Friday, January 31, 2014

Justified self-defense

I was skimming a thread about technology on an infoshop forum. The topic of discussion was whether an anti-tech anarchist had the “right” to destroy someone else’s technology. It seemed to at least one of the discussants that to claim the right to destroy what another has freely chosen runs against the grain of basic anarchist ideals.

Ignoring the fact that “technology” was being tossed around in its limited sense as a synonym for physical mechanisms and contraptions, what was missing in the discussion—from both sides of the debate—was any sort of awareness of how any specific technological device comes about in the first place. The ideals of anarchism—if they were to be given potency in the real world—rule out the possibility of any product of industrial manufacture. In order to get the tech in the first place, other people need to be coerced, tortured, enslaved, brainwashed, threatened, or otherwise “convinced” to offer up their labor and compliance in ways that range from subtly exploitive to heinously cruel. Whether the person playing the role of “end user” freely chose to do so does not somehow erase the massive and myriad acts of oppression that are required for virtually every facet of the technology’s production, developmental history, deployment, and maintenance.

I quickly found myself agreeing with the person who claimed the “right” to destroy existing technology. Even if the technology in question is claimed to be freely chosen by the person using it, it was most certainly not freely created.

But even further, each one of us has the “right” to destroy as a simple matter of self-defense. Anything that affects the commons has the potential to affect both you and me. And, according to the basic ideals of anarchism (or at least according to my own basic anarchist ideals), nobody has a privileged claim to any feature of the world beyond their immediate person. If the technology in question has any negative impact on the natural world (all modern tech does), then it has a potential negative impact on all whose lives depend on the natural world, and to destroy it becomes matter of self-preservation.

Today’s test question is an analogy problem: A logging corporation is to spiking trees as global consumer mass society is to _______.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A too convenient distraction

I was reading this opinion piece about female nudity the other day. The author made a good case that the rules, norms, laws, and memes associated with the exposed female nipple, for instance, reflect a baseline misogyny derived from our male-dominated cultural hierarchy. The underlying (and, in places, explicit) assumption is that the hierarchy needs to be adjusted so that men and women have entirely equal access to resources.

While I agree that equal access is indeed a laudable goal, I disagree that it can be accomplished by “adjustments” to the dominant hierarchy. The existence of hierarchy itself presumes unequal access—no, stronger, hierarchy is unequal access. Hierarchy is the very means by which unequal access is legitimized. It might be theoretically possible to “adjust” the hierarchy such that unequal access is not an automatic feature of gender, or race, or any other demographic variable not under an individual’s control (and this would be a good thing!), but in the end we would still have hierarchy. No amount of adjustment can “fix” the basic reality that civilization depends for its very existence on the intentional asymmetric distribution of resources. In order for global industrial society to function, enormous numbers of individuals need to be kept desperate enough to sell themselves for labor. Treating women and men equally does nothing to change this basic fact.

Imagine a scene in the antebellum south in which slaves in the cane fields are unhappy because it seems obvious to them that the slaves sweating in the kitchen have things a whole lot better. Meanwhile the plantation owner’s wife sips her lemonade on the veranda.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The NSA and symbolic immortality

The US government is building a massive data storage complex in Utah to house all of the data gathered by the NSA and everyone else in the intelligence community, a gargantuan warehouse of personal email and text messages and phone calls and internet activity logs and travel records, along with credit and debit card purchases and utility bills and television viewing habits every other recordable facet of consumer behavior.

The reasons for collecting this information are transparent and have nothing to do with protecting us from terrorism or anything else. It is purely a matter of power. Knowledge is in fact power, and to have a virtually omniscient level of access to every available detail of every individual on the planet is to have the power of a god.

Why aren’t people up in arms? How can we explain the passive acceptance—even tacit support—of the government’s ongoing theft of our personal privacy? Could it be that on some level we want our personal details to be stolen? Does the knowledge that the NSA is watching satisfy some deep histrionic need to have someone—anyone—pay attention to us?

Or, perhaps the permanent storage of our life activities serves as a form of personal symbolic immortality. Sure, I will be dead someday, but the fact that I was here, that I existed, that I did things and was part of things and had ideas and friends and hopes and fears will live on in digital form for all eternity.

Have we traded Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame for 15 megabytes of eternity?