off the shelf, tanner

December 1, 2020

Buy The Circle of the Snake here (or through your local bookstore).

Finally, you noticed an abrupt intrusion of power. And asked ‘why it laid hands on you.’ Do you know, though, how it could get so close and still surprise?

Falling lock-step into the lineage of Mark Fisher’s explication of ‘capitalist realism,’ Grafton Tanner offers a fresh, lucid critique of political economy implicating Big Tech. The Circle of the Snake examines how technology proper has metastasized through the tissue of our minds and society by its precision coupling with our prevailing neoliberal politico-economic ontology.

There was a time when the chartering of corporate entities required democratic sanction and approval as promoting the general welfare. There was a time when receiving a corporate charter was a privilege granted by the people, and a power that came with responsibility. No longer. Now, the fantasy that unmitigated profiteering is in the best interest of the general good has fully realized its salvific position in our shared capitalist realism. The profit motive removes sins as far as the east is from the west.

The most dangerous powers are the ones which are systematically justified. This is why we must never exhaust critiques of capitalism. Not because of what the system has accomplished—surely has accomplished a great deal—but because of what it has proven it cannot accomplish; because of what we have justified, rationalized on the behalf of other systematic efficiencies. The profit-motive is not sufficient grounds for remedying the ills of society. It has, for certain, remedied some, but there remain at least an equal amount of crises for which it must be held to account. Maybe, there was a time when it was still defensible, but the balance shifts surely in favor of its overwhelming ills. It has been weighed, it has been measured, and it has been found wanting.

Time and time again we foment into an uproar over the powers that persist in committing irreparable damage to the general welfare—banking crises, the opioid epidemic, oil spills, climate change—all of the parties responsible sidestep responsibility to the general public because their actions are licensed by a singular, irreproachable premise: the profit-motive. Tanner develops this line of critique with regard to Big Tech, the next industry in a long line of corporate successors who willingly commit irreparable damage by opening—and exploiting—new markets with sublime and utopian promises which simply open into new variations on control society.

“There is a long history of the brain being likened to a machine… Hacking the machine brain allows technocrats the ability to manipulate dopamine and serotonin with design features. By simplifying the mind with machinic terms, the technocrats then put forth a basic process of addiction that is as linear as pulling levers and programming people.”

Now, Big Tech wields economic and political power for which we do know how to hold them to account. Tanner sufficiently draws the parallels between Big Tech utopianism and neoliberalism, but where he succeeds is in leaving the question open to the deeper problem: this is an issue of political ontology. The crisis of the present moment was caused by insufficiencies in the prevailing model of political economy, but it cannot be solved without a greater force of imagination pointing us out of and beyond the crumbling, stagnating mythology of global capitalism. Instead, waves of recycled, worn out tropes strip mine our nostalgic impulses as the power centers—both economic and political—harness consumer’s mass retreat into the vague comforts and imprecise securities of bygone eras and childhoods lodged in our personal and cultural memories.

“The paternalistic gesture of being offered things homologous to our supposed desires seems ideal, but it is a siren song. Instead of routing consumers toward new ideas, recommender systems invite them into mirror mazes, each turn revealing reflections that recede into infinity.”

It comes as no surprise, as Tanner accounts, that the harbingers of Big Tech willingly admit the monumental damage it has done to life and society on the structural level—because it also sees itself as holding the keys to undoing it. This is where Tanner’s critique is the most biting. Big Tech lacks the capacity to fix the problems it has caused: there will be no digital utopia.

“The steps to [counter Big Tech] must begin by targeting a key source of Big Tech’s power: the belief that humans behave best when they act like markets.”

The question remains: can we fix technological problems with technological solutions? 

No. We lack openings into new futures. The answers must come from somewhere else, from beyond some other boundary. The answers to the problems of our day do not lie within prescribed categories of power, capital and political economy.

Still, if we make a thousand decisions a day that are circumscribed by the overdetermined modern ontological categories, then there are a million more which fall through the sieve of technological subjectivity. It is in these decisions, these minutia which drift mostly unnoticed below the surface of our perception and conscious, waking life—beyond small horizons, where our help comes from.