For the antidisestablishmentarian in each of us

So, if the last post was all vitriol and false hope, today I want to focus on options. Specifically, what’s possible today that was unimaginable a century ago?

1. Communes without communal bathrooms.

Look, the real problem with communism is that half of the population are slobs. Yet the appeal of the commune is the community, the group of folks living and work together, making their own culture primary, raising their children in that culture, and generally having a ball with their isolationism. Basically, you figure out who you like and exclude everybody else. This’d be perfect if it weren’t for the fact that somebody’s got to do the dishes, clean the toilets, and take out the trash. In cyberspace, the strictly delineated individual predominates, and it becomes possible to manage your own space while simultaneously belonging to a community. Of course, these are tenuous, fractious, anemic communities: there’s no flesh-and-blood connection, so everything’s a bit removed. But these are communities predicated on solidarities much more basic than the network of relationships based in proximity. Common interests, common beliefs, and common lifestyles can form coalitions and blocs. We’ll never be a social movement, but at least we know where to go to find a sympathetic ear, a provocative conversation, or a good game of chess.

2. We can eavesdrop on our enemies.

Look, we’re not going to get anything done out here in cyberland. But making friends that are worth meeting in real life, making plans that are worth executing in real life, and finding solidarities that would never have grown up in real life are not bad approximations of getting things done. Moreover, the honesty of millions of lonely bloggers means that, more than ever, we can finally get a look into the psyches of our enemies. What’s it like to be a fundamentalist? Check out his livejournal. How about a racist? They’ve got a web ring. Wanna know what makes child molesters tick? They’re anonymous, but they’re out there. What’s the Republican party planning for 2006? Well, if you’ll check out their listserv, you’ll see….

Most progressives don’t like to do this sort of research, because these are not necessarily the most pleasant heads to get inside of. But believe me, conservatives are doing it: they get a vicarious thrill and a sense of superiority out of reading about our tawdry lifestyles and loose mores. What they learn affirms their positions and gives them plenty of ammo, so it’s probably about time for us start playing the same game.

3. Text is good.

If video killed radio, and the internet manages to trump both without losing out to Second Life, The Sims, and World of Warcraft, we could be in for a resurgent literate age. Literacy is the best possible skill: reading and writing are symmetric, anonymous, and linear. Rhetoric loses more often to logic in the written word than anywhere else. Intelligence and wit are victorious, sensibility and tolerance win the day.

Compared to a world ruled by sound-bites, beauty, false controversy, and the advertiser’s “What I tell you thirty times is true,” the world ruled by the printed word is a reasonable, free, and relatively just. Display the words on computer monitors, hyperlink them and gussy them up with some cool fonts, and you just increasr their power.

4. Islam is going to shake things up.

I’m of two minds on Islam, most of the time. The only culture to resist usury remains embroiled in gender roles and dress codes. They don’t drink, but they relate to the written word as if it were carved out by Allah himself. The tradition of divine untranslatability is a bit scary: it means God speaks Arabic. The Christians (with the help of their own Lutheran rebels) talked the Jews into giving up on the whole divine language thing, which is good. If God only talks the way my forefathers did, there’s a tendency towards a false sense of theological entitlement. If God can speak any language, however, what she’s saying can’t be exclusive.

Anyway, the West needs to figure out how to incorporate Islam, and Muslims are increasingly learning how to live with us. We’ve reached a detente with the Chinese, conquered the Japanese, and driven the Southeast Asians into financial ruin. But the Arab diaspora is situated in the middle of everything that’s interesting about the world: the oil, the money, and most of the world’s remaining undeveloped resort spots. Come what may, I want to spend my fiftieth wedding anniversary in Egypt, so it had better be safe and cosmopolitan, and they’d better be taking Visa. What that means is that we’re going to have to be speaking the same language politically and financially. (I’m happy to learn Arabic in my dotage; just don’t make fun of my accent!) And that can’t just be a one-way transfer; we’re going to have to spend some time working on the lingua franca, the esperanto, that will make the interface between Occident and Orient viable.

5. Engineers are this century’s vanguard of the revolution.

I dunno what the killer-app will be, but I read so many cyberpunk novels as a teenager that my faith in technology’s disruptive powers is unshakeable. Somewhere along the line, somebody’s going to develop a killer political app: some combination of social-networking, cheap gizmos, and hipster cachet that busts the political sphere open. All I can say for sure is that it’s not flash-mobs, and it’s not $100 laptops. But maybe it’ll be a pill that turns your epidermis a lovely mocha color and destroys the last vestiges of racism. Maybe it’ll be a matter-printer that allows anybody to turn junk atoms into Versace watches indistinguishable from the originals, which will destroy the still invasive sense of class. High-yield soy bean seeds, nootropics that poor kids can take to learn Latin and calculus, lie detector TiVos that catch candidates in the act, mass-produced bullet-proof underwear to de-weaponize law enforcement (imagine if Diallo had survived: “I told them to stop firing. Thanks to Fruit of the Loom, they’ll be hearing from my lawyer!”), RFID employment credentials so that the US will recognize its immigrant population instead of criminalizing them.

Of course, the list of troubling state-tech that will make us less free is lot less fantastic: GPS cell phones, face recognition, less-than-lethal chemical weaponry (Gay Gas, anyone?), Amber alerts, terrorist gene testing, content-with-the-status-quo drugs, rigged electronic polling booths, subliminal advertising, and superior air power are all already leading us down to primrose path to self-confinement and democratic authoritarianism. All I can say, is: “Where the danger grows, there also lies the saving power.”

2 thoughts on “For the antidisestablishmentarian in each of us”

  1. I sort of agree with Arendt, technology is necessary to decrease prolems of need, of life functions. But whether this solves our political probelms is unclear. It seems like it could make things worse poltically in some ways. What you are talking abot sounds like the conquest of “McWorld” over “Jihad”, but I think that the entire conflict is the end of what’s good in democracy. Once I have a “Star-Trek” replicator that can make whatever I want, maybe that is enough to make me, as one of the masses content and happy like a “pig satisfied”. For me, I’m still with dissatisfied Socrates.

  2. Yeah… the replicator is the least of our worries. Check out Cory Doctorow's short story "Printcrime," for instance.
    (http://craphound.com/000573.html#more)

    But I do tend to think that class and economic disparities play a major role in the current distortion of the political sphere. And it seems that current ascendancy of television and radio over print has led the way to a tremendous amount of bad-argument-making, which you have lately decried.

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