A meditation on data, surveillance, and contemporaneousness of our cultural memory.

Perhaps merely just a matter of perspective, but the time dilation between today at 1990 feels like many multiples of then and 1970, and 1950, 1930, 1886 before that, packaged into “the past”. We’re accelerating toward a critical mass of cultural volume, as any moment in history feels it is, yet with the unprecedented rates of retention of the Internet proper, the backend of the surveillance state in the form of 1:1 copies of packets passing through any given ISPs routers and switches. You’ve forver lost the ability, to say nothing of the debate surrounding a right, to be forgotten— things simply do not fall through the cracks, so the number of things, from media memory of cultural touchstones, to the amount of primary source documentation of our era contained within these digital archives, will be many orders of expontentially larger magnitude than that of epochs before ours, representing only miniscule fractions of the time humanity has spent living and creating on Earth.

Imagine Earth’s life thus far as a 12 month calendar, and only recording the evening of December 31 in excruciating detail, except now, the calendar perception of time will be entirely, and continuously backloaded. The passage of time will prove gaslighting in this respect, and, I suspect, this will be the pretext for the normalization of the vast quantities of data, currently unimaginable but barreling towards (if we think of the scale of the Internet in petabytes at present, for example), sure to be collected on a daily basis, moment-to-moment, from now until the collapse of our civilzation.

In my own lifetime, like everyone else of my age group relatively, 1988 to the present, the world has seen the foils to the American empire change, from our fellow combatants in all manner of proxy war (the Soviet Union, and now the Russian Federation in a war that is largely cultural, mostly imaginary—redbaiting, paranoia, etc.-) to the cyclical nature of US imperialist foreign policy that produces its own footsoldiers in these proxy wars to the combatants in a future conflict. I distinctly remember the world on, both, September 10th, 2001, and September 12th, and now more than half of my life has occurred after the latter, but I still think of this as being comparatively recent, even if I couldn’t even begin to tell you my life story in the time since.

In Season 2 of NPR’s Serial podcast, the host Sarah Koenig secondhand interviews Bowe Bergdahl, notable for having left his post only to be captured, under the pretext of hoping to draw the attention of his superiors who, until this point, were missing high level corruption amongst the US forces in Afghanistan. The notable thing to me about this story is that it highlights the situationally shortness of cultural memory; one of the defining moments Bergdahl cites in combat was a mission to a Taliban stronghold that he felt his unit was unprepared and ill-equipped to complete, and he mentions, but glosses over one very notable detail that demonstrates this shortness of memory. His detailed memory is that they’re fighting enemy combatants using legacy US military equipment. It’s no secret that the US has supplied a lot of rebel movements that only would go on to become combatants against the US, as I’ve described, however, to fail to acknowledge this, while acknowledging the material reality, is to deny 40 years of imperialism, to tell this story of vague corruption rather than call-out the larger corruption for what it is, and compresses these decades of proxy conflict and occupation in global imperialism into a series of individual anecdotes, these war stories, that encapsulate this larger truth into more opaque individual biographical trivia.

Situations like this one I’m describing is how volume of data can be maximal (everything we know about the public history of the US occupation forces worldwide, for example, thousands of pages of documents, etc. all of the intelligence gathered during the so-called War on Terror domestically and foreign), and the framing of our media choosing to package individual narratives as universal only minimizes and compresses the timeline of the public’s perception; this, clearly, doesn’t always work, but sometimes, capitalizing on the right human factor (in this case, the debate between respecting authority, individual duty, the ethics of the war, all manner of competing interests for the average global citizen— meanwhile, consider we’re consuming this story as entertainment, not analysis of a 20+ year illegal foreign war) can make this a very simple pill to swallow.

In the Thomas Pynchon novel Bleeding Edge, this time dilation and how our perspective on hypermodernity has changed and become incongruous with some of our most recognizable media tropes in fiction is on full-display; it’s a detective novel, a hacker fantasy, a commentary on the postmodern condition in a September 10th America— neuroses amplified by the sense that something, no idea what, was about to happen at all times for over a decade.

It tells a story of an advanced emotionally aware society; one that socializes around said neuroses, but one ill-equipped to manage them. Meanwhile, the novel’s protagonists investigate these crimes of modernity (Mossad hacking, deep state collusion with the providers of the very infrastructure being weaponized against the public nominally in their own defense) with the tactics and narrative framing of a hardboiled detective novel. Pynchon, in telling this story this way, could either be read as an old man out of touch with this particular moment in time, or an advanced understanding that we’ve crossed the Rubicon as a culture, and this is the late stage of…something, that we’re just beginning to experience.

Like in Pynchon’s Vineland, this is a novel of conflicting ideals, but almost depersonalized to speak of society shifting, rather than that of a subculture ill-equipped to realize it has become “the man” (60s radicals succumbing to a post-Nixon America) and to reject this position is to become, again, the subject of counterintelligence and all that this entails; this has startling implications in a world that didn’t yet have panoptic rhetoric surrounding nascent legislation like the Patriot Act, or now decades out from this moment in time, a full-on physical mesh of devices that (literally) constantly detects and collects and analyzes your every movement, communication, and in the case of the corporatist complicity in surveillance capitalism and the bridge to government surveillance as state duty shifts to corporate responsibility (something I’ve written about extensively with regard to defense contracting with corporations like SpaceX, for example), how thoroughly fracturing this is intending to be for the public in the name of solidifying protections for the public itself, while simply never having to prove its worth as a protective measure.

Accelerationism is an ideology receiving a lot of attention, perhaps ironically (I don’t find even the ironic embrace of it encouraging, however), with a lens on American politics; the purposeful decisionmaking to end an unjust/irreparably corrupted/broken system through gross and willful negligence is horrifying enough until one considers that to do this under the guise of incompetence is just peak state violence. However, I mention this to suggest that maybe it’s not always willful or intentional, or even necessarily harmful either; “acceleration” or ускоре́ние was the overall theme of Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision of modernity for the Soviet Union in 1985, and it signalled the beginning of the end for the USSR, however you may feel about that. In agreeing that modernity meant parity in social, economic, and political matters with the west, it was, any way you slice it, the end of a way of life, and modern Russia is the result of this.

Marx observed that, as capitalism reaches a peak and quality of life surpasses the tolerable approaching nadir, communism is the outcome in a society that fails to socialize meaningfully (which does not, necessarily, mean preemptive communism, but that the material concerns of the public are met relative to that of sustaining class divisions, how wide that disparity is, concerns like these that represent the relative health of said material satisfaction); under sustained Stalinization, Gorbachev concluded that acceleration to parity as a global superpower was the ability to moderate socialism with competitiveness in a global capitalist marketplace (something, debateably, China has done over a comparatively larger timescale, under a much larger authoritarian ethos, with a much less extreme disparity resulting revolution in their history) and the risk-reward was obvious. If they succeeded, world peace was theorhetically possible, but if they failed, well, it leaves the United States with a monopoly on unchecked imperialism, and either would become the defining ethos of the next century.

All of this is an exercise in one thing: what the prevailing cultural approach to memory will become, as a global society. We’ve internalized the personal as macropolitical, which compresses cultural memory while maximizing the density of what historical trivia is and fracturing the complete picture in this encapsulative approach to consumption of history and current affairs in that context.



Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:

On the Design of Distributed Programming Models - Christopher S. Meiklejohn

Keith Gessen and Vadim Nikitin on Russia, socialism and the Soviet inheritance

Invisible Enemies - Geoff Shullenberger