I have written before, and repeatedly, that I believe two dynamics prevalently characterise ‘modernity’, namely the radical expansion of capital and the radical compression of communicative cybernetics, and I think it is often useful to analyse the history and the contemporary characteristics of modern society through the interaction of these two forces. Generally, however, when I make this argument people accept the former tendency—mass production and commodification is more or less an inescapable feature of modern life—but question the significance and, more fundamentally, the meaning of the latter. So here I will offer a casual, by no means rigorous, definition and historical overview of what I mean by ‘the compression of communicative cybernetics’.
‘Cybernetics’ is a complex term with a rich diversity of contemporary usage. Often it is rather loosely, and correctly, associated with computer technology, but its significance substantially predates the advent of modern computing and encompasses a great deal more than it. When I talk about cybernetics, I generally mean it in the way it was characterised by Norbert Wiener in 1948, that is, technologies ‘of control and communication’. The former of these two concepts is usually the one being emphasised when the term is used—kubernaô is, after all, ‘steer’ or ‘govern’ in Greek—so I often refer specifically to ‘communicative cybernetics’ to redistribute the focus a little. Of course, a technology of communication is already by definition a technology of control—anything that mediates interpersonal relationships transmits relationships of power; at the minimum, a communicative technology can communicate commands—so this remains only a difference in emphasis.
What does it mean, then, to say that these technologies have had a ‘compressive’ tendency? This is simply an attempt to describe the historical development of modern politics as a whole. Control-and-communication is not just about orders issued from on high: the institutions that represent ‘crystallised’ architectures of power stand as a small minority in contrast to the dynamic fluidity of power relations that characterises most of our everyday life. Communication also means mobilisation, the spontaneous arrangement and distribution of power among groups of people whose size and coherence will depend on the forms and capacities of the technologies being deployed. Modern technology—both in the everyday sense of machinery like railways and radios, and in Foucault’s sense even ideas, like novel forms of political thought—has tended to bring, or force, ever larger groups of people into ever closer spontaneous arrangements. In other words, it has tended to compress them.
In his intellectual history of the twentieth-century challenge to liberal democracy, Contesting Democracy, Jan-Werner Müller characterises the eruptions of early-twentieth-century mass democracy through an image used by David Lloyd George: the ‘molten mass’. The implication of the ‘molten mass’ is that in mass politics we are dealing with a fundamental disintegration of rational individuality—the kind of thing that peaked, conceptually, in 18th century Enlightenment philosophy—into a fluid mass consciousness. Compressive cybernetics means melting the masses: as Müller puts it in an interesting echo of Nietzsche, it means the ‘levelling and homogenizing’ of sociable humans.
The tendency of drastic compression in the early twentieth century, which gave rise in the end to totalitarianism, was permitted and abetted by the emergence of many different kinds of cybernetic technologies in the period. Breaking through the fragile gates of established politics, it provoked a hurricane of disorder and contributed to the ravaging of the world in the 1940s. In reaction, in the postwar period the molten masses of the West were, if not resolidified, tamed and regulated to a considerable extent by a new liberal elite order supported by far-reaching welfare systems that averted the need for mass organisation. In most Western countries social democracy divorced itself from the masses and crystallised progressively into managerial technocracy. Neoliberalism kicked out one important pillar of this order—and it’s not coming back—but to a large extent it remained a managerial ideology; as a mode of internal political organisation it even represents the culmination of the original postwar trend (consider Blair’s autocracy in New Labour). This has become all too clear today in the escalating standoff between technocracy and the new populism.
New technologies have arisen, however. Among them, the Internet is the most radical and the most totalising: it has kicked the ‘melting of the masses’ into a new phase of overdrive, converting the basis of society from rigid individuality into what Ccru called ‘flat productive collectivities’. The consequences are already running riot. The Internet far exceeds what was available in the early twentieth century. Where cybernetic mobilisation was hitherto a sporadic and temporally limited phenomenon—the heightened phases of politicization of the twentieth century tended in the end to spend themselves relatively quickly, as the Cultural Revolution showed in China—the Internet is distorting, compressing, and collapsing all our social relations, all of the time. It’s driving people mad, and it’s questionable whether ‘individuals’ will still exist in any meaningful sense once it’s finished years from now, torn apart as they are between the constant spontaneous mass action and the endless proliferation of identity that the Internet encourages.
Is this something we should be worried about? I have written that the current effects of the dominance of cybernetics are well-characterised as ‘catastrophic’. Yet in the long run it’s only an apocalypse, without reprieve, if you’re attached to the glory of the individual and to humanism as an end in itself. In the short term, to be sure, all kinds of pathological phenomena will result, and are resulting, from this intensifying cybernetic delirium. Yet Nietzsche suggested that the process of ‘levelling mankind’—like the process of nihilism—tends to overcome itself. This, I think, is precisely the wager and the motivating optimism of the ‘fundamentalist accelerationist’ who can find it within themselves to identify with this process (exit is hard to imagine).
Nietzsche, for his part, offered political analogies: the French Revolution, which went through similarly pathological phases, led in the end to a new order under Napoleon; the docility of mass Confucianism led to the glory of imperial China. Questionably encouraging exemplars, to be sure, but when projected to the level of the species, the levelling of mankind, the end-point and disintegration of the Enlightenment’s autonomous individual drives us inescapably from humanist society to a posthumanist society, from a society based on competing relationships of power to one where power itself, as Baudrillard predicted, becomes increasingly meaningless. Cybernetics is generating all-encompassing blackness, but combined with the force of techonomy it is a fair wager that in these extraordinary conditions something new will emerge. We can only hope the ride there isn’t too rough.