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Two-and-a-half minutes to midnight

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The other day the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic presentation of how close we are to the end of humanity, was forwarded by half a minute. The immediate reason was the election of the Trumpinator, in view of his stated policy intentions to stop fighting climate change and escalate nuclear armament.

Once H. sapiens has gone extinct, no one will be left to shed a tear for its demise. Sad. But a worse future is possible – and, in my opinion, more likely – in which humankind does not end but the living envy the dead. Call it Gloomsday. Technological progress in automated surveillance with control in the hands of the powers that rule the world bring the ultimate Big Brother society closer and closer, day by day. If we allow this to go on unchecked, the day will come when indeed resistance is futile – don’t even think of resisting because the deep networks that watch your every move will detect your tendency to defiance before you are even aware of it yourself. And in that respect we may be even closer to midnight. The window of respite may close in one or two decades. Martin Luther King spoke of “the fierce urgency of now”, but sometimes I think its fierceness masks the urgency of tomorrow, which may be even stronger even if not felt as fiercely.

Resisting now is important and necessary, but it is not enough. As long as power remains in the hands of a few who want to cling to power, all gains made in the struggle for a better world will remain contested and can be undone by these powerful interests in a moment of weakness of the movement. And the power disparity is only growing. That is why I believe we urgently need an intenational mass movement whose program goes beyond defensive or reformist demands. Technology can also benefit us all; if brought under democratic control, a world is within reach in which no one has to be needy.

Discussion 22 Comments

  • reader 29th Jan 2017

    I was reminded of a snippet from one of the many Conversations with Slavoj Zizek on youtube, this one titled "I don't care about surveillance." Zizek makes an argument that only Zizek can make about caring about surveillance and privacy.

    The creators of Doomsday Clock have a point in raising awareness about the probable consequences of not taking better care of each other ourselves and the planet. But I question the use of difficult emotions like panic and despair, to make their point about misuses of power (political or nuclear). At least on this side of the Atlantic it seems that a lot of trouble has come from capitalizing on long-standing grievances to stoke up emotional reasoning about a problem that is always presented as an imminent threat. A lot of people, who would probably be embarrassed or affronted to be cited by me here, have written about this already.

    With that said, before Doomsday or even Gloomsday (which will be a very sad day for anyone left to feel sad) I think it good to be mindful of Bloomsday, whenever that will be. The tulips sure keep the world guessing, don't they?

    • Lambert Meertens 29th Jan 2017

      For fans of James Joyce, Bloomsday is celebrated on 16 June.

      I wonder if Žižek would be equally carefree about surveillance if any sign of dissidence, also in making private notes like a diary, was certain to get you branded as a terrorist, tortured, and (if not executed) condemned to a life of hard labour.

      The things we should be most worried about are threats that are not imminent but play out over decades.

    • reader 1st Feb 2017

      Maybe not. But I think Žižek is making a point about how to handle the surveilling gaze, to consider what sort of person you become in response to the eye of Mordor. It sounds like he's saying that his approach is to treat the gaze as that of an errant pupil, one whose attention strays away from the class debate on endoplasmic reticula and toward a scathing internal critique of the teacher's fashion choice, which again fails to meet expectations. A teacher is always under the surveillance of their students, who perhaps aren't as far along in their lessons, or haven't yet acquired the conceptual tools to make sound interpretations of facts (knowledge being not just the acquisition of facts or "information" but the practice of interpreting them in functional ways), or haven't yet refined the use of these tools for thinking.

      It doesn't sound like the Dalai Lama is very worried about the situation.

    • Lambert Meertens 1st Feb 2017

      I do not know what the Dalai Lama said about it, but according to Tsering Woeser, the author of Tibet on Fire, the Chinese authorities have covered every inch of Tibet by an “Orwellian surveillance system”, transforming Tibet into “an open-air prison patrolled by omnipresent armed military police, armored personnel carriers, and surveillance cameras”. Even so, this does not yet cover what people say in the privacy of their own homes. That will be the next step.

    • reader 3rd Feb 2017

      Yes, this is a dire situation to think seriously about. And people all over the world are awake to Tibet's suffering, and working to make redress, on a person-to-person level.

      In a way, a person is always listening in on what he or she says in the privacy of their own mind or soul. Perhaps it's hegemonized or accommodationist but to me that sort of observation is more important than some security agency or other watching me pass gas or pick at my scalp, and running that through a behavioral analysis template.

      Good weekend All, Perry

  • Bat Chainpuller 29th Jan 2017

  • Bat Chainpuller 29th Jan 2017

  • Bat Chainpuller 29th Jan 2017

    "...I believe we urgently need an intenational mass movement whose program goes beyond defensive or reformist demands."

    I guess that's the hard part...not the believing bit, on behalf of the choir, but coming up with a program that goes beyond and is believable by enough people. What is it, what would it entail and would it contain anything reformist as a means to things beyond...and do people need a clear destination, at least a believable and working one to jump on board? What would that be considering the degree of cynicism and lack of trust people have towards those peddling shit...to get beyond the thought that it is all snake oil?

    Doomsday, gloomsday, bloomsday...shit Paul Street writes an essay, citing Klein's latest "important work", a book with mainly a reformist program and a smiling happy face at the end of a publicity video accompaniment (I suppose you gotta do that when you have a young kid!), suggesting we only have at best about nine years to get shit a rolling. The Climate Movement's Victory Plan, reformist in nature really, says, zero net emissions by 2025! Odds anyone? Does one "believe" all this stuff? Do I just ignore the Doomsday Clock and take a bit by bit attitude towards struggle...that it is always just about the struggle...over here, over there...again and again and again? That mass movements are fantasies but struggles are not...that a united movement denies what the nature of struggle is about...or something like that.

    I don't need no clock to be depressed or anxious or cynical. I just read books...Guy Standing is enough along with ALL the rest. Exponential growth in computer power that can be of benefit if real significant change occurs(which implies things are on the up anyway) but we are back to time again...how long...is it ten years, twenty, fifty or is it who gives a fuck, we just struggle onward into the unknown hoping that somehow the right society or diverse societies, some vague pluralist notion of diverse lifestyles and communities) will manifest out of the "good and right" improvisation...

    Nothing makes much sense to me anymore...the inability to come together and communicate in a way that glues and grows movement in some sane direction is no more likely today than it has always been...debates about visions and strategies over there, over here, haven't created anything of any momentum at all, at least to me, and the ability to "win" (and yes, "we" even debate the use of the word "win" and "we") over those outside the choir but near by, let alone some distance away, isn't any better.

    So where is this "Bloomsday"? What is it other than some hope or dream everybody has, a positive smiley attitude must be maintained at all times - except if you write an "important" book - that most realise they have to tuck away very quickly in order to survive and get on?

    I don't need clocks, I just read books and the odd essay and the anxiety, panic and depression grows. I'm a cantankerous, mouthy, ennui-filled, sarcastic , facetious, cynical dickhead with no solutions, no answers and no ideas...no nothing. All I got is the odd improvisation that sounds like the last improvisation. The odd small struggle over there, there, here and there, doesn't fill me with hope or bloom at all...

    There ya go, more unhelpful depressing gloomy ennui from someone who doesn't feel that just because the sun comes up the next day and it's beautiful means I have to smile...

    • Lambert Meertens 29th Jan 2017

      Quote from Bat Chainpuller:

       "I guess that's the hard part...not the believing bit, on behalf of the choir, but coming up with a program that goes beyond and is believable by enough people."

      I agree it is hard, but not hard in the sense of requiring extraordinary power. It is hard in the sense of requiring a lot of serious work, for which we need perseverance. If IOPS can gain strength, contributing to this should become an important focus.

    • Bat Chainpuller 30th Jan 2017

      Maybe...it depends, I suppose, on what an international mass movement is...maybe it will require extraordinary things to get the changes needed particularly in regard to program that goes beyond...the radical revolutionary movement will have to go beyond what it has before, or so far...but one also has to add to perserverence the phrase "running out of time" surely? I mean that's where the doom and gloom resides, the anxiety...because that's what all the pundits are saying.

  • Peter Lach-Newinsky 30th Jan 2017

    All very true Lambert. Although, looking at previous historical and personal changes, I do sometimes wonder about our leftist over-emphasis or faith in conscious programs and intentions (not that there's anything wrong with that either of course). Just a quote:

    "There is the fact that to a very great extent people do not know what they are doing until they have done it, if then. The extent to which people act with a clear idea of their ends, knowing what effects they are aiming at, is easily exaggerated.

    Most human action is tentative, experimental, directed not by knowledge of what it will lead to but rather by a desire to know what will come of it. Looking back over our actions, or over any stretch of past history, we see something has taken shape as the actions went on which certainly was not present to our minds, or to the mind of any one, when the actions which brought it into existence began." (R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, 1946, p. 42)

    • Bat Chainpuller 31st Jan 2017

      "There is the fact that to a very great extent people do not know what they are doing until they have done it, if then. The extent to which people act with a clear idea of their ends, knowing what effects they are aiming at, is easily exaggerated."

      It's interesting this quote. It's what I do as a musician. I know exactly what this quote means because I play it. I have no concern for form or direction or what the hell is transpiring when I play...what ever happens happens, then post it up somewhere for no-one to listen to... I also often write like that as well...the truth is most of the time people don't like the results.

      The truth is most people do not like free improvised music...they actually cannot stand it...they may appreciate it at some "arty" or intellectual level, but they still think it's shit. And I'm not talking Jazz improvisation here either. That is not free. Nor was even the most outrageous Coltrane, or even Ornette.

  • Peter Lach-Newinsky 30th Jan 2017

    And these thoughts from Rebecca Solnit in 2005 might link in with, and counterpoise, this blog and its commentaries too:

    "The world gets worse. It also gets better. And the future stays dark.

    Nobody knows the consequences of their actions, and history is full of small acts that changed the world in surprising ways. I was one of thousands of activists at the Nevada Test Site in the late 1980s, an important, forgotten history still unfolding out there where the US and UK have exploded more than a thousand nuclear bombs, with disastrous effects on the environment and human health, (and where the Bush Administration would like to resume testing, thereby sabotaging the unratified Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty). We didn't shut down our test site, but our acts inspired the Kazakh poet Olzhas Suleimenov, on February 27, 1989, to read a manifesto instead of poetry on live Kazakh TV -- a manifesto demanding a shutdown of the Soviet nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, and calling a meeting. Five thousand Kazakhs gathered at the Writer's Union the next day and formed a movement to shut down the site. They named themselves the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Movement.

    The Soviet Test Site was indeed shut down. Suleimenov was the catalyst, and though we in Nevada were his inspiration, what gave him his platform was his poetry in a country that loved poets. Perhaps Suleimenov wrote all his poems so that one day he could stand up in front of a TV camera and deliver not a poem but a manifesto. And perhaps Arundhati Roy wrote a ravishing novel that catapulted her to stardom so that when she stood up to oppose dams and destruction of the local for the benefit of the transnational, people would notice. Or perhaps these writers opposed the ravaging of the earth so that poetry too -- poetry in the broadest sense -- would survive in the world.

    American poets became an antiwar movement themselves when Sam Hamill declined an invitation to Laura Bush's "Poetry and the American Voice" symposium shortly after her husband's administration announced their "Shock and Awe" plan, and he circulated his letter of outrage. His e-mail box filled up, he started http://www.poetsagainstthewar.org, to which about 11,000 poets have submitted poems to date. Hamill became a major spokesperson against the war and his website has become an organizing tool for the peace movement.

    Not Left But Forward

    The glum traditional left often seems intent upon finding the cloud around every silver lining. This January, when Governor Ryan of Illinois overturned a hundred and sixty-seven death sentences, there were left-wing commentators who found fault with the details, carped when we should have been pouring champagne over our heads like football champs. And joy is one of our weapons and one of our victories. Non-activists sometimes chide us for being joyous at demonstrations, for having fun while taking on the serious business of the world, but in a time when alienation, isolation, and powerlessness are among our principal afflictions, just being out in the streets en masse is not a demand for victory: it is a victory.

    But there's an increasing gap between this new movement with its capacity for joy and the old figureheads. Their grumpiness is often the grumpiness of perfectionists who hold that anything less than total victory is failure, a premise that makes it easy to give up at the start or to disparage the victories that are possible. This is earth. It will never be heaven. There will always be cruelty, always be violence, always be destruction. There is tremendous devastation now. In the time it takes you to read this, acres of rainforest will vanish, a species will go extinct, women will be raped, men shot, and far too many children will die of easily preventable causes. We cannot eliminate all devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, undermine its source and foundation: these are victories.

    Nearly everyone felt, after September 11, 2001, along with grief and fear, a huge upwelling of idealism, of openness, of a readiness to question and to learn, a sense of being connected and a desire to live our lives for something more, even if it wasn't familiar, safe, or easy. Nothing could have been more threatening to the current administration, and they have done everything they can to repress it.

    But that desire is still out there. It's the force behind a huge new movement we don't even have a name for yet, a movement that's not a left opposed to a right, but perhaps a below against above, little against big, local and decentralized against consolidated. If we could throw out the old definitions, we could recognize where the new alliances lie; and those alliances -- of small farmers, of factory workers, of environmentalists, of the poor, of the indigenous, of the just, of the farseeing -- could be extraordinarily powerful against the forces of corporate profit and institutional violence. Left and right are terms for where the radicals and conservatives sat in the French National Assembly after the French Revolution. We're not in that world anymore, let alone that seating arrangement. We're in one that for all its ruins and poisons and legacies is utterly new. Anti-globalization activists say, "Another world is possible." It is not only possible, it is inevitable; and we need to participate in shaping it.

    I'm hopeful, partly because we don't know what is going to happen in that dark future and we might as well live according to our principles as long as we're here. Hope, the opposite of fear, lets us do that. Imagine the world as a lifeboat: the corporations and the current administration are smashing holes in it as fast (or faster) than the rest of us can bail or patch the leaks. But it's important to take account of the bailers as well as the smashers and to write epics in the present tense rather than elegies in the past tense. That's part of what floats this boat. And if it sinks, we all sink, so why not bail? Why not row? The reckless Bush Administration seems to be generating what US administrations have so long held back: a world in which the old order is shattered and anything is possible.

    Zapatista spokesman Subcommandante Marcos adds, "History written by Power taught us that we had lost.... We did not believe what Power taught us. We skipped class when they taught conformity and idiocy. We failed modernity. We are united by the imagination, by creativity, by tomorrow. In the past we not only met defeat but also found a desire for justice and the dream of being better. We left skepticism hanging from the hook of big capital and discovered that we could believe, that it was worth believing, that we should believe -- in ourselves. Health to you, and don't forget that flowers, like hope, are harvested."

    And they grow in the dark. "I believe," adds Thoreau, "in the forest, and the meadow, and the night in which the corn grows."

    [Rebecca Solnit is the author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (which developed from this piece) and seven other books, including River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, which on the Spurs Award of the Western Writers of America, among others. She lives in San Francisco, of course.]

  • Peter Lach-Newinsky 4th Feb 2017

    Lambert, re the total surveillance fears, maybe we should in addition see the voluntary slavery, the willingness of most people to accept most of this stuff for reasons of purported security and convenience. Also the reductionist scientistic paradigm and gradual man-machine merger powering all this. Here's a bit from Yuval Noah Harari (Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow, 2016):

    “The new technologies of the twenty-first century may thus reverse the humanist revolution, stripping humans of their authority and empowering non-human algorithms instead. […]

    Some people are indeed horrified by this development, but the fact is that millions willingly embrace it. Already today many of us give up our privacy and our individuality, record our every action, conduct our lives online and become hysterical if connection to the net is interrupted even for a few minutes.

    The shifting of authority from humans to algorithms is happening all around us, not as a result of some momentous government decision, but due to a flood of mundane choices.

    The result will not be an Orwellian police state. […] The individual will not be crushed by Big Brother, it will disintegrate from within.

    Today corporations and governments pay homage to my individuality, and promise to provide medicine, education and entertainment customised to my unique needs and wishes. But in order to do so, corporations and governments first need to break me up into biochemical subsystems, monitor these subsystems with ubiquitous sensors and decipher their working with powerful algorithms. In the process, the individual will transpire to be nothing but a religious fantasy.

    Reality will be a mesh of biochemical and electronic algorithms, without clear borders, and without individual hubs.” (pp 344-346)