The Pulse of Googlism

Perhaps I’d be better off coining a different term here, perhaps Googlocracy or something like that. I just looked up Googlism and of course it’s a whole website dedicated to using the search engine to create a series of declarative statements about anything you’d care to run through its filter. But that’s not what I mean by it. Rather than an online word game, I use the term Googlism to refer to an emerging capitalist ideology. I used it a few days ago to quickly summarize Unger’s advocacy of a highly change-oriented, deeply democratic, market-friendly society that seeks to perpetuate a flux of creativity and innovation in all spheres of life. A system that expands the logic of labor flexibility and individual free agency while decentralizing global capital through democratic transformations of business, and reinventing the purpose and practices of governments at all levels.

I just finished reading Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things by Robert Frenay. This book is fundamentally an updated version of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, which in the early 1970s glibly predicted a whole range of profound changes, but attributed to the people experiencing the general speedup taking hold at the time a state of shock. The implication was that there was an unstoppable march of progress and that it had accelerated to the point that people were no longer capable of comprehending the society that was emerging, but it was taken for granted that the changes were a positive manifestation of a basically benevolent evolution of society.

Frenay is not as glib, nor as oblivious to social consequences, as his futurologist predecessors. But he is as naïve about capitalism, cloaking himself in a supposed 21st century realism that has cast aside the “ideological hostility toward all business [as] a vestige of twentieth-century thinking, the product of an old feud no longer relevant.” I had a good time reading his book, which is well crafted and covers a huge range of material that I’m quite interested in. His basic argument is that we’re at the historic beginning of a cultural supercession of “machine age thinking,” a mindset that is going to be replaced by the New Biology. He is committed to the logic of free markets, business, and the kind of so-called “natural capitalism” that Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and the Santa Fe Institute are so fond of invoking.

To be sure, a rigorous calculus imposed by natural systems, in terms of resource depletion, waste, long-term sustainability, etc. is a reform that world capitalism desperately needs. But Frenay is too enamored of his tidy naturalistic analogies (structure and process, figure and ground, individual and communal, bottom-up and top-down, linear and lateral, competition and cooperation, chaos and order, adaptable and stable, local and global) to see any inherent conflict between capital and labor as key to the problem. Instead, he spends a good chunk of his final chapter blaming the legal fiction of “corporate personhood” for the breakdown in feedback loops that, if restored, would lead back to a “sweet spot” between free enterprise and collective well-being.

It’s quite a challenge to get a handle on this moment in history. Frenay’s book reinforces that feeling with its sweeping overview of rapid changes in biology, nanotechnology, computer networks and artificial intelligence, and much more. But he is not an unabashed booster of technological revolution. Instead he sees an emerging logic that offers a path out of the widely acknowledged dead-end of ecological collapse that we’re rushing towards. But, unlike some of us radicals, he sees no problem with the logic of business or the deeper flaw of a society based on buying and selling human time (wage-labor). In this way he fits alongside Roberto Unger‘s acceptance of these basic capitalist relationships. Frenay comes out of a long tradition of American technological determinism, or at least technofix-ism, in which problems will be solved because brilliant people are thinking up ingenious solutions that will just naturally promulgate themselves because they’re so darn smart. What makes his take more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill techno-booster is that he has understood something of the science he’s writing about. One of the crucial breakthroughs of the New Biology is that it overcomes linearity and isolated analysis that mechanistic industrialism used so successfully to make such a mess. Instead, the new paradigm understands that everything is connected, that all systems are open and fluid and in a state of constant exchange and interactivity with each other, and that for the tension between chaos and order to produce increasingly complex adaptive systems that can survive, they crucially depend on adequate feedback loops.

“Assuming we get through the problems we face today, time will show the machine age as little more than a halting first step. With a near horizon populated by genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, increasingly life-like robots, and the many other ways computers are linking our imaginations to biology, we now face what may be the single most important fact in our brief and turbulent history: through us, evolution is accelerating”¦ Can we blow it?”¦ of course we can”¦ As we put the evolutionary pedal to the metal, the chance for catastrophic failure parallels that of epic promise.”Given our limited intellect, limited senses, and limited understanding, how can we hope to steer this rough new beast toward Bethlehem? The answer lies in feedback culture. We’re going to need diversity, to generate the beneficial tensions that make a living system smart and dynamic. And we’ll need clear and undistorted feedbacks to realistically monitor where we stand” to tell us we’ve overtipped the balance too far towards chaos or too far towards order, too far toward competition or too far toward cooperation” before a downward trend takes hold.”

This call for clear and undistorted feedbacks sounds pretty good. But Frenay is not stupid and he identifies the absence of a free, unfettered, un-sponsored media with the absence of accurate feedback, along with the widespread externalization of costs by capitalist businesses, a process that continues and expands daily. How might mechanisms of proper feedback be integrated into the world economy, or even just a local economy? Frenay ponders various schemes for the money form that have come and gone in the past, endorsing a concept that causes money to steadily lose value parallel to the 2nd law of Thermodynamics in which energy constantly dissipates. But such eccentric proposals will never gain the political power to unseat the current system. And that’s where Frenay, and all the do-gooder natural capitalists always fail: the utter lack of realism to imagine that the world as we know it can be transformed by good ideas and gentlemanly argument. Such ideas and proposals should be promulgated, but to really alter the power relations in society will take something much more profound, deep and wide social movements that can assert new kinds of power from below.

Historically radical change has emerged in depression and war, as old systems are abruptly toppled and replaced by new ones. As we ponder the breakdown of old political forms, we seek new ways to establish democratic power. We need new systems that would allow a democratic polity to grab power by the balls and transform it so thoroughly that the great work of technologists, biologists, philosophers and others can be put to use. Absent that kind of profound upheaval, whether motivated by a broad insistence on the possibilities of a pleasurable life for all, or by an ecological or economic collapse, books like Pulse are just wishful thinking.

In spite of my sense that this kind of work is hopelessly naïve, I find in it the elements of a new reformism that parallels the words of Roberto Unger. I have thought for a couple of decades that if we are in the midst of a deep crisis that produces war and/or depression (as it has repeatedly in the past two hundred years), that there is a “purpose” capitalistically that we might be able to anticipate. (Of course, as a long-time lefty, I always wish crisis would lead to revolution and a vaguely utopian future, but that, too, seems delusional.) In think that “˜purpose’ is to destroy the capital fixed in the petrochemical/oil/auto industries and pave the way for a new round of accumulation and global integration based on this so-called New Biology. The obvious political spokespeople of this “reasonable” movement to reinvent our society are the green philosophers and technologists who see nothing incompatible between markets and human well-being, provided that the markets have “real costs” and respond to biological reality. So Frenay is very enthusiastic about William McDonough and the designers and architects like him who are already working with the Chinese government and Ford Motor Co. and other globe-straddling entities to create the new technologies and practices for the next system.

One of the unsolved and largely un-addressed problems of this transformation is the need to come up with new ways to calibrate and measure economic well-being beyond GDP, a point that Frenay makes too. Quite recently the Chinese government announced that they were sending back to the drawing board an effort by their environmental ministry to measure the economic effects of various development schemes, but they are at least trying to come up with something, which is more than you can say about the Theocratic War Criminals we have running the U.S. these days.

I’m going to throw this quote from Roberto Unger in here at the end, to illustrate a vague convergence between Frenay’s New Biological thinking and Unger’s proposals for the Left (this overlapping green soft leftism is what I want to call “Googlism”). I think they overlap around the notions of feedback and revision, and of finding the sweet spot between individualism and collectivity, cooperation and competition, stability and chaos:

Unger: “We are greater than all the particular social and cultural worlds we build and inhabit; they are finite with respect to us, and we are infinite with respect to them. There is always more in us” in each of us individually as well as in all of us collectively” than there can ever be in them. No social order can provide a definitive home for the human spirit so understood. However, one order will be better than another if it diminishes the price of subjugation that we must pay to have access to one another. One order will be better than another if it multiplies opportunities for its own revision, thus attenuating the difference between acting within it, on its terms, and passing judgment on it from the outside, on our own terms. One order will be better than another if enables us to shift the focus of lives away from the repeatable to that which does not yet lend itself to repetition: to the perpetual creation of the new.” (pp. 168-169, What Should the Left Propose?)

1 comment to The Pulse of Googlism

  • As far as improvements to GDP – there are ideas out there already, and here’s one I like. How about coming up with a balance sheet that covers more than purchased assets. It would also include an inventory of a place’s (country’s, city’s, planet’s) resource base, including water, fuel, educated citizenry, public health, and so on.

    Each year, along with reporting the increase or decrease in monetary wealth for the place, government should also report on changes in resource wealth, including both cultural and natural resources. It would even work to value these things based on net present value, as scarcity (e.g., drought) increases the present value of a resource (e.g., water). That way in this imaginary drought, a place will have to be more careful in spending its water, as reducing its supply in an aquifer will do more to reduce the place’s net assets in a drought than in a flush period.

    This is a bit like what oil companies do — they have to estimate their reserves annually. Even if they didn’t buy their reserves for much money at all, they get credit for owning them, in a sort of mark-to-market accounting for assets.

    This is the opposite of how estimates of national wealth currently work. They don’t mark to market. If something has never been bought, it’s considered external to the situation. If a company or place possesses resources that are far more valuable than when they were first purchased, they don’t get any credit for that.

    This leads to constant undervaluing of everything from art to education to groundwater.

    The way this would affect GDP is that increases in national/city/planetary wealth could be credited to the GNP. So services provided “free” by nature, families, and public services would get credit for increasing people’s income as they really experience it.

    After all, do you feel richer when you buy water than when you drink it from a clean well? Do you feel richer when you spend $1,000 at Berkeley Extension than when you spend $60 at City College? Do you feel richer when you pay for a blowjob from a professional than when you get one from a lover? When you pay a babysitter instead of raising kids yourself? If anything, free services have a higher felt value than those that cost money, due in part to the cheapening, desensitizing effect that money has on all relations. It would be good to credit our free services in our accounting of wealth and income.

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