Rita Dove (b. 1952) was the youngest Poet Laureate in the nineties and well-known to the American public. She has written a lot of longer, mythology-inspired stuff, but for our bric-a-brac anthology I read a shorter verse:
Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don’t look back,
the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits –
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You’ll never know
who’s down there, frying those eggs,
if you don’t get up and see.
I find the peaceful bird ‘hawking’ funny. The old oak that still stands seems to refer to the future, but the second chance must imply going back to the past. The oak is what connects the two and you can speak about twenty years ago and use ‘still’ for the oak, standing still and spreading its shade. This is said explicitly by the statement that if you don’t look back the future never happens, perhaps somewhat superfluous in this otherwise economical poem.
Can you smell the American breakfast? And the light coming in from the bedroom window? I assume this happens in a typical American house where the bedroom is upstairs, so there is a coming down. The sky blown open to a blank page to write on, where writing is peddling memories and imagination. Hurry up! And you’ll find yourself down there, enriched by the shades of your own imagination.
I risk an early death by sitting down for this
so listen: my clavicles move like daggers
to write cut-throat poetry for you
no jokes. no mirrors.
This here is a message you cannot unread. Also, it ages
less quickly than we do. When you and I have turned
into dust, this thing will be around.
I wanted it engraved, as our signature on a granite rock
to be unearthed after seventy-two generations. Then came doubt:
I don’t know which is greater: the horror of their gaze
or the horror of nothingness
But since that is no ending, I will throw this thing
into the tiding ocean of geological time
shall we uncork it so it dissolves like the salt on your tongue
when we drink tequilas or make love?
The exponential growth of computing power has created unprecedented possibilities for the democratic organization of a people. Looking at the current voting system of democracies around the world however, very little of these digital innovations to improve the finding and execution of the ‘will of the people’ have been realized. It is largely unchartered territory, in which smaller nations with little bureaucratic inertia will forge ahead by experimenting. Think of a country like Estonia, that became the first nation to hold national elections using Internet voting in 2005.
Using the Internet for casting ballots is merely an improvement in efficiency (if we can be sure that the systems are safe). It doesn’t affect the nature of democracy. Voting is still an event that happens once every four years or so, and democratic societies oscillate between rallies for the party and complaints about the disconnect of their elected representatives. Politics proper, the art of transferring power from the people to a select group of law-making and executive personnel, is a seasonal thing.
Does not our fast world require fast politics? Does not our contiguous society require contiguous politics? What I mean is this. In our always-online world, the event has been replaced by the stream. Everything is in flow; you never browse the same time line twice. Receiving a letter, for example, used to be an event. It was separated from other events by time. It was assumed that the recipient didn’t reply immediately, people didn’t experience a stream of communication, but a series of events. The fact that Facebook allows us to share “life events” shows how the stream is usurping the event. We graduate, fall in love, marry, give birth and die, somewhere on the way scrolling down.
The notion of an event has in fact become almost synonymous with destruction. We think of a terrorist attack (or a government trying to prevent one) that can disrupt our Internet. It seems to be archaic that we still stick with elections as events.
Given the rapid increase in technological power, we have the means to change this. What lacks is the desire to do so: in the offline world we are still very much (or even more) fond of our habits. We celebrate elections and cherish the illusion that every citizen makes a ‘decision’ by casting their vote. But societal processes are essentially continuously run algorithms and that means they can be optimized like algorithms. A true democracy would be a continuous polling machine that is never switched off. The electorate can vote anywhere, anytime, resulting in a real-time representation of the ‘will of the people’. This doesn’t mean that the government will change every week, because there will be constitutional thresholds for the amount of disagreement with the current government that is expressed in the continuous poll to have political consequences. Constitutional? The most effective threshold will be calculated by another algorithm. The Constitution is a set of preconditions that algorithms are designed to satisfy continuously.
Apart from voting, we can deploy an algorithm to calculate individual tax rates (positive and negative tax, or “basic income”) optimizing the amount of distributive justice in society according to the same continuous democratic preferences. Receiving wellfare or “paying your taxes” ceases to be an event. In the contiguous society, it is part of the stream.
The Constitution is a set of preconditions that algorithms are designed to satisfy continuously.
There are a lot of interesting philosophical implications that are beyond the scope of this note. If our social actions are no longer events, they also lose the “narrative arc”, the anticipation or regret that is perhaps our main supplier of meaning. Thus, human interaction and language will be different. One could also say that the Event is always – and never – happening.
What we see here is the purest form of a dystopian future. Everything we hold dear in traffic will be sacrificed for the convenience of apathatic air-conditioned slumbering in self-driving ugliness, on our way to a slightly colder place in hell. What we cherish most about ‘traffic’ (that concept will disappear during this disenchanting transformation) is the social aspect of it. Forever gone will be turning down the window in order to yell at our dearest fellow mortals. Gone will be the days that we were merely semi-enclosed in rolling aluminum gaskets, still able to hunk at each other and call a motherfucker, a motherfucker. Never again will the complexity of human traffic challenge our minds and invoke polite consideration for those we share the road with, let alone gentlemanlike courteousness.
As we float in the weightlessness and witlessness of our Sedric succumbing to whatever movie we ‘choose’ to play on the high-tech screen it sports for a windshield, we will learn to forget about the father of all modern-day conflicts. It will leave us unequipped for any real conflict situation that might still bubble up from the cesspool of our primate instincts. We will dodge each other at the first sign of genuine, well, otherness. And that, my friends, is a dystopia.