“If there is to be a livable and shared future on our planet, it will be disconnected, independent of the 24/7 capitalist systems and operations that are destroying the world.” With this statement begins the latest book by Jonathan Crary (Vermont, USA, 72 years old), a critic and art teacher obsessed with how technology is altering our lives.
In Burned ground. Towards a post-capitalist world (Ariel), the author charges against the way in which technology has shaped the current state of capitalism, a system “irreconcilable with any kind of conservation or preservation.” The climate emergency is the latest warning sign on the path to self-destruction that humanity has embarked on, and which we will not abandon without drastic changes.
Crary is aware that this subject is far from his area of expertise, modern art. But, out of intellectual responsibility, he says, he can’t stop writing about it. “Hundreds of books on technology are published every year. Mine does not have a pedagogical vocation, but an agitator ”, he explains by videoconference from his office in New York. It is not the first book that he has published on this subject. He addressed how technology is redefining the experience of life in 24/7. Capitalism to the assault of the dream (Ariel, 2015). “Burned ground It is a continuation of that idea: I tell what are the tools with which this perpetual connection of people is being fostered”. He is already preparing a third part, in which he will explore the forms of resistance against these tendencies.
Ask. You write: “The idea that the Internet could function independently of the catastrophic operations of global capitalism is one of the most staggering fallacies of our time.”
Answer. I wanted the book to be provocative, in the tradition of political pamphlets, and to challenge some of the standard conventions. That includes the way we think about how to transform our present. We are in a state of global emergency. I try to insist that if there is really going to be any kind of sustainable future, you have to accept that some of the fundamental elements of our present are simply going to be incompatible with these new scenarios. The patterns and habits that dominate individual and social life are simply not going to work, and the Internet is not safe.
Q. In the 1990s, the whole world saw the Internet as a revolutionary technology for sharing knowledge. What’s left of it?
R. What we are seeing is a relentless intensification of the ways in which different systems, platforms and social networks conspire to occupy and commercialize different aspects of our lives. The Internet was a breath of fresh air in the 1990s, but at the same time it is simply a kind of intensification of the processes that are intrinsic to capitalism in the West. That has already been seen by people like Rosa Luxemburg and other critics of capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Internet triumphed because it enables a consumer society that works 24 hours a day”
Q. How did the internet come to be a tool controlled by a few companies?
R. Countless institutions and private companies saw the kind of access and atomization that this technology allowed. It offered the possibility of a 24/7 consumer society, and was extending the idea of the consumer to almost every aspect of social experience. What happens now offline is becoming increasingly irrelevant, partly because it is more difficult to monetize it. Internet romantics continue to see it as a tool with potential for social connection, activism, and organizing. I’m not saying that’s impossible, but in the long run, I think if we want to continue living on this planet, we need to limit the digital sphere of our lives.
Q. You say that the Green New Deal is nonsense, that it is not a genuine solution to the climate crisis.
R. I think people are deluded into thinking that betting on supposedly clean energy will solve the problem. It simply perpetuates all the destructive habits we are immersed in. It doesn’t question our very identity as consumers and empowers us with the idea that we all have to buy electric vehicles. And that’s the last thing the planet needs: hundreds of millions of electric vehicles replacing those that burn fossil fuels. Why not look for a much more radical transformation on mobility? Why not bet on mass public transport? The same goes for the obsession that all we have to do is reduce fossil fuel emissions. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but if it’s not part of a much broader program to transform the habits and patterns that govern life in societies, it doesn’t make sense. The current lifestyle is unviable in a world with 8,000 million inhabitants. That includes our use of the internet, which consumes a lot of energy. Any strategy that does not alter the way we consume and behave is a waste of time.
Q. He also maintains that the Internet does not unite us, but rather makes us more individualistic. Young people, he says, are less politically organized today than 30 years ago, and this proves that the Internet is the perfect tool for capitalism.
R. That is. The title of the book is Burned ground in reference to the environmental emergency, but also to the devastation of communities and the social experience. I am a professor of Modern Art in [la Universidad de] Columbia, so you can rightly ask me what I’m doing writing about this. What I am undertaking in a certain sense is a kind of aesthetic critique, in the broadest sense of the word. There is something that has been lost in recent years. People complain about the effects on our lives of data mining or mass surveillance. I try to focus more on the transformation of the social experience itself. I believe that the lives of young people are becoming impoverished by focusing so much on the digital environment. I know there are a lot of clichés out there about kids spending too much time playing video games or between screens. Beyond that, we are suffering damage to some of our perceptual abilities.
Q. He says that, since 2003, demonstrations in the United States have decreased remarkably. And that this is related to the expansion of the Internet.
R. The demonstrations in the US against the Iraq war were one of the last expressions of a kind of organized mass mobilization. It is true that the Occupy Wall Street movement came later, but it dissolved very quickly, it had no lasting effects. People today are more disorganized. I’m not saying that’s the internet’s fault, but it certainly has contributed.
“Internet is impoverishing the lives of young people, it disconnects them socially”
Q. What do you think of the metaverse? If it takes hold in the next few years, how will it affect the way we relate to each other?
R. I honestly don’t see the development of a kind of closed and networked world. I don’t think it’s going to happen. It is an imaginary extension of the logic of isolation and separation, part of the idea that the world we inhabit is useless. The metaverse is manipulable digital information converted into images. We’ll see if he wins.
Q. It also maintains that science and technology are no longer aligned with human needs. Because?
R. I knew I was going to get a lot of criticism about it. Science cannot be treated as something divorced from its historical, economic and institutional foundations. For some reason, it seems that this body of knowledge is exempt from critical appraisal. And that must be said to recover an invisible critique of the assumptions on which Western science has been based since the 16th century. I quote in the book some thinkers who have already underlined this, but I focus on the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. He was part of the academic world, but already in the 1920s he was able to see that the relationship between science and technology had evolved into something dramatically different from what it had been in previous centuries. At some point, science and technology went their separate ways, and from the second half of the 19th century they focused on product development.
Q. You accuse those who warn that digitization is jeopardizing privacy because their proposal is to soften the effects of capitalism instead of changing that system. What would your approach be?
R. I’m not saying privacy isn’t important, it obviously is. But I try to present a critique from another point of view. For example, biometric technologies such as eye tracking and facial recognition are said to simply spy on us or find out something about us. I think it goes beyond that. They establish patterns about what we look at or what we like the most or what attracts our attention to then build a reality that conditions us. We tend to think of ourselves as looking at neutral screens, but what is shown to us is continually redefined to appeal to us, thus removing any thought-provoking visual information. It seems wrong to me to claim more privacy if it only serves to continue using our social networks or binge-watching series on streaming, But in private. In this way, we would perpetuate individualistic dynamics that I consider socially destructive, because they are the antithesis of the idea of making decisions that are beneficial to a community.
Q. Do you think you will see any of the changes you suggest?
R. We are in the middle of a climate emergency, so there will have to be changes by force. Another thing is in what direction and to whom they benefit. We are going through a very dangerous time, but I also think it is potentially transformative.
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