Monday, February 13, 2012

Two unexpected varieties of synthesis

OWS has been analyzed a lot, recently. I hope to apply to it some fresh ideas, by comparing it to Maker culture (a comparison that has not been made so far as I am aware).

First off, a bit of background. For those not familiar with Marxist theory, a synthesis is the end result of two opposing cultural forces (thesis and antithesis). Each synthesis becomes the thesis or antithesis for some later synthesis. It is this model of a cultural dialectic that led Marx to believe that his conception of communism was inevitable -- something that is demonstrably untrue (his conception of communism has, as of yet, not even been attempted -- though plenty of people and groups apply the term 'Marxist' to their own pet projects). The antithesis Marx was concerned with was the alienated workers: specifically, the working poor who could no longer comprehend nor afford the products of their labor, creeping Taylorism chopping their assigned tasks into smaller and smaller super-specialized subroutines.

In a sense, both OWS and Maker culture are syntheses of worker alienation and capitalism. OWS is the more traditional of the two: a protest movement with a hint of stale Situationism, it is at its core a kind of solidarity-centric replay of medieval acetic movements, and dangerous for the same reasons. Maker culture is arguably more constructive: the old anarcho-punk DIY culture with all the external trappings of political discontent and blood-in-tooth-and-nail stripped away, it is in a sense even more dangerous to the establishment, because while retaining an ostensible capitalist element it promotes the idea of distributing the means of production rather than seizing it.

Both of these are major threats to consumerism -- as opposed to capitalism, which is not necessarily the same thing. Neither of these movements run counter to capitalism per-se. OWS is concerned with money and its distribution, which puts it firmly in line with pseudo-Marxist statist movements of the past and present (such as those leading to the Soviet Union and modern China, those stalwart encouraging symbols of state-central capitalism shrouded in a cloak of pseudo-Communist babble that told the western world that the Marxists aren't so different at all) -- at its most extreme, it is a socialist movement that seeks to juggle the green paper around such that there isn't such an extreme difference between the powers (social, political, and material) in the hands of the exceedingly wealthy (who -- remember -- are now more capable of venturing into outer space than the ESA, and maybe even NASA) and the exceedingly poor (who cannot necessarily feed themselves with the money provided by the government, on account of pricing policies designed to fleece those who cannot afford to travel very far to buy their bread and milk). An evening out of these powers would abolish the middle class as an entity by clumping everyone together in a single middle class, ending consumerism but not conspicuous consumerism (let alone capitalism, which only the obsolescence of money can practically abolish).

On the other hand, the Maker movement is in a sense far more radical. Living within the bubble of consumerism, this movement is focused largely on tools to make tools -- in some cases automatically. The holy grail, even now, is affordable automatic manufacturing of a variety of objects. Currently, the best contenders in this category are minimally affordable, minimally automatic, and minimally various (a 3d printer costs a bit over a thousand dollars, can print enough of a copy of itself to shave five hundred dollars off of a replica of itself for fifty dollars worth of materials provided one is willing to go through quite a bit of assembly and tweaking, and with extensive modification can produce volumetric solids from several varieties of plastics, chocolate, and wax; some attempts at using other materials have met with limited success, but electronics require a totally separate system, and any material that requires subtractive rather than additive forming requires a CNC mill instead). However, progress is certainly being made: a few decades ago, J. Random Luser could not expect to be able to afford a CNC, but now he can keep a CNC and a 3d printer in his garage and operate them on weekends. It will cost him as much as a brand new computer might have cost him in 1990, and he can use that computer he bought in 1990 to control the devices. The threat to consumerism is clear: J. Random Luser does not need to spend money in order to participate in conspicuous consumerism; he certainly doesn't need to shop the commodity market for the external trappings of an identity, now that he can download a car off The Pirate Bay and run it off the printer while he's at work, put it together on weekends as a project with the kids. It's no post-scarcity society, but it's a society where the artificial scarcity of commodities cannot be maintained (just as widespread internet access made the artificial scarcity of media unmaintainable -- though don't tell the RIAA that).

Nevertheless, these are both the result of the white collar alienation described in J. G. Ballard's The Millennium People, not the blue collar alienation of the working poor covered by Marx. The working poor cannot afford a 3d printer. The working poor cannot afford to take time off to camp out in tents in public parks (though the non-working poor -- homeless who are not suitable to be hired and who cannot get government assistance on account of having no permanent address; the people who might have broken shop windows in the 30s to get into jail and join one of the two classes in America with guaranteed food, shelter, and health care -- can indeed afford to join the protesters in their Hoovervilles). What synthesis do we see in the working poor? Certainly not socialist solidarity!

The attempts by the free market to disabuse the working poor of the notion that all those things socialism brought to the European working poor (minimum wage, unionization, health care, government assistance) are evil has been more or less successful in the United States, where (as is attributed to Vincent Price) "the working poor see themselves as temporarily embarrassed potential millionaires". Of course, this tension between True Belief and Stark Reality will not find its synthesis in some kind of sensible policy decision or effective practical application. As with other forms of cognitive dissonance, the appropriate response is a retreat into apocalyptic fantasy: the religious right reigns in the economically downtrodden middle-America just as the religious right reigns in war-torn Afghanistan (both in the Taliban -- the charismatic religious conservatives of the Muslim world -- and in those sent in to fight them... too bad only Neal Stephenson characters and BBC documentary producers appear to realize the similarities). Those with enough opium sink into a haze and ignore the bombs outside.

What's a little shocking is that it seems like nobody (aside from Cory Doctorow, who could be credited with inventing makers instead) predicted either of these.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Neal Stephenson on jump-starting the science myth

TL;DR version: between the lack of technical advances that are immediately obvious to laymen and the new tendency in science fiction toward pessimistic and introspective works, the popular idea of the myth of scientific progress is losing ground to myths of regression and millennial, and we should counter this by writing optimistic scifi and creating big symbolic works.

Edit: and a counterbalance!