The personal computer: despite its apparent homeyness, an electronic ball and chain. A picture made while I was adjusting the focus on my M2 Leica. Kodak BW400CN, no other data; colorization and posterization by Gimp Image Editor. Photograph by Loren Bliss copyright 2013.
(A conceptual prelude to this essay appeared as my contribution to the comment thread of Truthout's republication of Chris Hedges' “The Sparks of Rebellion,” 30 September 2013.)
PREDICTABLY, NO ONE DARES articulate the three most bitter truths revealed by Edward Snowden's courageous disclosures about the National Security Agency and its total surveillance state. Firstly, Snowden's revelations make it clear the political revolution that was allegedly to have been facilitated by computers and other digital technologies was never more than delusion. Secondly, he has laid bare the fact the United States of America is no longer anything like yesteryear's “sweet land of liberty” – that it is instead the most aggressively merciless empire in human history, potentially as murderous at home as it already is abroad. Thirdly – and this is by far the most painful truth of all – there is no longer any doubt we are now and forever stripped naked by the relentlessly probing electronic fingers of the state. We have been robbed of the privacy that was the wellspring of not just our personal freedom but of all human aspirations, and it is now becoming ever more obvious there is not one fucking thing any or all of us can do to regain what has been stolen from us. It is literally as if we have been conquered by some alien race of super-tyrants from outer space.
Our stunned silence in the face of this self-inflicted and most likely fatal turning-point in our species' evolutionary history – the fact it obliterates any and all possibility for the sorts of individual innovation that has hitherto been our collective salvation – is attributable to the Moron Nation ignorance fostered by the censorship and disinformation necessary to perpetuate capitalism, with capitalism here defined as I always define it – infinite greed elevated to ultimate virtue. Thus we have been conditioned to adopt the self-defeating belief liberty is not an inherent human right protected by law but is merely a privilege awarded only by possession of certain products, specifically computers, cell phones and other devices of information technology.
Now though we are discovering these instruments we were falsely taught were the epitome of liberation are instead the cornerstone devices of the total-surveillance state and are therefore mechanisms of self-enslavement. Our resultant mental paralysis is yet another proof of our cradle-to-grave conditioning in a society cunningly restructured into a global Skinner Box, the notorious rat-race prison beloved of the behavior-modification psychologists whose incipiently fascist theories underly so much of capitalist governance: absolute power and unlimited profit for the One Percent, total subjugation for all the rest of us. Whether we admit it or not – and most of us cannot stand the pain of such honesty -- we are reduced to the terrorized consciousness of laboratory animals for whom certain maneuvers previously brought rewards and an illusion of security but now yield only painful electric shocks.
Meanwhile the absolute refusal of mass media to acknowledge what obtains is merely another example of the obscene selfishness that is capitalism in action. Computer sales alone generated revenue of $85.5 billion in 2011, the last year for which complete data is available, with sales of wireless devices adding another $169.8 billion. The combined totals, $255.3 billion, amount to 15 percent of 2011's retail and wholesale gross domestic product. In other words, our induced compulsion to squander skyrocketing sums of money on our own ever-more-inescapable electronic shackles generates an income vast enough to bribe every paycheck journalist in the nation and yet allow for the unimaginably lavish profits demanded by our One Percent overlords.
Perhaps in part because I am a grandson of Amos R. Bliss, the Canadian engineer who in 1901 invented the automotive dynamo and thereby made possible the motorcar as we know it, I know something about the research and contemplation that precedes creativity whether practical or artistic. I therefore recognize how the bottomless pathos of our now-eternal nakedness is the death of all such effort. From now hence, the omnipresence of the total surveillance state denies us the privacy essential to human initiative and guarantees our ingenuity can be realized only within the vindictively conformist and therefore relentlessly oppressive limits of the corporate hierarchy.
We already know the results. An earlier example was the zomboid stultification of the Medieval schoolmen, imprisoned by doctrines that, on pain of being burned alive, allowed no metaphysical speculation beyond how many angels might occupy the head of a pin. Today we have the corporate and governmental aristocracies similarly straitjacketed by the dogma of ever-expanding profit and thereby denied the measures that might (yet) save our species from extinction and our planet from reduction to a cockroach-infested midden. Tomorrow, thanks to the electronic rapists of the NSA and how they have violated even our contemplative space, we are allowed no creativity whatsoever.
That fictional production-line art factory in which each sweaty member of a minimum-wage workforce uniformed in smocks and berets repetitively applies a single one-color brush-stroke to each canvas as it speeds past on a conveyor belt may be more prophecy than fantasy. Go to school; study art; indenture yourself for life with student loans; don the black beret and white polyester smock of Picasso Products or the blue beret and gray denim smock of Matisse Manufacturing – that or paint yourself an artsy placard saying “will work for food”: it's the new American Dream.
Surely it is no coincidence the U.S. government with all its spies and assassins and surveillance technology and weapons from which there is now no sanctuary anywhere on this planet is the exact duplicate of the all-seeing, endlessly vengeful, infinitely sadistic god of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Republican Party, from its inception the voice of the financial and industrial One Percent, now officially claims the U.S. as a Christian empire, “one nation under god,” which of course means all the enemies of that god – Nature, women, a long litany of “deviants” that includes gays, lesbians, transsexuals, bisexuals, unbelievers, nonconformists and of course writers and artists – are now (or soon will be) enemies of the state. In the previous century, such tyrannies were sometimes overthrown by revolutions, witness the events in Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba. But now, given the eternal invincibility guaranteed the government by its technology, our only hope of liberation is the death-dealing paradox of Mother Nature's apocalyptic rage against the very infrastructures upon which our lives depend.
Nevertheless I still hear many people, and not all of them young, who in their abyssal ignorance of realpolitik fantasize some basement-bound hacker – the modern equivalent of the attic-dwelling anarchist – will cobble together a digital device capable of defeating the machines by which we are oppressed and enslaved. Obviously this is the newest most delusional manifestation of the clinical condition known as magical thinking – believing in something that is simply not possible. To repeat what I noted above, such invention demands privacy, and that is precisely what we are no longer allowed, nor will we ever be allowed such privacy again. It also demands vast sums of capital – the imperial necessity that underlies our staggeringly huge military research budgets – and most of all what it requires is access to supportive technology of a caliber no revolution-minded hacktivist could ever possibly afford. Thus the evil genius of the One Percent in making access to such knowledge and facilities dependent on education so impossibly expensive it is available only to the trust-funded spawn of the corporate aristocracy or to those willing to indenture themselves for life – in either case the ultimate guarantee of political reliability under capitalist governance.
I have argued earlier variants of these points since the personal computer craze began in the late 1970s, when the earliest forms of digital technology were fervently embraced by the nation's (pretend) Left – bourgeois elitists who were too anti-intellectual to comprehend class struggle and too slothful for the hard work of organizing but had enough disposable income to decorate their homes with electro-baubles by Hewlett-Packard, Radio Shack, Apple and a half dozen other manufactures. The owners of these new machines instantly proclaimed possession of a computer an essential demonstration of one's revolutionary zeal. They defined the virtual way as the only true path to “people's revolution” – ironically the very sort of uprising their other activities, such as spiking trees to maim or kill forest workers, proved they secretly but profoundly (and hypocritically) feared. Most of all they sneered whenever I pointed out to them that any medium dependent on public utilities or corporate and government communications networks was only “free” until some bureaucrat or executive felt threatened enough to flip the master-switch and turn it off. And – of course – they haughtily dismissed those of us who did not own computers (typically because we could not afford them), as hopelessly reactionary.
Hence, eerily like the ever-formidable Russian intelligence operatives who recognized a mechanical typewriter can never be hacked, I long ago chose to retain the 1935 Royal Standard I now routinely use for addressing envelopes or filling out forms and as my writing machine during power outages. I likewise kept the 1940s vintage Royal Portable that has accompanied me on various journeys since I was in my late 20s and now lives in semi-retirement under my desk. But my lingering fondness for typewriters was dictated by economics rather than foresight. I had no computer at all until 1999, and that was a used machine given me by a dear friend. Even I – a proud cynic all my adult life – did not recognize the ultimate capitalist scam of disguising electronic shackles as vital personal and household tools and thereby convincing us to build, with our own hard-earned money, the digital slave pens in which we are now inescapably imprisoned.
Now though thanks to Edward Snowden and thanks even more to Audre Lorde, a woman about whom I unfortunately remained in total ignorance until only days ago, I at long last have far better words to describe the ultimate truth of our electronic circumstances. Indeed they are Ms. Lorde's own words, written in 1984 as the title of an essay, and I cannot possibly improve on them: “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.”
LB/13 October 2013