Earlier this year I came across a bold and inspiring new challenge called the Nine Dots Prize, which invited submissions to this important question: Are digital technologies making politics impossible? There were 700 entries and I did not win, but I am publishing my essay anyway because I think (hope!) it will matter to you. It is exactly 3,000 words long. I hope you will read and share it. Thanks.
Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?
By John Sobol
“The future is already here. It is just not evenly distributed.”
– William Gibson
Not only are digital technologies making politics – the art of the possible – impossible, they are making the politics of the impossible inevitable. How we as a society, a civilization, a species, come to navigate these emerging impossibilities in the days to come will determine our desperately uncertain future.
The parameters of impossible politics are already being defined by perversions of power, of knowledge and of feeling by the 1% of the 1% who are exploiting digital networks to scale up division, oppression and fear at the expense of the exponentially expanding other, which is all of us.
This essay will explain how and why this is happening, situating the crisis of literate politics within the broader context of the crisis of literate power. And it will begin to trace an oppositional impossible politics, agile, viral and urgent, built for the future but with vital and very necessary roots in the distant past.
For we are living today at the epic conjunction of the three killer communications apps of human history. We are experiencing the unique intersection of the three operating systems of human civilization, the three ages of our human being. A conjunction no humans have ever experienced before, nor will any ever again: We alone are in touch with both the last of our oldest oral ancestors and the first children of our emerging digital future, even as some of us enjoy the fruits of our profoundly literate present.
This is a turning point for our species, as it is for our planet.
To begin at the beginning, language makes everything else possible. Uninstall language and there is nothing left of civilization. No science. No art. No history. No industry. No nothing. Install it and we walk on the moon. We use language to organize and define almost everything we do. It is our most fundamental social tool. Our world is built of words.
Yet words don’t just flit about, telepathically transferred from mind to mind. They are carried by a medium, by one specific communications technology or another. Words must be embedded in a medium if the technology of human language is to work. And so if it is true that our world is made of words – which it is – it is equally true that our world is made of media.
And consequently, when our media changes in a fundamental way, so does our civilization.
There have been three dominant language technologies in human history, three all-enabling media with which we humans have built our worlds. These three language technologies, which I call the Three Operating Systems of Human Civilization, are:
OS1 – the human voice
OS2 – the written word
OS3 – networked data
For most of our history as a species, for thousands of OS1 generations, we were dialogical beings. Our only media was embodied speech, and talking is a two-way technology. To talk is always to be together. Always to be present. Always to acknowledge interrelatedness. Every conversation is also a relationship and a community, an instant and open-ended exchange in the here and now. Which is why OS1 social values and institutions in every oral society are designed to maximize the organizational efficiency of dialogues bound by time and space.
But in the 5,000 or so years since the invention of writing we have become largely monological beings. Our primary medium has become disembodied text, a one-way technology. There is no talking back to a book, a form or a calendar. Although actual and figurative authors may die, for the most part texts remain functionally fixed. Which is why OS2 social values and institutions are designed to maximize the organizational super-efficiency of monologues that transcend time and space.
All OS2 institutions, political, economic, educational and otherwise – all banks, governments, schools, hospitals, power plants, factories, laboratories, law courts and more – are based on information fixed on paper, and on the fundamental conviction that contracts, deeds, ledgers, laws, blueprints, patents, maps, certifications, licenses, passports, constitutions, dollar bills and other official documents must be respected. To fail to respect the integrity of text is a criminal act in OS2 culture.
Our world is built of text, and text rules it.
Yet at the dawn of the datazoic era, OS3 is rapidly rendering us dialogical again. Our emergent media are networked, and you can talk to a network. And it will talk back. Instantly. Constantly. Almost infinitely. Which is why OS3 culture values the remix, the agile, the iterative – and utterly disavows fixity. And why OS3 institutions (networked databases, the LAMP stack, torrents, Tor, ICANN, Instagram, Snapchat, eBay, AirBnB, Google, game mods, memes, mobile apps, APIs, BBM, Kickstarter, Mechanical Turk, etc.) are designed to maximize the organizational hyper-efficiency of dialogues that transcend time and space.
Today our daily lives are experienced as a confusing mashup of the three operating systems of civilization. Sometimes these operating systems conflict in profound or banal ways. Is downloading stealing? Is that a real photograph of Obama’s real birth certificate? Should I accept this friend request from my boss? Making sense of this mashup so we can navigate it effectively requires a clear understanding of its components:
Dialogues bound by time and space
Monologues that transcend time and space
Dialogues that transcend time and space
Our networked future has this in common with our oral past: for each, the essence of every social interaction is instant, endlessly iterative dialogue. Dialogical cultures are all about flow.
And yet we live in the present, where flow and fixity are waging a global war of profound significance. What are the battlegrounds? Who’s winning? And what are we even fighting for?
The battlegrounds are everywhere. Architecture. Education. Art. Commerce. Identity. Economics. Politics. And in each the same fundamental principles are in play. Everywhere fixity is being challenged and usurped by flow.
Take Trump’s utter disregard for facts, for example, which is baffling to those of us who are loyal to OS2 values, in which fixed rather than fluid meanings are prized above all. To literate loyalists, lying about inscribed facts is self-evidently immoral, and it is incomprehensible that Trump’s willingness to say things that are ‘not true’ – i.e. that contradict paper proofs – fails to alienate his followers.
But to Trump’s followers, socialized by the contingent dialogical epistemology of the internet, all knowledge is subjective. You can only fudge facts if you believe facts exist. And to members of OS3-oriented cultures, they don’t.
In OS3 culture, truth is fluid. It can be remixed according to personal whims. In OS3, relationships define truth, not appeals to supra-individual authority, nor even what can ‘supposedly’ be proven to have been said or done in the past by referencing dubious scratches on parchment. In the digital context, knowledge is contextual, iterative, contingent, personalized, and more. It is the uneasy enacting of what was until recently a mostly theoretical post-modernity.
To members of digital culture, The New York Times is no less biased a source of information than a talk radio shock jock. If you trust the shock jock more, then he is right and the New York Times is wrong. He is telling the truth, and the New York Times – aka the biased liberal media – is lying.
This phenomenon of giving more weight to the opinions of people you know as opposed to deferring to the abstract collective authority of experts is a defining characteristic of OS3. In this respect as in so many others digital OS3 values align perfectly with those of oral OS1.
For in oral cultures too fixed facts are absent, because nothing can be written down. In oral cultures too the relationship one has with the source of any statement is the greatest indicator of its veracity. You don’t go running to a book to ‘fact check’ because no books exist.
In oral cultures as in digital cultures reality is always renegotiated in the moment, for there is no fixed record of the past. Truth is merely what a given group of people make of a situation amongst themselves. The truth they come to is the only truth there is. Should they choose to deny a previously accepted version of reality there is no lie, there is simply a collective choice to live a different reality. As the great poet Kenneth Rexroth once wrote: “You think you can force me to have lived the past that you want. You are wrong.”
So what you or I perceive as Trump’s lying is meaningless to his supporters. They have been trained by a distributed network to realign their perception of reality to coincide with the statements of their ‘friend’ (facebook friend, anyway) whom they trust, at the expense of journalists whom they do not, and whose appeals to the authority of objective fact explicitly place them in the camp of the elite, the privileged mainstream, the corrupt upper class.
And they are not entirely wrong in their condemnation. Literate elites have exploited the poor, unlettered people of the world, (especially but by no means exclusively the brown ones), using paper armies to keep them in check. The trans-national corporations, currency traders, patent lawyers, banks, bureaucracies and the rest of the hegemonic OS2 institutions have cheated the system. They have broken their own literate laws, failed to promote an educated literate populace, sucker-punched the electorate with systemic racism and classism, sucking the wealth out of community after community until they are left without the wisdom or moral strength to resist pseudo-saviours like Trump.
Whereas in OS1 cultures that evolved over thousands of generations, the selfish, self-aggrandizing tendencies of individuals like these were mitigated through public and private rituals, through rigorous tests of ability and self-discipline, and through harsh yet fair punishments doled out by the community when social norms were breached. Grandmothers sitting in circle, weaving wisdom, seeking balance, taking the long view. As irrefutable as any textual authority.
Yet in OS3 culture, which has evolved erratically in a mere generation, such mitigating mechanisms do not yet exist. (At least not at the macro-political level. Though if you ask any teenager in high school you can find out how quickly they have developed at the micro-political level.) And so, lacking the means to channel their personal frustrations into collective actions that are mature and purposeful, the disenfranchised, post-literate electorates are instead busy defaulting to an impulsive, infantile irrationalism that threatens us all.
Thus politics has become impossible – in part – because we neither know how to rule nor to be ruled in this networked age. Our digital tools are too powerful and our digital communities too immature. In the era of OS1, the exercise of power was intimate; epistemological and ethical norms evolved in conjunction with political practices – systems of governance and self-governance were rooted in shared traditions, roles and responsibilities. And although the rules of ruling and being ruled were different in the age of OS2, the same can nonetheless be said of citizens (and slaves) of literate states and empires. They possessed a shared understanding of what it was to rule and to be ruled (for better and worse), across the political spectrum, and so politics were possible.
Today, however, because emergent digital technologies and cultures are subverting the ontological and epistemological principles upon which OS2 political practices and systems have historically been built, literate politics have become impossible.
I asked earlier why the war between flow and fixity is being fought. The answer is that it is being fought because OS3 is hyper-efficient and OS2 is not, and everywhere OS3’s hyper-efficiency is rendering OS2 systems, expectations, professions and laws obsolete. Today, just as the super-efficiency of literacy once enabled the slaughter of oralists – pitted roaring tanks against charging horsemen, machine guns against bows and arrows, pipelines against calabashes – so is the hyper-efficiency of OS3 obliterating OS2 systems and values at a zillion teraflops a second.
And yet this great crisis, the fall of OS2, is dwarfed by a far greater crisis still, the ultimate crisis of our age: that of our rapidly accelerating planetary ecocide, and the nightmarish possibility that we may bring about the end of humanity in our lifetime.
We live at the nexus of these twin trajectories, and it is their potent intersection that reveals a viable escape-hatch: the rapid prototyping of an impossibly utopian politics, a renewed social compact to invert the pathological OS3 egotism leading us over the brink, and yielding a scalable and sustainable OS3 cooperativism that may yet save us all.
There can be no other political project of real significance in our time.
Why are we on the brink of killing our world? Because OS2 institutions are deaf to our mother earth’s cries, and so, so are we. Texts have no ears to hear, so neither do the institutions we have built with them. A simple truth, but no less powerful for that. Oralists in every part of the planet know it to be true.
Yes – abstracting, mechanically reproducing and circulating knowledge beyond time and space precipitated extraordinary feats of resource management and made possible the all-consuming administration of our planet. But despite its successes, literate culture was not properly user-tested. OS2 was rolled out too rapidly, and it is now increasingly apparent that it is fundamentally buggy, and that it is accidentally deleting a wide range of species and bio-systems necessary to support human life.
We can now see with certainty that text is not a sustainable technology, and that unless we change course human civilization will crash. And we will crash with it. We may even crash our entire planet. We may take this beautiful earth with us. The awful truth is: OS2 is killing us, and we must upgrade before it is too late.
Except, unfortunately, OS3 is buggy too. Digital culture’s virtualized dialogues will not save us from ourselves. Because disembodied data has further alienated us from the earth. Fooling us into believing that just because our civilization is available 24/7 online, our biological systems will be too.
They may not. In fact, soon they certainly will not, unless we can rapidly develop a functional politics of the impossible.
“We have elected an impossible president.”
– Gloria Steinem @ Women’s March, Washington, 2017
To ask whether digital technologies are making politics impossible is to miss the obvious fact that the impossible is already here. We are already living in an impossible world, ruled by events that cannot be explained by OS2 thinking nor contained by OS2 systems.
Impossibly, some literate systems have gone rogue, uncoupling themselves from fixity and capitalizing on the power of flow, all while imposing austerity and foreclosures and imprisonment and worse in the name of ‘stability’, ‘tradition’ and other conservative values that they themselves have utterly abandoned. For example, in addition to Trump tweeting the new Amerikkka into existence and Brexit’s mutually assured destruction, our global currency markets generate several trillions of dollars daily via millions of automated micro-trades without reference to labour or utility, while the global surveillance apparatus has turned our ubiquitous digital devices into peepholes, a Stasi in every pocket, hard at work data-mining our freedom.
Earlier I asked who is winning the war between fixity and flow. The answer is the NSA, the irrational nationalists and the Mar-a-Lago billionaires. The power-hungry for whom OS2 systems were only ever a means to an end, the hawks and oligarchs lacking any real allegiance to ideals like democracy, truth or freedom, and accurately eyeing OS3 as the land of unfettered opportunity. They are winning. Those who understand that facts are dead and anything is possible.
And the losers are you and I. That is to say people who read and write essays like this one. Literate professionals loyal to literate values. People who believe in truth and constitutions and rights. We are losing, as are the remaining oralists of the world, whose oral languages will die out in our lifetime. 3,000 of them; each also an ancient culture, a once-proud people, a sacred vocabulary. OS2’s final nail in the OS1 coffin.
Yet there may be a way forward. By giving away the present we may save both the past and the future. Young digitalists still have time to hack together new worlds of (im)possibility, to seize and iterate power into new hyper-efficient forms based on radically disruptive and accessible models.
To inspire such a movement, to overcome literate culture’s ecocidal bugginess, the dialogical wisdom of our vanishing oral elders must be ported to the global datasphere where it can inform our networked future before it’s too late. In other words we need a life-saving hack of OS1 and OS3.
Viral, sustainable, post-capitalist killer-apps rapidly prototyped, rolled-out and scaled-up by a globally networked creative class, led by young adults with unmatched coding skills receiving the earth wisdom of our indigenous elders, supported by millions of adults committed to doing whatever it takes to survive together.
It is, in a sense, an impossible project. But the results should we fail to take up this challenge will be more impossible still.
For today we can still choose whether we wish – on our deathbeds – to be kissed by our grandchildren or cursed by them. Whether as parents we will save our children or condemn them to an unimaginable fate. Tomorrow we will no longer have that choice.
Today we can still choose to build bridges between generations; to dance pre-literate steps in post-literate worlds, to carry something from the fire into the fire.
Today we can still choose our impossible future.
Tomorrow, we must begin to achieve it.