but because he saw social media as a mechanism for the containment and channeling of mimetic violence in the face of an ineffectual state. Facebook, then, was not simply a prescient and well-rewarded investment for Thiel, but a political act closely connected to other well-known actions, from founding the national security-oriented startup Palantir Technologies to suing Gawker and supporting Trump.
During the week of July 12, 2004, a group of scholars gathered at Stanford University, as one participant reported, “to discuss current affairs in a leisurely way with [Stanford emeritus professor] René Girard.” The proceedings were later published as the book Politics and Apocalypse. At first glance, the symposium resembled many others held at American universities in the early 2000s: the talks proceeded from the premise that “the events of Sept. 11, 2001 demand a reexamination of the foundations of modern politics.” The speakers enlisted various theoretical perspectives to facilitate that reexamination, with a focus on how the religious concept of apocalypse might illuminate the secular crisis of the post-9/11 world.
As one examines the list of participants, one name stands out: Peter Thiel, not, like the rest, a university professor, but (at the time) the President of Clarium Capital. In 2011, the New Yorkercalled Thiel “the world’s most successful technology investor”; he has also been described, admiringly, as a “philosopher-CEO.” More recently, Thiel has been at the center of a media firestorm for his role in bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, which outed Thiel as gay in 2007 and whose journalists he has described as “terrorists.” He has also garnered some headlines for standing as a delegate for Donald Trump, whose strongman populism seems an odd fit for Thiel’s highbrow libertarianism; he recently reinforced his support for Trump with a speech at the Republican National Convention. Both episodes reflect Thiel’s longstanding conviction that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs should use their wealth to exercise power and reshape society. But to what ends? Thiel’s participation in the 2004 Stanford symposium offers some clues. more...
With the Republican National Convention still freshly branded into our brains and the Democratic National Convention beginning to stagger into the media cycle, now is a good time to learn a few things about spectacles. If nominating conventions are anything, they are spectacles. For this we should turn to no one less than Guy Debord and his classic text The Society of the Spectacle.
Debord uses “spectacle” to describe “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.“ It is important to remember that spectacle can mean a visually rich event or something that you wear over your eyes to change your vision. The society of the spectacle shifts between both: media-saturated events support the creation of lenses with which to see the world. The propaganda of political rallies is not washed away by the balloon drop: it sticks with you long afterward. Throughout The Society of the Spectacle Debord makes reference to real and natural worlds but do not mistake such a distinction for a (digital) dualist conception of the world. more...
Redlining refers to the racist policy and/or practice of denying services to people of color. The term was coined in the 1960s by sociologist John McKnight and referred to literal red lines overlaid on city maps that designated “secure” versus “insecure” investment regions, distributed largely along racial faults such that banks became disproportionately unwilling to invest in minority communities. In turn, realtors showed different, more desirable properties to White clients than those they showed to clients of color, thereby reinforcing segregation and doing so in a way that perpetuated White advantage. Redlining was outlawed in the 1970s but its direct effects were intergenerational and versions of redlining continue to persist.
The ad is a fantastic invention. It has the uncanny ability to transform use value into a kind of crude exchange value. The useful or fun thing draws attention and that attention is then monetized by offering people with money the chance to put a message in front of some eyeballs. It is an exceptionally elegant solution to something that Karl Marx predicted would be a near-insolvable problem for capitalists: finding new frontiers to privatize and profit off of. Back in 2006 the Economist went so far as to proclaim that the Internet was “The Ultimate Marketing Machine.” Not only can it serve up more eyeballs than any newspaper or gridlocked highway, it provides tools to let the advertiser know if the ad was noticed. This innovation has provided a solid revenue source for everything from brand new things like social networking to very old institutions like journalism. If you invented a thing, but have no idea how to turn it into a living, the quickest and easiest way to start earning money is to slap an ad on the thing.
Maybe that’s a little flippant. Ads aren’t necessarily easy to do right. You can break or severely hobble a great new thing if you keep interrupting a person’s interaction with it. The best TV show will suck if it is punctuated by commercials every thirty seconds. You have to strike a balance and that balance is hard to find now that lots and lots of people have gotten a taste of ad-free living. And of course people have different tolerance levels. I have a hard time writing without music in the background but I absolutely cannot abide lyrics or words because I’ll actually start writing them down. So while lots of my friends put up with the free version of Spotify I have always paid for the premium version. An ad-supported Spotify would be useless to me.
Pay for the product yourself, or let advertising do its magic have been our only two choices for a long time even before the Great Magical Eyeball Corralling Device expanded the boundaries of capitalist accumulation to the most intimate moments of construction and performance of self. “Media has always compromised user experience for advertising,” writes The Verge’s Nilay Patel, “that’s why magazine stories are abruptly continued on page 96, and why 30-minute sitcoms are really just 22 minutes long.” Patel warns that anyone smaller than the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Google will become collateral damage in an all-out war to undercut each-other’s revenue streams and grow their own. “It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.”
This is largely true, although “always” and “bloodbath” are exceedingly strong words. The Society Pages (that’s us) and The New Inquiry do not advertise on their sites. Jacobin advertises minimally and most of their advertisers are other magazines and book publishers. Wikipedia also seems to fly in the face of this narrative. It is not radical, in fact it is distinctly plausible in the here and now, to produce content with little-to-no advertising. Striking a balance between making something and making that something profitable is an issue of organizational mission, not technical ability. It is at once a design choice and a political decision. That is what I was getting at when I tweeted this last week:
David Graeber has republished his popular essay Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit in his new book Utopia of Rules with some small changes that go toward supporting the book’s over-all argument that the hallmark of American neoliberalism is not dynamism and a freeing up of individuals to peruse “creative class” jobs but rather a bureaucratization of every aspect of life. This total bureaucratization (almost literally) papers over the structural violence that supports capitalism. Of Flying Cars specifically argues that the utter failure to deliver on the implicit promises of Jetsons-level automation by the 21st century is not necessarily a matter of market forces (no one actually wants a flying car!) or technical impossibility (Moore’s law hasn’t delivered thinking computers yet!) but is in fact a product of both squashing the imagination through bureaucratic devices, and the immense devaluing of labor and elimination of corporate profit taxation that leads to paltry civilian research and development. In essence, capitalism in its present form, is anathema to the future it once promised.
Graeber states in the beginning of the essay that he is puzzled by the near silence from those people who saw the moon landing on their televisions but today do not, themselves, live on the moon (or can easily teleport there, or take a drug that might extend their life to the time that both of those things are available). “Instead,” he writes, “just about all the authoritative voices—both on the Left and Right—began their reflections from the assumption that a world of technological wonders had, in fact, arrived.”
Graeber relatively quickly drops the issue of how our collective expectations of the future could be so quickly and completely re-aligned (his answer is postmodernism) and goes on to explain why such an alignment has become necessary (capitalism’s secret love of bureaucracy) but I want to dwell on the “how” question a little bit longer by offering up a corollary to Of Flying Cars. The argument that follows is also a reprinting of my own work, an article published in a 2012 issue of the International Journal of Engineering Social Justice in Peace, co-authored with Arizona State University’s Joseph R. Herkert. I want to argue that our expectations for the future are purposefully managed through a circulation of imagined threats to capitalism, the popularizing of narratives that flesh out that threat, and the re-articulation of those imagined threats as real ones that must be met with massive government funding. I will demonstrate this process using a beloved and uniquely American franchise: Die Hard.more...
One of the most dangerous misconceptions about our present political climate is that it is broken. That too many “bad apples” have achieved high-ranking positions and it s their greed and malfeasance that is to blame for rising inequality and state-sanctioned violence. Overcrowded prisons, rapid gentrification, industrial disasters, and predatory banking practices aren’t bugs, they’re features of our current historical moment. Even if CEOs and presidents wanted to end any of these problems tomorrow, they could easily be sued or even jailed for threatening their bottom lines. And while we should never hold critics to the impossible standard of “come up with a better system” it never hurts, from time to time, to play Minecraft with words and come up with some replacements for the current way of doing things. What would a vastly better technological society look like? more...
Net neutrality is back in the news. It’s been a minute, so in case you forgot, some broadband providers want to speed up high traffic services (e.g. Netflix), creating a tiered model of delivery speed. In turn, proponents of net neutrality have lobbied the FCC to classify broadband companies as “common carriers,” requiring that all Internet traffic receive equal treatment (i.e., equal speed of delivery).
In light of overwhelming public support for net neutrality, conflicting with strong lobbies from broadband companies, the FCC is still working towards a solution. Some of this work was leaked last week, revealing a sort of hybrid plan, in which broadband companies could sometimes establish “fast lanes” for service providers, but only when they deem it is “just and reasonable” (whatever “just and reasonable” means).
Romantic love occupies a significant amount of space in both popular culture and, often, the human psyche. It is the muse of artists, musicians, and poets; the downfall of great characters; the impetus for sheer giddy joy, deep comfort, and the sharpest most debilitating pain. Truly, what else matters when you’re in the arms of a lover? What else is of import after a lover breaks your heart? Of course, romantic love, as conceived in the contemporary West, has an end game: marriage and/or life partnership along with the formation of a family.
This has not always been the case, and is not the case everywhere. The notion of romantic love began with knights and ladies of nobility and had nothing to do with marriage, or even sex, while arranged marriages and dowry agreements have little to do with romantic love. That is, the coupling of love with marriage is not compulsory, but culturally constructed as such. And it strikes me, when I think about it, as a bit of an odd couple. more...
Okay, maybe the title is a bit dramatic, but hear me out. Vacation responders, those automatic emails that tell would-be correspondents that you are away from your inbox, are contributing to unrealistic work demands. The vacation responder directly implies that if it is not activated, the response should be prompt. It sets up a false binary wherein we are either working or on vacation. Its easy to tell that the work/vacation split is dubious because these two states of being that are in increasingly short supply. Lots of people are out of work, and those who do have jobs are working longer hours than ever before. Obviously vacation responders aren’t the cause of our economic woes (that can be found here) but they do enforce the worst parts of late capitalism’s work ethics.
We live in a cyborg society. Technology has infiltrated the most fundamental aspects of our lives: social organization, the body, even our self-concepts. This blog chronicles our new, augmented reality.