This is Part III of the series World War Me. Part II can be found above.
Life only avails, not the having lived.
Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates is that the soul becomes; for that forever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue…Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power, not confidence but an agent…Who has more obedience than I masters me, though he should not raise his finger. Round him I must revolve by the gravitation of spirits. We fancy it rhetoric, when we speak of eminent virtue. We do not yet see that virtue is Height, and that a man or a company of men, plastic and permeable to principles, by the law of nature must overpower and ride all cities, nations, kings, rich men, poets, who are not.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
The Silicon Inversion and the Second State of Nature
If recent years have ever felt to you like the world was upside down, I would comfort you by saying “that’s because it is.”
The advent of silicon-based computation has had the force and effect of inverting the logic of our experience from one where formations can be understood by information, to this negative-image (negative as in photography — before digital photography, of course) reality where we understand our information by the formations (now called “outputs”) it produces, with neural network-based machine learning algorithms as the apex of this.
The implications for this inversion are profound, and touch nearly every element and aspect of our lives. This is the non-utopian understanding of venture capitalist Marc Andreesen’s “software is eating the world” thesis: the overturning of human experience by human engineering, the elevation of the digital over the analog, the unreal over the real, the synthetic over the biological.
It is supposed by the American technorati and their acolytes across the globe that this is progress, the successful defying, denying, and ultimate conquest of Nature by the human mind and its engineering ingenuity.
But if we recall my four starting assumptions at the beginning of this peace: complexity, non-linearity, inertia, and entropy, we should see readily that such proclamations ought to be taken with perhaps a couple of grains of salt, and maintain our skepticism when all evidence points to a worsening of conditions for the vast majority of people in the face of these developments.
Silicon Valley began its innovative story arc with the greatest of expectations. In The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce, Tom Wolfe catalogs the engineering genius of Robert Noyce and his collaborators at Shockley Labs, and then Fairchild Semiconductor, before eventually founding Intel, and the midwest protestant culture that made the Valley not only a force for scientific & technical innovation, but also cultural transformation of business culture.
Yet even Wolfe’s Tinkerings, published in the ancient before-time of 1983, ends with the grim warning of the ‘dark side of the force’ already emergent in Silicon Valley culture.
The cultural heritage, he observed, had already been spent. The virtues of Noyce’s midwestern egalitarianism had already been corrupted by the extremes of wealth. He could not have known, when he wrote that piece, just how right his insights had been, or how much worse it would in fact turn out to be.
From Cambridge Analytica and the election of Donald Trump to the cyber warfare of the Putin regime and corresponding obscene NATO propaganda during the Ukraine war, to the grotesque manipulation of public opinion by the Biden Administration during the pandemic, we have seen that all sides, all ideologies, are striving for technological dominance by attempting to subvert and destroy honest, truthful, and safe public discourse.
The vision of the wealthy, the ‘educated’, and the powerful is explicitly Hobbesian: the war of all against all. They are at war with you, whether you wanted to be part of it or not, whether you see your interests as adversarial to theirs, or not. Worse, they see anyone not fighting for their own interests in this war as a sucker.
Think you can just sit in your quiet little corner wishing peace and love for everyone?
“Sucker,” they say…
…as they expropriate your resources through inflation, regulate away all peaceful means of fighting back, demonize all non-peaceful means of fighting back, and tell you whatever it is you want to hear so you can go back to your quiet little corner, dumb and pretending to be happy with the answer.
If you think this is harsh, or dangerous, then I’ll reiterate: you’re the sucker. Check your finances. Your job prospects. If you’re under 40 and still living with your parents, consider how well society’s systems are really working for you.
Imagine how much worse they will be for the next generation.
And this is just one small part of the problem created by our digital technology stack, the direct assault on truth, and therefore on life itself.
In Avesta, the ancient language of Zoroastrianism, the words for ‘truth’ and ‘life’ and ‘good’ are all the same word, and likewise ‘false’ and ‘death’ and ‘evil’. In my own philosophy, I treat these synonymously as well. Whatever is life-affirming is good, and whatever is true is life-affirming, and whatever is life-affirming must be true. There can be no separation of these elements without creating conditions that justify the unmerited infliction of pain or death. The moment we draw any such distinctions and attempt to maintain them by argument, we have been subverted by some evil impulse, some darkness of the soul that points to a defect in our own character, and are trying to justify it somehow.
Lies enslave. It is only the truth that sets us free.
Thus our technology stack, which enables the manipulation and subversion of the facts of reality and allows us to deceive and be deceived, is at the root of our cultural crisis, even if the seed remains the very old nut of human nature, which millennia of religion of varying forms remain unable to crack once and for all. Technology has become a byword for prosperity, itself just a euphemism for money.
The love of technology, like the love of money…
I regret to inform you that the matter gets worse from here. Not only does our technology create the conditions for overt manipulation and lying to go undetected, it is built on an inherent system of lying: the (mis)representation of imagery itself. Even images of real things are misleading and misrepresenting. Now, with deep fakes becoming widespread and ubiquitous, the disease of lying image has metastasized beyond any available mimetic medicine’s ability to remedy.
It turns out, the problem with imagery and its ability to trick the mind and alter the human’s incentive structure has been well-known since antiquity. The Laws of Moses, which we often call the Ten Commandments, in fact, place it in second order of priority after the primary demand of worshiping only the one GOD.
The Second Commandment prohibits the making of images, not, contrary to popular and superficial reading, their ‘worship’ only. Indeed, it appears that Moses understood painfully well how deceptive representations of the real and unreal alike can be, and their capacity to pull the human mind away from life-affirming and life-sustaining pursuits.
Consider the difficulty of making representative images in Moses’s time compared to our own. One look at PornHub or a Dolce & Gabana advertisement, and I am pretty sure Moses would declare the whole of humanity irredeemably lost. Instagram might have driven him to jump off Mt Sinai rather than descend it with his legal framework to maintain the social cohesion of his nomadic tribe trying to arrive at its promised land.
The more I have pondered this matter, the more forcefully concluded that all images are lies.
As I think that anything less than the whole truth is a lie, it seems to follow necessarily that all images mis-representations. If you have ever visited a place that you once saw in an ad, Instagram post, or TikTok video, you have probably noticed that everything was not exactly as it seemed. The trash bins were not included. The grinding poverty surrounding the beautiful destination was omitted from the pictures.
With people as with places, the lies of image find us in everyday life: the mole edited off the face of the supermodel; the wrinkles touched up on the face of your Tinder date; fifteen kilos somehow eliminated by clever angle on the body of your anticipated hookup.
Intentionally or unintentionally, maliciously or innocently, the full story of a situation will be told by neither a two-dimensional image nor a video. Even presently, our eyes deceive us in the face of real experience. We cannot see everything; our cameras even less. Even what we do see, we frequently do not notice or process. Here again we run into the painful limitations of complexity: reality in its fullness is always inaccessible to us, and we easily misunderstand even that which we can access.
When we watch a news report, we are fools if we believe what we see. When we look at our friends’ vacation pictures, we are always missing something. If we go ourselves to the same place, we will not even be able to see what they saw. It will have changed in some ways, and we are different creatures with different modes of perception and information-processing.
Our epistemology (how we know what we know) is impoverished by default, and cannot be much improved, except by acknowledging the inherent and inevitable error in all perception, and by shunning what we know is leading us astray.
How hard is this to do with the addictive backlit screens that have come to control our lives!
Furthermore, image has the ability and tendency to stimulate desire. If you have ever been walking along, completely sated and happy with your physical state, only to see an image of ice cream and immediately begin craving it, you understand what I am saying.
How many articles of clothing have been purchased the world over because of some touched-up picture of a model with visible abdominal muscles?
“What we love, that we have, but by desire we bereave ourselves of the love.”
Repeated exposure to imagery gradually erodes our ability to distinguish between truth and fiction. The more a pathological liar tells lies, the less able he is himself able to tell the difference. So with our exposure to imagery, our realism is degraded, our minds not only tricked, but contented with and by the trickery.
Eventually the pathological liar lives entirely in a world of falsehood, where there is no true and false, only what he wants and his attempt to get it.
Consumerism, which I define, basically, as the combination of the economics of capitalism and the cognitive manipulation and desire-stimulation of image-based advertising, has put us all in such a world, whether we wanted to be in it or not. Even if an individual resists the push to buy this or that thing, our entire economic structure is predicated on the system of manipulation.
An entrepreneur will bankrupt and fail if she attempts to fight either the bureaucracy of city hall or the cult of Madison Avenue, and the latter is the fight more-doomed.
It does not matter if we believe our own lies or those of other people. One is not better than the other in kind or degree. All lies kill — on their time tables, just as all truths profit on theirs.
That these time tables lack transparency in detail does not alter their inevitability. We need not know that something will happen, or when, in order for it to happen. Usually it is the reverse: we are surprised every moment by what actually happens because we expected something else.
In the broadest sense, the meta-inversion created by digital technology is that it has given us an increasing sense of understanding of the world and the ability to predict the future, when both of these have moved radically in the opposite direction: the disconnected rural farmer in Pakistan has a better sense of his tomorrow than the networked urbanite social media influencer or PhD-holding economist have of theirs.
Likewise, the more certain we are of our analysis, the less trusting we are of our intuition. Just because certain aspects of life are surprisingly counter-intuitive, we have made the mistake of thinking all other facts must be as well, and are thus inclined to adopt claims simply because they are counter-intuitive.
All of these forces and phenomena lead us further and further from the reality and rhythms of Nature, desensitize us to our biological being, fragment our minds and disconnect us from the ecosystems that actually sustain life on this planet.
As we have re-entered the war of all against all, we find that while specific elements of Nature are less threatening to us (bears, mosquitos, snakes), Nature at-large is moreso (climate change, desertification, sterilization, the spillover of plagues from their wild reservoirs). We have defeated certain diseases and insulated ourselves from predatory organisms but have generally poisoned ourselves with the chemicals we used to achieve the specific defeats. We have briefly conquered hunger but have robbed ourselves of nutrition. We have eradicated the limitations of space while making all space uninhabitable.
The more we have tried to order everything, the more Nature and her chaos will fight back against us. Non-linearity reminds us that just because it has worked so far does not at all mean it will keep working forever.
The graveyard of kingdoms, civilizations, and empires, like the vast graves of all individuals who have ever lived ought to remind us the tyrannical reign of entropy returns, even after decades of salutary neglect:
However briefly we may ascend, the forces beyond our control will always pull us back to the dust from whence we came.
There is no point in half-measures in the face of this brutish existential fact. The response is an absolute, mutually exclusive either/or proposition: resignation (suicide) or holy war.
Resignation is suicide by entropy, the willingness to let the laws of averages determine your fate. Many people who in fact commit suicide do so, paradoxically, because they fear death. They fear death happening to them, so they take control of the narrative and make it happen on their own terms. This is hardly better or different than permitting your body, mind, and spirit to decay because, “well, it’s going to happen anyway.”
Far too many people live with an attitude of suicidal resignation every day of their lives. This is not an indifference to death, but the fear of it manifested in a frustrated flight response (also known as “anxiety”)..
The alternative is also a paradox: A holy war in one’s own life against death, and against falsehood, requires courage (literally “to have heart”) in the face of death, and with enough time, courage cultivates fearlessness.
It requires courage to say “I know I will die, and yet now I will live in feigned ignorance of that fact.” It requires stubborn courage to say “I know that my body is decaying, yet I will spend my energy to slow its decay.” It requires courage to say “I know that my loved ones will all die, and yet I will spend my time and energy to nurture them and protect them to the extent that I can.” Indeed, it requires courage to spend one’s life building sandcastles just before high tide rolls in — but that is, in effect, what any life well-lived is.
Why call it a holy war? Because the word means whole, total, exhaustive.
No half measures. No partial measures. Not even 95% measures, or 99% measures.
All, or nothing.
If the slightest vestige of resignation remains within you, if even the mildest affection for falsehood lingers in your mind, the faintest nostalgia for the naivete of the past — you have already lost. With the stridency of protestant repentance, you must embrace life and commit to yourself that everything must change, or nothing will.
This is the beginning of the process of responding ethically to a deceived and deceiving world: separate yourself from the deceit, — and all of its means. Whatever the cost. Whatever the cost to your reputation, your ease, your comfort. Because the cost of the alternative is everything: your life, and its potential.
The path of Life requires the re-inversion the formational and informational realms. The real, the embodied, the physical must be seen as the source of spirit, and must maintain absolute priority over disembodied information, the lies of images, and the other forms of psychological warfare that cause you to be at war with yourself, rather than with your enemies in the world.
You are at war, and your enemies are at war with you. The only way out is to make peace with those of aligned interests, build alliances, and defend your interests and those of your loved ones.
Neutrality is death.
“Let us then, be up and doing, with a heart for any fate:
Still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labor, and to wait.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow