The Earth was once considered to be the center of the universe. We now know it isn’t the center of anything besides, perhaps, the activity of our species. And who knows how long that will last.
The world we live in is increasingly drifting from what was once considered “the real”; man’s powers over his/her surroundings, or at least their appearance, have never been stronger. I’m a fairly poor individual and yet I still have, with a little elbow grease, access to high fidelity copies of nearly any sound or video recording ever commercially released and millions of others besides. For anyone who isn’t in my immediate physical environment, by clicking a couple buttons, I can effectively erase their existence. I don’t work in an office but for those who do, while there’s the physical office, most aspects of their actual work space, the computer, can be customized to their whims. Part of what the employer is actually buying for the price of your wages is your option to ignore their communications on your mobile device.
The robot/android, which was so often a metaphor for the fear of a slave or servant uprising in fiction (David Harvey discusses this in his chapter on Blade Runner in The Condition of Postmodernity), while still a slave or servant, is rapidly losing its metaphorical distance. There will soon be sex dolls that can convincingly imitate both men and women. The reason your Uber and Lyft rides are currently so cheap is because both companies are betting their current labor forces are simply a necessary inconvenience until they can roll out fleets of self-driving cars that only require the wages of their upkeep and maintenance. Amazon is already utilizing almost front-to-back automation to offer free two day shipping with their Prime service and offering cheap voice recognition technology for the home that dwarfs what was possible in the most advanced and exclusive settings only ten years ago. From a Guardian article on the Amazon “smart” speaker Alexa:
One of the top Echo reviews on Amazon calls the machine “the perfect spouse” and features a picture of the reviewer, who identifies as E M. Foner, in bed with the device.
“If I knew relationships were this easy, I would have married thirty years ago, but now that I have Alexa, there’s no need,” Foner writes. “This morning, I asked my love to order me a replacement water filter for the faucet.”
There are already firms developing automated therapist simulations for Alexa. The mother and the whore. And the thermostat. And the coffee maker…who will fight with their partner over who gets to hold the remote control when the partner is the remote control?…
When there’s an even partially developed market for machine intelligence/companionship (I don’t think we’ve hit the tipping point yet), if the mechanisms of capitalism as we experience it now are still in place, there will be massive advertising campaigns touting the danger, disease, and disappointment ridden nature of human relationships. Feminist Marxists have analyzed history through the lens “The dominant ideology of the time period exists to regulate the means of (re)production”; the cultural archetype of the witch was a means to corral sexual energy away from older woman and toward the ones who could become pregnant with new agricultural workers, etc. etc.
When the most profitable future for capital is to create a platform based model for the release of sexual energies (imagine a platform style service like Uber but with self-driving sex-bots), who is the competing market? Humans in the broadest sense.
And when I say the broadest sense, I mean exactly that. The current fear is that artificial intelligence/virtual reality can convincingly replicate the current realities, economic and sexual. But for a populace raised on platformed sex-bots as a given, there’s little reason to believe traditional “human” experiences as an aesthetic style will take up much more market share in the long run than resurgent nostalgia items like vinyl records.
How would people be sold on giving up on people? The skeletal outline of this type of social feedback loop that would act as a commercial anti-humanism already exists in the dramatically dulling repetition of local news programs which, somewhere along the line, realized that if they told their viewers every night that everyone who lives near them is a secret murderer or rapist it would convince them to stay inside watching more local news.
If history remembers furry culture at all, which I think it will if not for the reasons we’d want, it will be as the moment when the dynamics of the para-social interaction managed to transcend their human delivery agents. When Robert Crumb found himself sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny in a dress he was glimpsing (living?) the future. What is the purpose of celebrity but to create the comforting one-directional familiarity with people we don’t know who represent abstract qualities? The Trump phenomena shows the extent to which branding and soft behaviorism work. When the population has been trained (disciplined?) to believe the reality of their entertainment over the peripheral discomfort felt in their own senses from the time they were born, the Trump phenomena is almost inevitable. And by that token, the idea that humanity could be talked out of privileging itself only seems ridiculous now because we haven’t reached that stage yet.
Maybe it’s already happened. I remember most vividly a Marie Callender microwave pie commercial that played before a movie I saw two or three years ago. It showed the typically steamy food porn-y images of the pie coming out of an oven and taunted us in the multiplex:
“Your grandmother never made sure each pie was perfectly warm throughout…”
“Your grandmother never made sure to crimp the crust exactly that way you liked it…”
On one level, they want me to buy a microwaveable meat pie. On another level, they recognize that their competition in the marketplace is whatever fond memories or buried resentments I might have regarding my grandmother. Marie Callender wanted to sell me a pie, but they also wanted to replace my grandmother.
Isn’t most American advertising centered around positioning the product as the key to the lost sense of belonging, family, community, or home?
And similarly, if the para-social relationship can be exploited to the extent it could take over the most powerful office in the world through a human avatar like Donald Trump, who’s to say that future public simulacra of leadership need a human avatar at all? In the Black Mirror episode “The Waldo Moment”, writer/show-runner Charlie Brooker shows an obnoxious animated bear named Waldo (based loosely on Boris Johnson) taking England by storm and eventually running a successful campaign for prime minister. Brooker has frequently joked that he hates writing new episodes of the show because they all come true and recently said that he thinks Trump will become president of the United States because Trump basically is Waldo.
However, this assessment seems not literal enough. If someone can only half-jokingly romance an Amazon smart speaker, who’s to say a cartoon character undergirded by a machine learning algorithm couldn’t eventually lead the country? Perhaps it could be named Giant Meteor or Deez Nuts…
Perhaps more linear than the progressive accumulation and concentration of capital in this society has been the transformation from science fiction as metaphor into science fiction as the actual heir apparent to social realism.
The machines still have the advantage of novelty. When a hitch-hiking robot was beheaded it made far more waves and received far more sympathy and Facebook shares than many police executions of black men or probable murders of Canadian female hitchhikers.
As a species, our polling numbers are way down in polls where we’re the only ones allowed to vote. That’s not a good sign.