David Golumbia, buzzkiller

I’m excited about all the new forms of politics, art and mischief that participatory technoculture seems to promise. I can get genuinely pumped-up about Kurzweilian “singularities,” the Planetary Society and the Long Now Foundation. Sometimes I actually think things could be turning around for humanity.

Of course, there’s plenty of reason for pessimism. Even the most fundamental threats to our existence as a species go unchallenged. Still, I like to hold out hope that we’ll come up with ways to deal with the converging crises that confront us. I’m willing to run with the idea that the incredible affordances of the Internet and ubiquitous computing, while they are undeniably the fruits of a neoliberal elite hell-bent on solidifying their grip on the mechanisms of power through whatever means necessary, actually will have an empowering and emancipatory and ultimately positive effect, an emergent effect with assymmetric consequences unanticipated by the forces of Capital — a kind of upbeat blowback…

To uberpessimist David Golumbia, such thinking is wrong on two counts: first, the world is fucked, full stop. There’s no hope, just pack it in and roll over. Capital will inexorably leverage the immense communication and participation potential of the Internet and social media to its own advantage, using that power organize, mobilize and enslave. Eventually we’ll all end up with chips in our brains, consuming the products of the cannibalistic corporations to which we have subsumed our souls. We as critics must identify this problem and write about it — for which we will score points in the afterlife.

Second, trying to do anything about it will only make it worse. Golumbia might argue that even just calling the Internet the Internet reveals the depth of one’s imbrication in the “feeling and fact of mastery” that technology provides. Put another way, computationalism does not belong to us; rather, we belong to it. Any enthusiasm about technology’s promise is self-deceived nonsense that only serves to strengthen the hand of capitalism:

Among the oddest but most telling of the cultural changes accompanying the computer revolution is the one that emerges out of the late I960s social movements, in which a significant segment of youthful intelligentsia embraced the computer as a revolutionary technology that might transform the world along some of the same lines suggested by the counterculture in general (see Turner 2006 for an especially pointed history). In retrospect we can see that this has to be one of the most successful instances of co-optation in the history of social movements; for despite their appearance of transformative power, it is the ability of the computer to expand the feeling and fact of mastery that is most compelling about it. Much like their extended experiments with the profoundly capitalist medium of rock music and profoundly self-gratifying mind-altering substances-visible especially as the supposedly cognitively liberating psychedelic substances gave way to destructive and strongly isolating substances like alcohol, cocaine, and heroin-the counterculture was unable to escape the capitalist and hierarchical strand of dominant American culture it thought itself to be resisting. In the end, this revolution became about exactly the individualistic power it said it was resisting, in no small part via the embracing of a technology that wears its individualist expansionism on its sleeve. (153)

This text is super-depressing and seems to leave no room for optimism about a future that, like it or not, is going to have a lot to do with computational systems and network culture. While Golumbia does a good job of dishing out some straight talk about the horrific mobility and insidious reach of “individualist expansionism” and the vectors along which the computationalist worldview transmits itself, something really important seems to be missing here. Maybe it’s just that Golumbia’s overall vision seems a little angsty-adolescent. I mean, the world is a fucking mess, yes, absolutely — but come on, David, don’t give up!