It’s 2002. Winter. You and I are out on the balcony, smoking cigarettes, looking at the stars and imagining a future we know nothing about. In uniform as always, lead-white powder and black eyeliner. Our very own tribe, distinct and scrappy. Never to be subjugated. Never to conform.
Yet at the heart of all this adolescent subcultural posturing was a real enough dissatisfaction with the surrounding society and what it had to offer. Even an abject horror at the notion of surrendering to the caged and meaningless existence of wage slavery and consumption. Of acquiescing to a pre-packaged non-life chosen for you, against your will and desires, and then suffocating beneath the kitchen sink realism of it all.
But we could still go anywhere we wanted to.
And we often did. I saw the sunset in Berkeley. I heard Hume throughly refuted right there in Feyerabend’s old back yard.
I held the line in the riot at King’s Garden. Kissed a lot of people on the muddy fields of Værmaland.
I even saw the cherry trees in the Japanese spring. I heard the secret hymns of Metroid from their very murky source in Akihabara, and for some reason I’ll never forget that tormented film school student with the sad eyes who gave me a drink for no reason at all.
If you’d asked me, for no reason at all, I think I would have stayed.
Yet we always came back to this town. There’s something still here, something about the music of all of your eyes and voices, an incomprehensible magic in that unfettered platonic companionship of instinctual resistance that could bring out the ethereal, unforgettable beauty of old corrugated tin roofs, empyting, run-down apartment buildings and gray, cracked asphalt.
We loved each other and struggled together with our eyes wide open, in an unspoilt, immediate hope and charity that just made the world so much fuller. So much more real than what we now find ourselves in.
And we actively made the spaces our own. Tangibly, so we could breathe. Painted our walls and our faces with weird motifs as our songs echoed down the streets. The smell of coffee and theatre curtains. Art and music made by hand, rarely purchased. Life was then a Baudelaire poem pregnant with meaning and hidden symbolism, and one cannot quite let all of that go from the point of view of this gray otherwheres. One cannot help but return.
Yeah, most of this is gone.
Not just for me, because I’m getting older, but actually gone.
The other day, John Steppling remarked how our lived human spaces during this very period started to collapse under the encroachment of mediatic colonization. The corrupting penetration of digital technology:
Looking back the thing I missed, and perhaps most everyone missed, was the gradual, slow but inexorable growth of media and marketing. The effects were profound, though I think few people grasped the depth of the changes taking place. I think a certain watershed occurred with Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967). And then May 69, and then an escalating anti-war movement (against the US war on Vietnam).
Again, the point here is that young artists felt there was a place for them. What one sees today is the very idea of ‘place’ has all but disappeared. But this slow creeping change in class relations, and certainly in marketing overall, was clear but it was not terribly threatening. McLuhan appeared, and many others, and yet it was not until somewhere around the Millennium — somewhere from the late 90s to about 2004 that this creeping change became glaringly obvious and suddenly it WAS threatening. Of course 9/11 became the uber-marketing experiment, and the ur-modern political post internet marketing project, and it set in motion a lot of what one sees today with the Covid event. The voice of Capital, whether it was the Wall Street Journal or the US State Department, started to sound desperate.
Yet just twenty years ago, the internet was almost thoroughly decentralized. As perhaps a sudden counterpoint to this development, yet to be fully recuperated, everything moved by word of mouth or text messaging protocols. The structure was still basically that of the 80s BBS, where you had lots of small nodes everywhere and no overarching metastructure to navigate or streamline all of them.
And we didn’t really “consume content” online. We exchanged messages. We played games and listened to music, sure, but all of that was pirated, and most of what you downloaded were via DC++ from separate “hubs” hosted by people you knew. An astonishing number of kids even sat down and coded their own websites in html, so a lot of the online content you saw was actually generated from scratch by your peers. Remember Geocities?
We had a brief spark of agency in a way that’s almost unthinkable now.
Even the “internet communities”, the social media of the day, were homegrown. We had countless of those here in Sweden. They sprung up like mushrooms, catering to various subcultures or interests, or just creating new ones, and where somebody around always knew the actual people involved. Hugely creative environment, epitomized on the international level by the anarchic 4chan at its peak between 2006-2007.
Of course, we weren’t online all the time back then either. Life mainly took place outside of the digital sphere. We didn’t carry computer terminals in our back pockets. You went home from school or college, chatted with your friends online and watched a movie you’d just downloaded, but the bulk of your interactions were with actual people in the physical universe. I’d even say that there was a clear positive synergy between the mainly decentralized online sphere and the actual cultural life of people in general, especially among the younger generations. A sort of symbiosis that fostered self-sufficiency, the growth of local artforms and subcultures, and in all a significant if precarious independence from the global corporate media.
There’s much more to say about this, of course. Not least how this situation in many ways effectively bypassed the informational control grid in place since the 1840s and the emergence of the telegraphy monopolies, or on the connections to the international solidarity movements of the turn of the millennium. Everybody knew Subcomandante Marcos.
Occupy was just an aftershock.
Because when Facebook and the smartphones came, all of that collapsed. Everything eroded, slowly but surely. All the local alternatives disappeared. The delicate cultural ecosystems that once thrived were suffocated by the corporate media’s dominant framework.
And here was that old kitchen sink realism again, those obligatory and interchangable IKEA aesthetics, and the violently compelled conformism. The principle of always using a nickname online became “give us your name and your ID, because we’re going to sell your data to our criminal friends".
Not only that, the growth imperative of these large-scale market operations meant that as soon as they were really rooted, they rapidly began colonizing also the offline spaces. There’s no reason for Facebook or Instagram to synergize positively with your local coffee shop or jazz club (especially not in any way that structurally prioritizes the offline interactions) nor even with a proliferation of creative and varied online platforms. You want people spending as much time online as possible, and you naturally want to keep them away from any competitors.
And this goes back to the root cause as to why there’s very little magic left in the actual, tangible world around us. We don’t even live in our physical surroundings anymore, being directly or indirectly absorbed in digital simulacra for the vast majority of our time awake. Kids don’t don the punk attire and go to concerts which however recuperated and consumerist is at least some form of relational, lived experience. They’re harnessed as content creators, uploading immediately commodified images of themselves to Instagram, competitors on the marketplace of attention.
This cannot but drain our actual environment and real, lived relations of both life and meaning, especially since the digital sphere has been reduced to something inherently parasitic. Something that feeds on the actual physical associations that are integral to human life as such.
The three or four of us are not sitting out on the roof in the sunset anymore, fearful and pissed off, yet happy and astonished to be alive. We’re now staring blankly at the incomprehensible meaninglessness of our dead screens, seemingly unable to even remind ourselves that we actually exist.
There’s nothing bringing out the beauty of all of these ruins anymore.
But I remember how different it used to be, even with all the poison and harm inherent to the digital technologies as such. We found ways to use them that actually had a net benefit to our relations and the richness of our real lives offline. No, in the absence of the corporate framework, we even tended towards those practices by default.
That’s precisely why I firmly believe that we can turn this around. That there’s a way to circumvent these systems of surveillance, oppression and control so as to reclaim that agency and independence without which this life is nothing but slavery.
And the work is well under way. In the current push towards decentralizing digital media once again, there are countless initiatives exploring functional forms of citizen science, not least Mathew Crawford’s Operation Uplift. Crowdsourced journalism and research is carving out a foothold with platforms such as this one, and the possibilities to explore pertaining to actual distributed participatory democracy are almost endless.
When the smoke finally clears, and the lies and the violence become much too blatant to hide or deny, our freshly eroded trust in both global capital and the authority of the state will be excellent fuel for a long overdue reform of the entire social order.
Ask not what you can do for your country
Ask what your country did to you
But we must be fearless. We’re facing a broken system at the end of its life, and terror was always its main tool of control. It’s going to throw everything it can at us, but at the end of the day, the spectacle is just an illusion. It’s powerless without your acquiescence, and there are a hundred ways to look away from it and start building self-sufficiency and resilience.
So let's stop this and start over.
Let's go out. Let's keep going.