“One could fabulate, desperately, a sequence for crisis, but never without nostalgia’s subterfuge… suddenly you are draining the tanks of motorcycles for molotovs, as if the present in someone’s past was perceptibly arriving.”
– Jackqueline Frost, The Antidote
You know that feeling when you wake up in the morning, as if there was an alien in your chest cavity, waiting to break out; and you try to breathe calmly through your nose, as if you were a buddhist monk warming up for enlightenment; and your thoughts aren’t exactly in panic, but they know exactly what panic feels like? That’s the unbearable present, weighing on you like gravity.
When Futurism started its engine in Italy and Russia, both countries were relatively backward in economic terms; but they could already see the industrialised future, written in the soil of neighbours such as Germany and the United Kingdom. Marinetti wrote that “the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” 1His intent was aesthetic – to show that “a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace” – but like so many boy racers, his destination was unclear.
Futurism steered right into fascism, and Marinetti’s roaring car sped through the carnage of the second world war, its tyres slick with the human remains of total war. Here is the reason why the present is unbearable: we suspect that the fuel for Marinetti’s roaring car was blood, and that all the progress that we’ve made was to pay for the gas. This is matched by a feeling that some kind of precipice is just ahead of us, and that we’re trapped in a speeding vehicle with no way to get out. Perhaps if we keep our foot on the accelerator we can accelerate through this horror of history?
The philosopher Nick Land crystallised a belief “that capitalist speed alone could generate a global transition towards unparalleled technological singularity”2, generally understood to be the point at which strong artificial intelligence could design even more intelligent machines without human intervention. The Accelerationism that followed after Land wants to accelerate the same process of technological evolution as the Futurists but, unlike the Futurists, their goal is not techno-utopian. “Whereas the techno-utopians argue for acceleration on the basis that it will automatically overcome social conflict,” states the Manifesto for Accelerationist Politics, “our position is that technology should be accelerated precisely because it is needed in order to win social conflicts.”3
Nick Land deliberately withdrew from the world of academic philosophy4 as he graduated from accelerationism to Neoreaction, which he describes as “accelerationism with a flat tire,”5 bringing the roaring car to a halt. Neoreaction is also known as the Dark Enlightenment6 because its adherents reject the entire Enlightenment project of democratic progress. Their roots are instead in the techno-libertarian culture of the internet “that romanticizes itself as outlaw when more than ever it’s in bed with Wall Street” based on “free-market fundamentalism, self-concepts of rugged individualism in spite of massive but mostly invisible communitarian meshes of private and public networks on top of government subsidy and regulation.”7 This is the means through which the philosopher-kings of Silicon Valley are poised to bring the future to us; yet the future they envisage might not be the future we see for ourselves. Peter Thiel – co-founder of PayPal and a Stanford philosophy graduate – summarized it simply: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”8
However, the Neoreactionary view of the Enlightenment as a myth of progress is not restricted to the right wing; the dark has an appeal that cuts across party lines. As with accelerationism, the founders of the Dark Mountain project emerged from the left, albeit the green rather than the red variety. Their call for uncivilisation is explicitly ecological – that “the myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature,” that the dreams of the futurists are not cost-free, and that the cost is so high that it can only be paid in the coin of civilisation itself. Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth, the authors of the Dark Mountain manifesto “do not believe that everything will be fine. We are not even sure, based on current definitions of progress and improvement, that we want it to be.”9
Hine has said that the Manifesto is not apocalyptic, pointing out that its last principle is that “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop,” but this is unconvincing. The manifesto also talks about how “the pattern of ordinary life, in which so much stays the same from one day to the next, disguises the fragility of its fabric”, a fabric that can unravel at an alarming speed. Runaway climate change, in this narrative, “brings home at last our ultimate powerlessness,” and the Dark Mountain community does not attempt to claw back that power. Recognising instead that “our world is still shaped by stories,” it is with stories that they propose to respond to the collapse of civilisation; they seek to shift our worldview through uncivilised writing to accept this collapse with grace.10
The science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin wrote “there have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories,”11 and this is one way to separate the human from the other animals. We visualise the future; more specifically, we visualise our own death in that future, and stories are our defense against death. They enable us to transcend death in the form of culture, and this store of knowledge – in oral, written or digital forms – is the foundation on which we build. The problem is that, like a building, our foundations determine what the structure will eventually look like.
For example, the Accelerationist Manifesto calls Karl Marx the paradigmatic accelerationist thinker; but Marx’s vision of the technological future would have been limited to the same mechanical paradise as the Futurists.12 Berardi’s Post-Futurism13 overcomes this by proposing that “speed too has been transferred from the realm of external machines to the information domain.”14 In political terms, however, the question of who commands this domain has been fought over ever since 1996, when the “Governments of the Industrial World” received a declaration of independence from the earliest citizens of cyberspace, describing “our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies.”15 The blockchain replaces the ballot box, and the social contract becomes a Smart Contract.16
This techno-utopian vision of cyberspace avoids the question of whether it is left-wing or right-wing, “a hybrid faith [that] happily answers this conundrum by believing in both visions at the same time – and by not criticising either of them.”17 Post-Snowden, it also turns out that our virtual selves are not immune to the NSA spymasters of our sovereign rulers – but luckily the techno-libertarian Californian Ideology is not the final stop in the journey. Berardi signposts it for us, talking of communism as the therapy of singularisation, where singularity refers to “an agency that does not follow any rule of conformity and repetition, and is not framed in any historical necessity.”18
So our final destination is the ultimate singularisation process – the Technological Singularity, first appearing in a 1958 obituary for the mathematician John von Neumann, which described how accelerating technological progress, and the associated social changes, gave “the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”19 This break from history is best understood in religious terms; Berardi believes that we have lived “in the stagnant time of religion for too long” and that the Internet provides us with enough speed to achieve escape velocity, and to drive out across the empty plains of the unknown.
Little does Berardi know that a new God, a machine God, is waiting on those plains. The Technological Singularity consists of the construction of this God: an Artificial Intelligence (AI) more intelligent than those that artificed it (i.e. us), leading to an explosion of artificial intelligence. The essential question is: how do we ensure that our new God is not Cthulhu?20 Singularitarians believe that humanity’s greatest challenge is to ensure that this potential AI works to our benefit, since if it is hostile or merely indifferent to us, then civilization will come to an end almost immediately. This God does not yet exist, yet it already has its evangelists, and those evangelists are as afraid of it as they are of death.
This non-singular fear of death seems to underpin much of Singularity thinking. Two leading advocates of ‘Friendly AI’, Ray Kurzweil and Eliezer Yudkowsky, have written publicly of their fear of death. Yudkowsky works in the shadow of the early death of his brother; Kurzweil mourns the early death of his father from heart disease, and takes 250 pills per a day and six intravenous therapies per week to extend his own life. The human fear of death – that is, the fear of the future – is recast by Singularitarians as a crusade. Nick Bostrom, another AI advocate, wrote a fable that casts death – that is, the future – as a dragon-tyrant to be thrown off by humanity. 21 In order for the human race to survive, however, it must cease to exist; most Singularitarians subscribe to the transhumanist ideal that the Singularity will deliver immortality through the chymical wedding of human and machine.22
This illustrates the large overlap between singularity thinking and civilisational collapse: Nick Bostrom’s Future of Humanity Institute is filled with very smart people thinking very hard about how to avoid extinction from a range of existential threats. Everybody agrees on one thing: if the planet goes, we all go, and so the safest bet is to leave the planet ahead of that schedule. The voice of this cosmic philosophy can be heard in the self-written 1920 epitaph by the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, telling us that “Man will not always stay on Earth; the pursuit of light and space will lead him to penetrate the bounds of the atmosphere, timidly at first, but in the end to conquer the whole of solar space.”23 This was the first stitch in a coat of many colours (as long as every colour is the pitch black of space), and that coat is currently worn by the entrepreneur Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX represents the first stage in his plan to colonise Mars.
Marinetti’s automobile races on, but now it is Musk’s Tesla, an electric car that runs silently. What Musk lacks in Tsiolkovsky’s cosmic awareness, he makes up for in survival instinct, calculating that humanity has more chance of surviving if it becomes a multiplanetary infection, with Mars as Patient Zero. If Musk’s plans to colonise the red planet sound like science fiction to many people, this is partly because, like all entrepreneurs, creating his own mythology is almost as important as creating his own business. What could be more mythological than conquering the God of War himself, on a planet whose redness signifies the rubedo of the alchemists’ Chymical Wedding,24 the point at which we discover our true nature? Yet the possibility of colonising other parts of the solar system is real, and they only sound like science fiction because science fiction was talking about it long before Elon Musk.
It’s no coincidence that many of the writers associated with the positions described in this article double up as fiction writers,25 or that these positions are rooted in earlier stories, particularly from science fiction and fantasy.26 The writer Thomas Disch pointed out that the tropes of science fiction infested our ordinary lives long ago, and many of our existing technologies were directly inspired by science fiction – Martin Cooper, the inventor of the mobile phone, for example, was influenced by the wrist radio used by Dick Tracy and the Communicator devices of Star Trek.27 William Gibson experienced this more than most, finding that the future timeline for his science fiction books was collapsing towards the present, to the extent that he began referring to his work as “speculative novels, of the very recent past, rather than speculative novels of the future.”28
Like Gibson, all of these movements are responding to the speed at which we’re travelling through the unbearable present. Their politics are very different but the stories they tell are suspiciously similar. Western culture inherited from Christianity two literary methods to face the unbearable present: the Rapture and the Apocalypse. The Apocalypse calls everything to an end, often so that we can start again; the Rapture takes us high above the carnage so that we can look down as we move up. Each of the movements described here has its own vision of the Apocalypse, and that vision determines how they act now, to carve out some kind of Rapture for them to occupy in the unbearable present.
The problem with the Apocalypse is that by nearly every development metric – adult literacy, infant mortality, conflict deaths – it is better to be alive today than at any time in history.29 The statistician Hans Rosling and the economist Max Roser have both dedicated careers to shifting the narrative away from the media focus on catastrophe toward the reality that we live in a time of unprecedented prosperity; Stephen Pinker has argued strongly that violence in human civilization is on a continuous downward trend, and that the time we live in is one of unprecedented peace.30 This is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us anticipating the Apocalypse, but the good news for us is that such optimism doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t real, or that the Technological Singularity isn’t coming, or that we are not accelerating towards political collapse.
What it does mean is that our assumptions about the world have been overtaken by the social, economic and technological changes happening around us, leaving us stuck with a picture of the present that doesn’t reflect reality accurately. For example: after decolonisation, the West developed an unshakeable belief that Africa’s economic narrative was one of chronic failure, but recent research suggests that this failure was a statistical artefact that “only holds true if you ignore the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and then the 1990s and 2000s.”31 Statistics are always suspect, of course, and measurement is a form of magic, yet African countries turn out educated young people into economies that provide them with no jobs, just the same as Europe does, and it’s economic progress that links those countries to international trade networks which can export commodities – or people. The migrants arrive on the beaches of Europe carrying mobile phones, and we’re surprised to hear our demographic and technological future asking for our wi-fi password.
The movements described here are relatively insignificant in terms of numbers, but they provide us with insight, with instruction. They are presented as conversion experiences, they foresee an Apocalypse, and they call on their proponents to steer civilisation towards the Rapture. The task of the enlightened is to care for the rest of us on that journey; going back to Berardi, they have the role of “attending to those [hopeless and depressed and panicking] people and taking care of their insanity, showing them the way of a happy adaptation at hand.” Perhaps Marinetti was right to target his automobile towards aesthetic rather than political ends, even though the political is always embedded in the aesthetic. There is no escaping the unbearable present, because it has already collapsed into the future, but at least these stories can distract us from the landscape as it speeds past the windows.
In his last book before an early death, the political scientist Peter Mair wrote of how the model of democratic politics was being hollowed out as the mass political parties died off;32 those parties were the vehicles for our stories, telling us that things were once better than they are now and/or that things would be better in the future than they are now. When Srnicek and Williams argue “that the left can neither remain in the present nor return to the past,”33 they are only partially correct, because the movements described here suggest that we can’t get back to the future, either. As the past and the future have collapsed into the present, both left and right have collapsed into a new politics of the present; and the shape of this new politics is unclear, heavily contested, in permanent beta. Marinetti’s roaring automobile is now a self-driving car, waiting for somebody – anybody – to seize the steering wheel.
- Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso (1909) The Manifesto of Futurism http://www.italianfuturism.org/manifestos/foundingmanifesto
- Williams, Alex and Srnicek, Nick (2013) Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/
- Williams and Srnicek, ibid.
- Land’s withdrawal turned him into the Great Old One of contemporary philosophy – a supernatural entity slumbering in hidden space, eagerly pursued by deranged acolytes, originally conceived by the writer H.P. Lovecraft – which is appropriate given Land has himself written two Lovecraftian philosophical fictions.
- Land, Nick (2013) Re-Acceleration http://www.xenosystems.net/re-accelerationism/
- Land, Nick (year unknown) The Dark Enlightenment http://www.thedarkenlightenment.com/the-dark-enlightenment-by-nick-land/
- Borsook, Paulina (2001) Cyberselfish: Ravers, Guilders, Cyberpunks, And Other Silicon Valley Life Forms http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjolt/vol3/iss1/1/
- Thiel, Peter (2009) The Education of a Libertarian http://www.cato-unbound.org/2009/04/13/peter-thiel/education-libertarian
- Hine, Dougald and Kingsnorth, Paul (2009) Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto http://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/
- Uncivilised writing is defined in their manifesto as “writing which attempts to stand outside the human bubble and see us as we are: highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compassion or intelligence.”
- Le Guin, Ursula (1980) The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ultramarine Publishing: New York.
- Or possibly not: the Fragment on Machines (pp. 690-712 of the unpublished Grundrisse) suggest that Marx was already thinking far ahead of his technological time, anticipating the knowledge economy.
- Berardi, Franco (2009) The Post-Futurist Manifesto post-futurism http://www.generation-online.org/p/fp_bifo5.htm
- Berardi, Franco (2009) Futurism and the reversal of the future http://www.generation-online.org/p/fp_bifo8.htm
- Barlow, John Perry (1996) A Declaration of Cyberspace Independence https://projects.eff.org/~barlow/Declaration-Final.html
- The blockchain is the technology that the Bitcoin cryptocurrency runs on, while smart contracts are a new form of contractual agreement that are also based on blockchain technology.
- Barbrook, Richard and Cameron, Andy (2007) The Californian Ideology http://www.imaginaryfutures.net/2007/04/17/the-californian-ideology-2/
- Berardi, Franco (2009) Communism is back but we should call it the therapy of singularisation http://www.generation-online.org/p/fp_bifo6.htm
- Ulam, Stanislav (1958) John von Neumann 1903-1957, American Mathematical Society
- Cthulhu, one of the Great Old Ones referred to in Footnote 3, symbolised H.P. Lovecraft’s philosophy of cosmicism: that there is no God and that humanity is an insignificant species in an indifferent universe.
- Bostrom, Nick (2005) The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant http://www.nickbostrom.com/fable/dragon.html
- The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is one of the key texts of alchemy, an allegory describing the Sacred Marriage, the goal of the Great Work of Alchemy.
- Tsiolkovsky’s ‘cosmic philosophy’ contrasts with Lovecraft’s cosmicism; but also with the “cosmism” of AI researcher Hugo de Garis, who proposes the creation of godlike machines despite the belief that their creation will lead to a ‘gigadeath war’ between the old and new intelligences.
- Rubedo (“redness” in Latin) is the fourth, final stage in the Great Work of alchemy: the creation of the philosopher’s stone capable of transmuting the elements.
- Nick Land with his Cthulhu novel Phyl-Undhu, Paul Kingsnorth with his Booker Prize-nominated novel The Wake, Eliezer Yudkowsky with his astonishing novel-length fanfiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, and so on.
- Accelerationism first appeared in a novel by Roger Zelazny, the writer Vernor Vinge popularised the idea of the Singularity, the landscape of the Dark Mountain comes from a poem by Robson Jeffers, and so on.
- Disch, T. (1998) The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. Simon & Schuster: New York.
- From a 2012 interview with Wired magazine http://www.wired.com/2012/09/interview-with-william-gibson/
- This case is laid out by Charles Kenny of the Centre for Global Development in his 2015 article, The Best Year in History for the Average Human Being (www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/12/good-news-in-2015/421200/), although sadly there is no such thing as the average human being.
- Rosling, H. (2015) Don’t Panic – How to End Poverty in 15 years (http://www.gapminder.org/videos/dont-panic-end-poverty/); Roser, M. (ongoing) Our World in Data (http://ourworldindata.org); Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of our Nature. New York, NY: Viking.
- Jerven, Morten (2015) Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong. London: Zed Books.
- Mair, P. (2014), Ruling the Void: the Hollowing of Western Democracy. London: Verso Books.
- Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future. London: Verso Books.