We are living a collective illusion known as the civilized world. We feign concern for our horrendous conditions of poverty, socioeconomic inequality, deteriorating public health, and severe environmental degradation (to which climate change is merely one factor), but everything we do belies that distress. These issues comprise the largest risks to the survival of the human species, as well as the most significant amoral atrocities on the planet. Both individually and as a species, our health, safety, and ability to live a decent, dignified life have always been imperiled by these predicaments. Yet, we continue along with complete cognitive dissonance in that the crux of our lives – our jobs, our consumer culture – all contribute to, perpetuate, and exacerbate the unsustainable and morally reprehensible conditions of our existence. But while we are all marginally responsible for the multitude of calamities befalling us, the one group who bears the brunt of the blame for our social and ecological decay is the wealthy.
In his fantastic book The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, Paul N. Edwards forwards a quasi-literary reading of the way power and subjectivity operate in the age of the computer, focusing primarily on the lineage running from the Vannevar Bush’s Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) to the birth of cybernetics and their proliferation during the Macy Conferences to the electronic battlefields of Vietnam, and, finally, to the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative – the “Star Wars” program that propelled the growth of Silicon Valley and its corollary Californian Ideology, as well as the globalization of information technology across the 1990s. For Edwards the collision of massive government subsidies and steering of computer research and the geopolitical imperatives of the Cold War – dressed in the rhetoric of “containment” – produced the metaphoric construct for which the book is titled: the…
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Scott is well aware that much of this story is not entirely new. Big-picture historians such as Jared Diamond have acknowledged that for most people quality of life fell when agriculture replaced hunting and gathering. Yuval Noah Harari’s idiosyncratic, best-selling story-of-everything, Sapiens, describes settled agriculture as “history’s biggest fraud” for the same reasons. Even Adam Smith acknowledged that hunter-gatherers were more egalitarian than settled folk, and saw the state as arising “for the defense of the rich against the poor.” Highlighting the state’s role in ruling-class exploitation is central to the Marxian tradition of writing history, in which ancient slave societies serve as an early example of the extraction of surplus labor.
Part of what makes Scott’s story novel is the central and esteemed place he gives the barbarians. The infrastructure-building, law-codifying, biopolitical states of antiquity are not the starting points of universal history for Scott, as they were for both Marx and liberal historians. They are instead a kind of usurpation of a longer and quite possibly richer human practice of mobility and freedom. Here, too, Scott is echoing strands of a long tradition: The Roman historian Tacitus suggested that German barbarians were more virtuous than settled Romans; Anglo-Americans often traced their democratic identity to the “Anglo-Saxon” liberty of the forest rather than the cities of the Mediterranean; and today both paleo diets and the popularity of the bearded, nomadic wildlings on Game of Thrones suggest a hankering for rude barbarian health and liberty
“Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old-growth forest, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases stalking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine that it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can affect real change, that our civilization, our governments are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead and that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness… then what are we to do?”
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