Travel on the back roads. Image Source: pinterest.
In this post, I intended to expand on my Wild West Theory of Innovation, continued from my 19 November 2016 post, Enter the Frontier. My idea was not based on the current American television series, which echoes the same notion that techno-societies have entered a Westworld. The piece became too long, and I have decided to submit it elsewhere.
Rather than fully elaborate on my understanding of a positive path through the frontier, this post will describe the initial inspiration I had for the piece. I started with the idea that when a society innovates radically and rapidly, the innovators will encounter marginalized people and ideas as they push into the outer reaches.
There is a paradox here. Although innovation is depicted in our culture as progressive, futuristic and positive, innovation starts from a point of social, political or economic alienation. The journey into innovation is an epic trek into the frontier, a 'wild west.' I suggest that the narrative of innovation does not automatically line up with the narrative of positive progress. The innovator, in inventing, transforming and changing the status quo, will confront society's fears and uncertainties, as much as he or she confronts its hopes and dreams. As a result, the innovative society will become increasingly polarized.
The film clip below shows the starting point of that trek, when the innovator metaphorically chooses one day to walk out the back door rather than the front. This choice inverts the normal way of viewing reality, the regular processes of thought and action. What the innovator discovers is a second reality, an alternate civil state beyond the conventional pathways, an Underground. The first figures the hopeful and inspired innovator will encounter on his or her journey are the people who were already marginalized and lurking about the back ways - the criminals, the psychopaths.
Back alleyways scene from Guy Maddin's docufantasia of a Canadian city, My Winnipeg (2007) © Buffalo Gal/Documentary Channel/Everyday Pictures. Winnipeg is Canada's western gateway city. Reproduced under Fair Use. Video Source: Youtube.
Undergrounds were always repositories for strange behaviour and ideas, and normally contained them. Initially, cyberspace was that Underground, and was not taken seriously as part of the public space. It was considered a computer playland, filled with alienated losers and fringe actors, or mainstream citizens engaging in forbidden, anonymous play.
What is happening now is twofold and contradictory. As technological and socio-economic changes took hold, the usual polarization between mainstream and Underground occurred. At the same time, the Underground and mainstream are fully exposed to one another and merging together. This nasty alt-mainstream synthesis is incorporating polarities without dissolving them.
WikiLeaks just demonstrated that it can sway what is arguably the most important election in the free world with unconfirmed, wild content. Even when the content is verified, if the intent to use it is biased (or weaponized), it shows confusion around white-hat/black-hat cyberethics. And if you think that only the pro-Trump camp was interested in this technological sway, see this piece at Einzelgängerin:
Power brokers have greater access to information, but as we saw in the US elections, that does not guarantee them controlling results. In one sense, it is good that people are unreliable and sometimes random enough to operate outside the boxes the algorithms make for them. I take comfort that they can out-weird their weird creations."In April 2014, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt (who has a history of being dismissive of privacy issues) emailed a draft of ideas on how to organise the 2016 Democratic campaign to Cheryl Mills, a close aide of Hillary Clinton; in the outline, Schmidt advocated for 'the development of a single record for a voter that aggregates all that is known about them. In 2016 smart phones will be used to identify, meet, and update profiles on the voter.' The goal was to use this system of voter profiling to send out field volunteers who could help fund-raise and influence voters in favour of the Democratic candidate. (The email was leaked by WikiLeaks as part of their 'Podesta Emails' collection in October 2016.)"
There is a question of how to find truth, a new foundation for society in the form of agreed-upon social values. Citizens struggle to find information that will guide them to truth, a Millennial common good, and peaceable civil society.
The public cannot be sure if new accountabilities between the virtual and the real derive from fact or fiction. Suppression of 'fake news' in the name of safe-guarding the truth can be a euphemism for mainstream censorship of the non-mainstream, especially if the latter is further marginalized by being labeled 'alt-right.' Prior to the campaign against 'fake news,' it was confirmed that copyright violations are routinely abused to mask censorship of the non-mainstream. Good-Bad-Good-Bad-Good: it becomes impossible to tell where nascent authoritianism starts and finishes. In this environment, you can think you are a hero, defending truth, when you are in fact a villain, supporting oppression - or vice versa.
Mainstream people have begun to take cyberspace more seriously, because it has started to change their everyday realities in tangible ways. How can they describe the surreal frontier in 'serious' terms? It cannot be measured in terms of online traffic. On the Internet, logic vanishes, as does consistency. The main feature on the landscape is entertaining, spontaneous weirdness: anti-consistency, anti-linearity, anti-rationality. One minute, one's values will be reinforced, the next minute the virtual supports will evaporate, punctuated by moments of improvised, semi-comedic commentary and semi-horrific pragmatism. We have innovated to the point where we have pushed to the outer realm of the virtual, where fringe actors dominate, and we are playing by their unreliable rules.
Given that old rules no longer apply or can be inverted, I considered how one can maintain standards and build new consensuses. Thus far, cyber-communities have relied upon a loose system of personal reputation within village-like networks. But online reputations can be faked, rigged or damaged; and in anonymous systems, they don't matter. Building environments conducive to the social good is an organizational question currently researched in relation to anonymous, decentralized, and peer-to-peer systems.
From an earlier post: this 1931 photo of Seattle's Chief of Police, George Kimball, would once have unambiguously designated a message of 'good.' 85 years later, through social reevaluation and debate, it would more likely be questioned as negative or 'evil,' partly because of earlier unquestioning trust in the social labels Kimball now symbolizes.
As for the real world, I wondered about the metrics of good and evil as determined by social anthropologists. Studies at Yale confirmed that from the youngest ages, we really do demarcate between right and wrong. Theorists have argued for millennia over whether humans are innately good or bad, or if those values are social constructs. Whether this is a problem of nature or nurture, lines between good and evil are nearly always used to evaluate our social behaviour.
Long before the Internet existed, mid-20th century moral relativists attacked the old symbols used in ethical shorthand. Social reformers inverted old values. Today's innovators are inverting those inversions. Their detractors are attacking and reversing their efforts. When ways of assessing good evolve past recognition, who is recognizable in terms of civic virtue? I tend to hold to the ye-shall-know-them-by-their-fruits standard. No matter what comes out of someone's mouth, or what colour of cowboy hat they are wearing, if they leave chaos, destruction, and misery in their wake, you know who and what they are.
In New Age circles, the home of Millennial quasi-faith-based spirituality sans religion, there is an argument that knowing who and what is right and wrong, or true and false, does not matter. In this view, society is not built by social good (constructiveness) against social evil (destructiveness). 21st century spiritualists have asked the old question about why the wicked prosper, why good people suffer and evil people are rewarded. They believe it is because construction and creation are not always correlated with social morality, although they can be. This is heretical in conventional religious terms, where under most systems, the common good is synonymous with a creator and/or creation. Even in secular societies, the doctrine that a creator must build social value before individual virtue is an underlying, widely-held assumption.
Under Millennial mantras around the Law of Attraction, construction and creation depend on believing that you are positive, constructive and will succeed, regardless of how people judge you socially and morally; under this system, social virtue, that is, caring for and about others while one is building something, is only necessary up to an intuitively-held subjective point of personal comfort around energy sharing. Thus, the creator is still positive, but radically individualized, not initially communalized. Neither amoral nor familiar, this is one of the new systems of belief around building societies that exist in the frontier, beyond progress.