November 17, 2015
Preview: We, Robots by Curtis White
by Mark Krotov
We, Robots by Curtis White comes out today, which means you still have a few weeks to absorb its arguments before your inevitable Thanksgiving confrontation with your tech-bro evangelist cousin, whose new great idea is “Uber, but for education.” Thankfully, We, Robots will provide you with every bit of ammunition to combat such loose talk.
Curtis White is our great critic of the seemingly inevitable, and nothing appears more inevitable these days than the notion that technological innovation will solve all our problems. But it’s not enough to assert that that notion is wrong. What you need is to close-read the techno-utopians—to take them apart line by line—and this is exactly what White does; to watch him topple Wired’s ecstatic futurism and Tyler Cowen’s swaggering matter-of-factness is a singular joy.
White argues that the biggest problem with the technophile’s way of looking at the world is its narrow-mindedness—its lack of open-endedness—and so he ends We, Robots with a tribute to the great artists of contingency. It’s an idiosyncratic list—Rabelais, Sterne, Stevens (Sufjan), Jonze (Spike)—and a wholly delightful one. In the end, We, Robots is a joyful book that takes nothing for granted, and which may very well inspire you. Here’s a sample.
Like a motley assortment of zombies—some dressed in top hat and spats, some in jodhpurs, some more hardscrabble with a Cargill seed cap, others in Wall Street black with a white scrim of coke around the nostrils—the ideological narratives of the past surround us. Upper crust, “right sort” elitism? Check. Evangelical dumb bunnies? Got ‘em. Galilean mechanical determinists? All too present. Age-old stereotypes about race/class/gender? Oh yeah. Protestant work ethic? Present as ever like a starched white collar or a noose around our necks. The selfishness-is-good crowd? You bet: the Big Swinging D*cks are all junked up and ready to build a book. The myths of nationalism are also still with us in their ever undead way. Even Barack Obama contributes to their survival, as he did in his 2012 nomination acceptance speech: “Every day they make me proud. Every day they remind me how blessed we are to live in the greatest nation on earth.”
While these stories are still present, they are mostly irrelevant, history’s freak show sitting in circus boxcars on a rail siding. That is, they don’t have much to contribute to the creation of new stories that have a probable claim to the future—the inevitable future, as it is usually put. There is something newish about the storytellers as well. There is nothing avuncular about them, they’re freshly shrink-wrapped and barcoded: libertarian economists like Tyler Cowen; techno-gurus at Google; New Atheist rationalists like Michael Shermer writing for Scientific American; even polished documentary storytellers like the filmmaker Ken Burns—all of these have contributions to make to the re-narration of the present.
What follows is mostly concerned not with those fabrications that have been with us for the last two centuries—God, morality, patriotism, the founding fathers, military heroism, the “bitch goddess” success—but with our new storytellers, the masters of tomorrow. Whether in science, technology, or economics, these stories are being rapidly naturalized and made to seem inevitable. “And so what?” some might ask. “It’s all about human curiosity and creativity, isn’t it, and what’s wrong with that?”
At a minimum, there are two things wrong. The first is obvious: our new stories have a strong tendency to stabilize a world arranged according to the needs of techno-capitalism. The second is more subtle: they all involve the assumption that everything can be explained in mechanistic terms, that everything is, in a sense, robotic.
Our situation is advanced. Nothing discussed in We, Robots is a threat that we will have to confront in the future. It’s all here now. But what is here now still needs, moment by moment, to gain our consent, and it does that by telling us stories—most of which are effective even if they are also laughably false. What we should want to know now is not whether the techno-plutocracy of the present can be reversed, because it cannot. There’s no going back. There’s nothing back there to go to (assuming you’re not a rightwing nationalist). What we should want to know is if it is too late to move forward by telling different stories. Once we know how silly are the stories we currently live under—once we have laughed at them—we can declare our independence from them and do what artists do: claim the human freedom to be the creators of their own world. The artists wait for us to join them. Romantic poets, symbolists, cubists, twelve-tone composers, modernist avant-gardists, beatniks, free jazz boppers, hippies, writers of postmodern fiction, punks, hip-hoppers, and every manner of indie rock band, these are all social movements first, social movements offered through art.
Unlike much socialist thought, art does not ask that we sacrifice living now in the name of some distant time when victory has been won. Art is part of a politics of refusal. What is gratifying about the politics of art and counterculture is that we get to live our resistance now through play, beauty, laughter, and the promise of happiness. Through art we learn what we want. We learn what we mean by “freedom.” And we are inoculated against not only the techno-capitalist present but against the disappointments of the “perfected” socialist state. By beginning through art and philosophy, we are much less likely to be “fooled again,” as The Who sang, by either capitalists or socialists.
We, Robots by Curtis White
Page Count: 304
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Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.