Finding Our Phones Again
by Michael Malloy
Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart […] the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them. — Brian Eno
When we talk about the future today, we envision the valleys and peaks of the modern world in sharp relief. Our flirtation with inadvertent self-extinction through climate collapse brings to some despair, to others a perverse and nihilistic joy. Still others reject in principle that the danger is real. Technology, they remind us, has normalized conceptualizing the impossible. There is no hill we cannot climb. The most breathless praise is reserved for the most outlandish promises, wherein we forgive what is little more than fantasy. It tells us what we believe at a deeper level: that technology will deliver us in spite of ourselves. This defense of techno-optimism seems to promise that somewhere, beyond the realm of human greed, subjectivity, and error, there exists a calm and placid realm, where the hard decisions of living have easy answers. Crossing the borders of this state merely requires the total optimization of human life.
However, this promise may prove to cost more than we can afford. In the 1970s, in certain corners of the world the future seemed close. Socialists around the world fought for and aided national and international efforts as states, in the throes of decolonization, convulsed with deadly struggles. Many found themselves amidst revolutions or mid-climb on a peaceful ascent to power. The tactics, the negotiations, and the compromises needed to position these efforts to achieve lasting success constituted a struggle for the souls of societies. What can we compromise on? Who are our allies? And—who are our enemies. In Chile, Salvador Allende had made many enemies. In three years, a cautious negotiation that was trending towards stability and power crumbled under a brutal coup d’etat.
Along with many others during the coup, including Allende himself, fell the ambitious Project Cybersyn. Economic planning by computer, using real-time inputs to reroute production, seemed to offer a route by which planned economies could outmaneuver both internal and external pressures and secure some kind of stability. And yet, in the decades of terror that followed, neocolonialism and imperialist violence have beaten back their adversaries. There is no stability in this class war.
Where did projects like Cybersyn go? Those pioneering machines were reduced to dust long ago, but the technology for which they served as a testbed did not die along with a democratic Chile—it was used by corporations around the world. Computers could help plan air control traffic patterns, optimize shipping routes, increase productivity. The dream of stability could come true, but for whom? There are no value-neutral technologies. In the hands of the victors of the Cold War, these tools extracted increased productivity, appropriated profit from workers, and minimized labor costs: the essential capitalist imperatives. The collapse of stability for workers in Chile, where nationalized sectors of the economy did not disappear but were instead seized by an autocratic bourgeois, was a microcosm of analogous worldwide collapse. Social programs had come under attack; these were the opening salvos of the neoliberal turn.
Technology has a class character. Every new piece of technology poses a question: Who am I working for? The techno-optimist does not think about this, because technology is the answer itself. In the hands of the bourgeois class, the most efficient technologies will be harnessed to the full extent possible to burn, extract, and destroy. These machines and systems are now fundamentally inscribed into the world. Even amidst collapse, they will be there, continuing to ply their trades for as long as encroaching entropy will allow, dying, and remaining in trace detritus: in the scars they have gouged out of the world, then finally in memory alone, within whatever might still live and remember. There will be geologic strata littered with their traces, somewhere between the mammoths and the future.
Embracing the digital as a component of our lives while asserting its potential to be someday decoupled from capitalism is essential to believing in a future worth living in. What would technology look like in a world that abandoned these mechanics of wanton profit-seeking and senseless consumption? What would a culture of people’s computing look like?
The early days of computing saw many experimental applications of computers that allowed for participatory, communal development, often found at the intersection of existing infrastructure or institutions and digital technology. Joy Rankin, one of the foremost scholars on life in the digital era, studied the example of a Minnesota school district’s introduction of computers to the school system. The “Total Information for Educational Systems” (TIES) project was founded in 1967 by eighteen participating Minnesota school districts in order to fund and provide educational and administrative technology to 130,000 students and their teachers. This system predates the TCP/IP-based Internet we are familiar with today. It was far more primitive, with typewriters connected via telephone to a central mainframe—but, Rankin argues, it birthed “social and creative computing practices that now feature prominently in today’s Internet user experience, including networked gaming, social networking sites, and user-generated content.” What was particularly significant about the TIES system was that, unlike the corporate-controlled informational networks still to come, the system was social in a true face-to-face sense:
The TIES technological network was simultaneously a social network, and the social network was grounded in the participatory politics of the 1960s.The TIES staff organized numerous school visits, meetings, and training sessions to inform and energize their constituents about the potential of their information system. These face-to-face encounters comprised a TIES effort at mobilization. […] [M]eetings among TIES staff and member teachers, administrators, and students continued on a frequent basis over the next five years; this frequency highlighted their value to the TIES organization. — Joy Rankin
The TIES system produced a kind of digital commons, one where “personal computing and networked computing were inseparable,” where the individual role of a computer user was not an isolated experience, nor one “custom-tailored” by some inscrutable overseer algorithm. Instead, it was one defined by a broad network of one’s peers. This lead to the development of a unique culture at TIES: users were “conscious of a shared enthusiasm for computing; they demonstrated a missionary impulse to spread their message; and they mobilized many others to pursue a common cause, culminating in MECC [Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, the statewide successor to TIES].” Community is a rare commodity in any setting, often the first victim of corporate encroachment. The centrality of community to the TIES system—and the socially-funded backing of the state government and school districts—affirmed the inherent value of these networks as learning tools and a communal good. This is underscored by the agreement chartered by the state government and school districts during the consolidation of the MECC, which:
…proclaimed a bill of rights for the users, mandating that ‘the governance of the consortium will be under the control of the users,’ and ‘the needs for services will be defined by the users.’
Contrast this definition of “governance” and “needs for services” with virtually any conception of the services provided by companies like Google or Facebook; as corporations, they are under no such obligations, have no such legal restrictions, and intentionally obfuscate the relationship between users and the structure of these systems. The relationship defined by TIES and MECC is one that reflects material reality: that at every computer there sits a human being, and those people are the essential, salient components of these networks—not the network itself, and especially not the nebulous potential for revenue generation. Rankin goes on to write:
…for these TIES and MECC users, computers no longer loomed as a specter of science fiction […] Large corporations, the US military, and research universities did not have a lock on regulating computer access. Instead, for the participatory Minnesotan computing community, computing became individualized and interactive.
This relationship has since eroded. The loss of personal control over our technology occurs not only at the physical level (as described previously in this column) but also at informational and psychological levels. We operate under the not-unfounded assumption that behind our webcams sits a government agent, that our data is assiduouly vacuumed up by corporate service providers, and that, by and large, we are powerless to stop the processes that are stripping us of our agency online. In the eeriest cases, we see ads derived from things we say out loud, or notice bizarre ‘coincidences’ in suggested content from one site to the next, like echoes of some machine we cannot see or touch, way in the distance.
The process of reclaiming computing is one of taking back these digital spaces. What do we do with them once we control them—or what do we replace them with? Another experiment was undertaken in California’s Bay Area, before the long shadow of Silicon Valley arrived to blight the cities: Community Memory (CM).CM’s first installation, a terminal located in a record store in Berkeley, CA, eventually expanded to multiple locations. The service was intended to provide “strong, free, non-hierarchical channels of communication—whether by computer and modem, pen and ink, telephone, or face-to-face” in order to “reclaim and revitalize our communities.” CM paralleled the social functionality of TIES, where social networks emerged that existed liminally between the physical and digital spheres. Unlike TIES, however, CM had an explicitly “Marxist communalist yearning.” As CM was expanding, however, so too was the World Wide Web, which overtook many such community projects. CM project members described this era, before the collapse of CM, as a period during which
…technology was going to drive us to something with the level of interconnection we have today. But what felt like it was up for grabs was the character of that interconnection. That’s what we were rushing to influence.
Here, we see the distinction between TIES and CM: TIES was built on an existing social infrastructure, funded by a network of school districts and maintained through concerted political effort that engaged a broad number of communities. While CM may have had intentions of a “communalist” approach, its failure is one we have to consider. Technology is not powerful enough to shake the foundations of capital—but community is. The success of these proto-revolutionary projects is not merely a question of the degree of technological advancement of a particular system, but also the ways in which it interacts with the existing structure of life. Without engaging the mass of a community in places where this technology is essential and necessary, such efforts will become a sideshow and will be used or abandoned as a matter of convenience.
Rankin’s focus on “public resources for the common good” is crucial here. This is not an experiment; it is common sense. Examples of implementing technology for the public good have arisen frequently throughout computing history, but have always been formulated around a concrete demand: a rationale that speaks for itself. Let’s turn to that old question: “What is communism?” Lenin’s answer: Soviet power and the electrification of the entire country. Why the focus on electrification? Electricity seems hardly central to the vast economic and sociological background of socialist theory. Yet, as Lenin reported in 1920 in the Report on the Work of the Council of People’s Commissars:
Anyone who has carefully observed life in the countryside, as compared with life in the cities, knows that we have not torn up the roots of capitalism and have not undermined the foundation, the basis, of the internal enemy. The latter depends on small-scale production, and there is only one way of undermining it, namely, to place the economy of the country, including agriculture, on a new technical basis, that of modern large-scale production. Only electricity provides that basis.
Technology has a near-incalculable influence on the landscapes we inhabit; social media transforms the social bedrock, just as it transforms us as individuals. When we consolidate political power in the real world, we must be cognizant of what “new technical basis” we wish to establish. Who shall govern our mediated spaces? What do these technologies do for us? These programs must be expansive, they must be public, and they must be useful and social. In short, they must reflect the lives of those who will use them. Activists, organizers, union reps, revolutionaries—anyone involved in projects that seek to shift the balance of power from tightly held centers of elite power to broad, democratic control know that this process is dependent upon the degree to which that broad audience is engaged with and invested in this new system.
Complacency holds us all in place. I certainly won’t be deleting my social media in protest anytime soon. But these new systems we wish to build must be considerate of the world we live in, and must come from well-developed political structures, not one-off projects or unwieldy, aspirational grand plans. Maybe the shift must begin with anti-trust legislation brought to bear on the tech giants, or maybe a great shakeup of the economy in the next crisis of capitalism will result in a void to be filled. But it will take a massive effort, combining public funding, political energy, on-the-ground organizing, and the harnessing of myriad revolutionary currents to tear down this structure. We will not innovate our way out—that is the lie that got us here in the first place. It’ll take the same kind of work it always takes, that it has always taken. Communities must erupt in an uproar, in outrage. Demands must be made uncompromisingly, and in public. Only by amplifying the voice of the masses can we someday drown out the power of the wealthy.
I named this essay series after a little stock phrase that I have found is useful to deploy in certain situations. “All my friends live in my phone—and so do I!” I’d say. It was shorthand, my way of explaining to people in the real world that I have not only made thousands of acquaintances online, but that I also maintain close, genuine friendships with people whom I have never met. That there is a reasonable justification for why I have let twitter-dot-com purée my brain. I have friends that live inside my phone, and part of me lives in there too. I do not want to lose that, but I know that the social circumstances maintaining this strange kind of cultural order are contingent; they will not last forever.
The end is near for my first and only cell phone. Cracks run like spiderwebs over the back, the metal side bezels are prominently dented, and. intermittently, the camera will cut out after suffering a strange glitch. Before I moved away for college and bought this phone, I memorized phone numbers and made do with pay phones, landlines, and friends’ borrowed devices. I was wildly unencumbered and deeply inconvenienced. My time with this little machine is winding down. Its operating life is nearly expended, and I’ll eventually find myself faced with the tedious and expensive chore of buying a new one. I feel bad about this for two reasons: to start, it is simply a pain in the ass (running to the store, dealing with deeply loathed insurance and service providers, etc.).
But secondly, living in the United States, I am constantly reminded of our rampant and voracious consumerism and its role in catalyzing climate change. I do not want to get a new phone, but my phone, like so many others, is going to be a dead brick in some landfill within the next few years. The wastefulness of planned obsolescence is contributing to worsening the burden of environmental disaster, all for the sake of profiteering by the few. Our culture’s mindless cycles of consumption and obsolescence will eventually be forced into decline, burdened by worsening climate effects. My phone and the millions like it caused this. ‘This‘ is not sustainable. Every phone manufactured, purchased, and discarded takes us one tiny step closer to the edge of a deadly precipice.
This thrill of consumption is a heady high. The world has provided these hits on a remarkably steady basis since the 1970s—always a new gadget around the corner, always a new technological fetish object to ogle. Alex Pareene, writing the The Baffler, gives an astute analysis of the political consequences of these developments, focusing on the manner in which reactionary propagandizing has encouraged “consumption-based standards of freedom.” Consumer goods are not the prize, they are the stick: the stick that holds the prize out in front of us, forever unreachable, and threatens punitive violence to maintain order. This social order, this set of corrosive shared assumptions, carries with it the implicit threat that falling out of step with the world will render you alien to a dynamic and unpredictable social landscape that is always one step ahead, always shifting beneath your feet. This standard of freedom is movable and illusory. We never feel full attainment and satisfaction. We only feel the return of the striving and the strain.
The structures that govern how we interact with these products are changing. The consolidation of social media services, as well as the ever-narrowing freedoms of information under corporate IP laws, will enclose these social spaces and bring an end to these strange worlds. These historical moments and social arrangements will come and go, as all do. But I feel that the dissolution, the melting of all that was thought solid will leave behind a lingering void. It feels like a high-water mark, one that may have already come and gone. Where do we escape to now? I do not think there is anywhere left to escape to. No more room to run around. The frontiers have all been conquered and fenced up.
Cornered in this manner, we can, maybe, make for ourselves a future of confrontations, of meaningful hills to die on—hills worth dying on. These are hopes that I entertain in my most optimistic moments. The things in this world that draw us together are precious by their very nature. It is a cause worth fighting for, I believe, to wrest them from the hands of the powerful who would sooner see the world set to flames than relinquish their strangeholds. They have proven more than content to conduct invasions and slaughter in climate-controlled comfort.
As time and change threaten to erode the communities we have and hold dear, we can either despair and offer ourselves up to the barbarism of the elites, or we can make a stand and defend the right of all people to assert full control over themselves and the conditions of their lives. ♦
Michael Malloy is a student teacher, ecological researcher, and socialist from California’s Central Valley.