The Myth of Progress, the Human Problem, and the Virtual Frontier
As our societies become increasingly intolerable and we grow angrier, more isolated, and more radicalized, the wealthy and powerful are betting on technology to remove humanity from the equation
These are frustrating times marked by a sense of powerlessness that is both demoralizing and radicalizing. Our economic system is so tilted to the advantage of the wealthy and powerful that even surviving, much less getting ahead, depends on a dreery combination of exhausting overexertion, ceaseless anxiety, and, let’s be honest, more than a stroke of luck. The concentration of wealth and power, made possible by and then resulting in more subservience by the political class, has overwhelmed our political system, leaving us with a broken husk of representation that serves as a public relations front for the white, wealthy, and powerful. Disgustingly wealthy individuals and megalomaniacal corporations have more or less outgrown the nations that birthed them and exist as states unto themselves.
To recognize all of this, to live within it, is exhausting. At this moment in history it feels as if this current version of reality, a life of exploitation and isolation and atomization, will undoubtedly and inevitably only worsen. Additionally, looming crises like climate change, the specter of economic collapse, and rising fascism appear unsolvable, especially considering the fragmented and polarized nature of this society, all of it an intentional consequence of the continued consolidation of wealth and power.
Answers are few and far between. The political class is split between either managing the situation and occasionally reacting to dips or crises or else living in complete and violent denial, believing that only a return to our segregated, white supremacist past will save us. That schism is obvious just from watching cable news for more than five minutes. But as our representatives lose influence the real question becomes what the powerful see as potential answers to this moment of strife and gridlock.
Solutions range from trusting in the creation of virtual realities tailored to our every desire to indentured servitude on the red planet of Mars. If those fail to come to fruition, the world’s elites are ready to sit out the apocalypse and wait for things to sort themselves out.
These plans are decidedly anti-human and regard humanity and liberal democracy as as not just an impediment to progress, but as the problem that creates all of the other problems. The mistaken and disturbing mindset that has led to these “solutions” is as old as “Western Civilization” and science itself, and has laid the foundation for exploitation, murder, and the oppression of peoples around the world for centuries.
If we allow these plans to come to fruition, our future will be very dark indeed.
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In the 15th century European powers happened across the indigenous people of the so-called “New World” and promptly enslaved and murdered them. This “new” territory, filled with “new” precious materials and resources and people they might force into labor, served to answer some of the lingering problems in the West. Populations were growing and resources were scarce, meaning the expansion into the “New World” might alleviate some of the tensions and delay looming societal crises, including the demand for rights and representation in the halls of power.
Soon, the prevelant mindset of the world and its eventual end began to change. Whereas European Christians had obsessed over Armaggedon and the establishment of a supernatural Heaven on Earth afterward, the system of oppression and exploitation with colonization inspired a new vision: the engineered perfection of human society.
Utopianism, as we know it, found its footing as the Scientific Revolution developed. Leaders like Francis Bacon penned their own visions of a future wherein faith, science, and humanity had come to a perfect balance, creating an ideal Heaven on Earth without the need for apocalyptic clashes between the armies of Christ and Satan. Bacon’s New Atlantis was a reflection of John of Patmos’s Book of Revelation, a glimpse into a future where, through knowledge and expertise, humankind might overcome its own imperfections and realize what Robert Boyle called “Empire Over Inferior Creatures.”
Bacon and Boyle, however, were both colonizers. Bacon advocated for the pursuit of “greatness” through the use of slaves and forced labor. Boyle, on top of pioneering the scientific method, served as head of the East India Company, one of the foremost oppressors in history.
The relationship between science and oppression was rooted in the exploitation of people of color. “Western Civilization” was centered as the pinnacle of human achievement and all other societies judged as to how close they were to reaching its position of “progress.” Societies and peoples seen as being inferior - the measuring stick almost always included the establishment of private property and exploitative economic systems - were thus rendered as lesser than and in need of “guidance” or “instruction.” This created a story that societies were meant to “progress” and that those who knew better, those who were better, those elites in charge of deciding what progress was, must meet the moment and do whatever they could, at any cost, be it slavery or genocide or brutality, to reach the waiting utopia of the future.
Fast forward a few centuries and the systems of exploitation have changed in many ways and yet remained eerily the same. The elitism of white supremacy continues to haunt our politics and culture, contributing to moments of blatant and violent fascism when democracy endangers the white stranglehold on power.
This is not the first time this happened. The budding fascist movement in America, and throughout western nations, echoes past moments, including the establishment of the Confederate States of America once Southern slaveholding whites saw their grip on politics loosening and the rise of fascism in 20th century Europe as capitalism required the use of violence and brute force to protect itself in crisis. In every case, white supremacy has sought the dissolution of democratic institutions via any means necessary in order to contain the threat of ascendent populations.
That rift has created what seems to be an unsolvable crisis. Faith in elections and objective reality itself has been discarded by millions of Americans who refuse to believe their desires and preferences are no longer shared by a majority of their fellow citizens. To protect this delusion, they’re more than willing to overthrow an election, attack the Untied States Capitol, advocate the murder and arrest of politicians and journalists, and form an alliance with white supremacist terrorists whose goals include a second civil war and the establishment of an openly fascist United States of America.
How do we reckon with this? How exactly might we move on from this moment? How can we reconcile the problem of a shared society in which millions of Americans refuse the truth and live in their own created realities, populated by outlandish conspiracy theories and demonstrably false ideas, many of them the result of people and corporations profiting wildly off of selling them?
You might say we can work to reform the system, address underlying material conditions, possibly hold fearmongers who traffic in provably misleading statements and conspiracy theories responsible, even improve our education or turn back the tide of destructive atomization carried out by the capitalistic, utopian projects.
Or, those utopians would respond, we could simply give up, surrender to those destructive impulses, indulge them, and continue forward so the hard and necessary work of progress can continue.
Roughly a week from now, the long anticipated Justice League Snyder Cut will be released by streaming service HBO Max. An edited version of the critically-panned Justice League, which cost $300 million, the Snyder Cut cost an additional $70 million and serves as a kowtowing to a rabid and paranoid fan base who demanded satisfaction. Despite having their every desire given to them, these fans have still continually and angrily lashed out at Warner Bros., anyone who does not join them in their celebration of the film’s release, and most recently HBO Max after the movie was mistakenly leaked for a small window of time.
The Snyder fan base functions like all other fan bases in that, in these accelerated, consumer-driven times, they demand what they want, how they want it, and especially when they want it. This demand has been inspired by generations of appeals and manipulations by marketers who have, over time, repeatedly told Americans that their needs are absolutely paramount and any attempt to curb those needs, whether through societal sacrifice or delay created by the need of others, is tantamount to their liberty and freedom being threatened.
There is, I doubt I have to say, a comparison to be made here with the rise of the MAGA movement, the continuing push for power by white evangelicals and the Right, and the wealthy and powerful who demand more even as their personal wealth balloons into the trillions.
But this problem, the former would tell us, has a solution: give the people what they want. Algorithims running streaming services, social media, and the entirety of the internet, pushed “what we want” on us continually, keeping us addicted to our devices and spending money and, as a consequence, expecting the world to look and operate according to our whims and desires.
We might interrupt this and work to repair shared society, and democracy and our ailing economic systems alongside it, but elites see no need in doing this as any effort would slow down their work and keep their chosen utopias - whether it’s living forever or blasting off to Mars and starting a new feudal system - from realization. Instead, the only possibilities for fixing this problem, they argue, the only means for quieting the mad hordes of people, is bypassing them altogether in the affairs of the world and transplating them into new worlds, far away from where decisions are being made.
It stands to reason, they might argue, that these frustrating, depressing lives in this frustrating, depressing system might be exchanged for fantastic fantasies. Instead of watching Superman soar through the sky while grounded and surrounded by oppressive politics and economies, the people could be Superman in their own tailored virtual realities. Instead of playing a video game that recreates life on Mars, they could move to Mars and live out their fantasies, removed from those they vehemently disagree with and even hate to the poitn of violence.
Maybe the men and women who attempted to carry out a coup on January 6th, 2021 might find their own world where America is “great” again, whatever that means, and where Donald Trump will win every election without nary a single opposition vote. A digital dictatorship to last a thousand digital years.
What must be stated, however, is that these utopias never come to pass. They remain relegated to the utopic dreamers fantasies or else inspire political movements that promise forever and give their believers nothing but ash and blood in return. Thrusting humans into a machine so they might be distracted and leave behind secular affairs of power might alleviate the pesky issue of democracy, but it will never actually solve the very real problems of reality. They are promises with hollow centers, stories that gesture toward the future while the present is plundered.
Bacon’s New Atlantis never came to pass, after all. The colonies that enslaved millions and carried out systematic genocide and the destruction of the native cultures? Those were very, very real.