Italian Futurism

Dynamism of a Car by Luigi Russolo (1913)

When I started organizing futurist meetups in 2009, one of the first things I did was search for images related to futurism so that I could make the meetup event pages more interesting.  A lot of the results seemed to be of paintings with a bunch of motion lines which confused me until I discovered the Italian Futurist art movement of the early 20th century. Their fascist political orientation had suppressed interest in them for years, but I liked the art and have used a lot of their imagery to promote my events over the years.  When people ask me what futurism is, I often jokingly respond “An Italian Fascist art movement of the early 20th century.” Which tends to generate more confusion than laughter.

Portrait of Il Duce by Gerardo Dottori (1933)

As I dug more into Italian Futurism, I started seeing a surprising number of parallels with modern futurism.  Revisiting the ideas of past futurists can offer insights into how modern thinkers are responding to technological disruption.

The Futurist art movement was founded by a wealthy, internationally educated, Italian poet named Filippo Marinetti.  He kicked off the movement with the Futurist Manifesto in 1909 in which he made bombastic claims that glorified the speed of motorcars over the static beauty of classical art.  One can imagine how Italian artists in particular must have felt crushed by the weight of antiquity all around them – from the Colosseum to the Sistine Chapel. And their vigorous mediterranean spirits rebelled and seized on the opportunity for change that technology was presenting all around them.

Marinetti in his 4 cylinder Fiat, 1908.

Motorcars and aeroplanes must have seemed just as disruptive in the early 1900’s as the internet seemed in the 1990’s.  The world was shrunk by both. And both disruptions lead to changes in human identity. Marinetti called for a “new man” whose psyche was transformed by machinery, accelerated communication, and transportation networks.  Contrast that with the transhumanists of today who see not just the psychological transformation of man, but even physical transformation as we are augmented with computer interfaces, or modified to live extended lifespans through longevity science.

Nose Dive on the City by Tullio Crali (1939)

The underlying driver in both cases is technology tearing through the world and reforming society into novel configurations.  The anarcho-fascist Marinetti wanted to tear down institutions, but one may argue that he was simply reacting to the fact that technology was already reshaping society.  Here of course, the analogy between the two movements becomes tenuous because there is of course no fascism in modern America. (Let’s not talk about Nick Land right now, ok?)  Americans today aren’t shelled shocked into a fascist response after seeing traditional ways of life torn to shreds by modern systems.  

Brooklyn Bridge by Joseph Stella (1919)

In his own era, prior to WWI, Marinetti openly called for war as “the world’s only hygiene.”  And he went and served in war zones on multiple occasions in his life. But even the fiery and bellicose Italian must have been impacted by the carnage of that first Great War.  In his 1921 Tactilism manifesto, we see The Futurist focused more on fusion and the destruction of barriers that keep people separated.

Armored Train in Action by Gino Severini (1915)

From our own stance, we can see not only the devastation of wars throughout the previous century, but also the soul crushing isolation that modernity has imposed on society and which sowed the seeds of postmodernism.  The meetup is a modern response to this dilemma, bringing affinity groups together to escape the loneliness of their barren apartments.

Depending on how schizophrenic you are, it’s easy to see countless parallels between the two futurist movements.  Futurist architects in 1912 designed skyscrapers that were impossible to build with the materials of the time. Today, we have the ethereum network.

Antonio Sant’Elia, New City: Tenement Building  1914.

Each era presents an array of tensions between opposing forces.  The tension between the dynamism of the Futurists and the stasis of the Cubists left Picasso in the popular imagination but relegated Balla to the art students.  Today a battle rages for attention control as even narrative breaks down and micro-slices of consciousness are squabbled over between corporate algorithms and memetic infections.

Velocity Of An Automobile by Giacomo Balla (1913)

One take away from this is that futurists have a role to play in society separate from the technologists.  Technology inevitably destroys pre-existing patterns of human behavior. Humans are thrown off balance by this.  If we prefer not to charge madly into war as Marinetti and his cohort did, then perhaps we can contribute integration services. We might help our fellow humans make sense of and adapt to the current disruptions that we all face, as well as the coming changes.  

If You Use Tools, Then You’re “Transhuman”

Nexus

I’m reading Nexus, by Ramez Naam. I like the book so far, except for the early chapters, which are a little creepy and repetitive. But one of the themes is that there will be a war between transhumans and unaugmented humans. This idea has gained popularity and it’s starting to annoy me.

When I saw Ramez Naam speak at the H+ conference in 2012, he scoffed at the very term “transhuman.” He made the point that ALL humans augment, and the term “transhuman” seems to imply a mythical, non-augmenting human. His examples of transhumans were people who have pacemakers or who use birth control. Look at professional athletes. Does anyone really think those are unaugmented humans? They’re on steroids, practically mutants. Cyclists are using blood doping until their blood is so packed with red blood cells that it sometimes stops flowing through their veins and kills them. Or consider how new prosthetic legs make amputee runners superhuman.

I would go so far as to say that using a sharpened stick is as transhuman as using a brain-computer interface. So transhumanism is a misnomer. Transhumanism is really just extreme tool use. And politics being what they are, the elite will always control the wielders of technology, just as kings controlled the knights of medieval times.

But writers keep setting up conflicts between tool users and non-tool users. Zoltan Istvan has previously called for transhumans to deliberately create conflicts with religious people, who he imagines don’t like tools. Yuval Harari in Homo Deus suggests that transhumans could dominate humans as 19th century Europeans dominated Africans. In a recent Forbes article, Jeff Stibel warns that brain-computer interfaces could destroy humanity and calls for ethicists and philosophers to guide us. And, you know what, they are all correct (aside from the ethicists guiding us idea, that’s utterly laughable bullshit), but they are missing a key point.

Tool using populations destroy non-tool using populations. In the past, farmers used crazy technology to create food on demand and then consolidated resources and crushed the hunter-gatherers around them. Zoltan needn’t call for deliberate conflict. The wielders of the most advanced technology INEVITABLY overwhelm or convert those without it. Transhumanism will be no different. Harari might take a moment to note how the technology rich Global North dominates the poor Global South TODAY. Wealthy Westerners are already transhuman compared to the poorest in the world. We have longer lives and amazing influence.

This competition is very essentially human, and I’m not even sure that it’s entirely bad. As I’ve said before, cooperative groups turn out to be more competitive. Compassion is an evolved superweapon. Stibel is deluded. There is no stopping this process. He can hold back his patents for BrainGate all he wants. The physical world will continually yield up its mechanisms of action to the prying minds of restless humans. His discoveries will be reproduced. Cultures that seek to repress technology will be surpassed and dominated by cultures that don’t. That’s just the way the world works. Partly because ethics aren’t universal. Some players have legitimately diverging interests.

But in the broader scheme of things, we aren’t meant to stop and rest. Life has been evolving for billions of years. It will keep evolving. That’s physics. Entropy must be maximized and the negative entropy of more and more complex living things must fulfill the requirement of the physics engine running our universe. What if life had stopped evolving at bacteria? From a human’s perspective, that would have sucked. How can we begrudge the post-humans their place? Hint, we don’t get to. On the plus side, bacteria ARE still around and we need them to survive. On the negative side, neanderthals only exist as DNA remnants. I hope that the jump to the next level of evolution will be so extreme that, to the next generation, humans are more like bacteria and less like neanderthals. There’s a strange toast. Cheers!

Is the Military-Industrial Complex Functioning as Designed?

military general drinking whiskey and holding a gunThe Operators, by Michael Hastings

I went to a poetry reading in North Beach last week and then out drinking with the poets and their friends afterwards. This fulfilled an old Beatnik fantasy of mine. As I teenager, I venerated the Beat generation writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg. Their jazz-fueled, drug-laden epiphanies, wandering barefoot through the city at dawn, seemed a far cry from my suburban ennui, where the shopping mall was the hottest spot for us teens to gather. But there I was, last week, sitting in an old North Beach bar, arguing about Hemingway with a bunch of old hippie communist poets in the very place that Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Cassady might have had the same disagreement. It was like a dream come true.

Communists that they are, these poets blamed all of modernism’s ills on capitalism exclusively, it’s all about the money for them. Marx himself was a modernist in my own view, and the systems inspired by his visions have fared no better than those driven by capital in terms of real human flourishing, but I’m grinding a different axe today. See, the commies are convinced that it’s all about the money. Why has the US been venturing into the Middle East for so many years, wasting money and lives, as we clumsily sow chaos throughout the region? It must be for the money. “No Blood For Oil” read the protest signs. And it’s not an exclusively leftist position to take. Eisenhower himself coined the phrase “military-industrial complex” to warn of these powerful vested interests, and he was technically a Republican, though no Republican today would tolerate his views, I’m sure.

I hate to say this, postmodernist that I am, but there’s a part of me that thinks, if the US needs oil, it will grab oil. Our country is a system, competing with other systems for resources. I’d rather live under our system than under the Chinese or Russians, so I grit my teeth and bear it. But if you look at the details of the Iraq war, for example, huge Iraqi oil fields were ruined with water when they were disrupted by the war. Maybe some US oil companies benefitted temporarily from transient spikes in oil prices, but it’s not like the US is literally pumping the oil and taking it away. The US isn’t really benefitting from Iraqi oil. We spent way, way more on that war than we got back in free oil. One might say, well, it’s these multinational oil corporations that benefited. But it’s not at all clear why multinationals would care which regime they got their oil from. Saddam Hussein couldn’t pump the stuff himself.

And then there’s this whole line of reasoning that Hussein was threatening the US petrodollar by accepting euros for oil. And that seems like a decent argument, and would actually be aligned with US interests. Sure, we want the dollar to be propped up by the fact that it’s a global reserve currency. That’s fine, in a sense. Like it or hate it, if the purpose of the military-industrial complex is to preserve western dominance, as Chomsky might say, then this is just the sort of thing we should EXPECT it to do, and crying about it isn’t going to change the realpolitik of the situation. Powerful systems crush weak systems, end of story.

But then I ask myself, what if these systems AREN’T functioning to preserve US dominance? It may well be that US interests have actually been harmed by our Middle East adventures. We’ve certainly spilled plenty of blood and cash in Afghanistan for no apparent benefit. No oil there. Some pipeline theories float around, or maybe there’s a huge cache of rare earth metals we can grab, but, based on our track record, the US will probably fail to profit from either rare earth metals or pipelines.

It doesn’t seem like our military-industrial complex is being guided by the principle of advancing US interests. And that’s actually a bigger problem than if it were. If we were just bullies stomping on weak nations to make ourselves stronger, that wouldn’t be so bad, really. . . But if the military-industrial complex ISN’T guided by principles . . . if it fails to advance US interests, then it could destroy the US.

It doesn’t seem like our military-industrial complex is being guided by the principle of advancing US interests. And that’s actually a bigger problem than if it were. If we were just bullies stomping on weak nations to make ourselves stronger, that wouldn’t be so bad, really. As Pinker asserts in Better Angels, we have a long history in the West of becoming more and more civilized. If we’re bullies, we can learn to be gentle. But if the military-industrial complex ISN’T guided by principles, then it runs the risk of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. If it fails to advance US interests, then it could destroy the US, and there could be no more US to suck money out of at some point.

We saw a similar thing play out with the bank bailouts. A proper capitalism with accountability for making bad bets removes stupid strategies from the marketplace and should sustainably generate wealth for many. A crony capitalism that offloads risk onto the taxpayers threatens to break the very system from which its wealth is built.

What if these systems that we depend upon are broken? What if we didn’t go to war with Iraq to get the oil, we just went to fulfill the contracts of the military contractors? That just seems so crazy. Surely there should be someone at the wheel, guiding this whole thing, who would see a problem with that? But maybe not.

I read The Operators, by Michael Hastings. . . The big takeaway for me was that the military seems to be driven by a cult of bloodlust. . . The officers aren’t fighting for their country, they’re fighting to spill blood and to risk their own troop’s blood, in and of itself. . . Hastings describes war as a drug, the ultimate adrenaline high. And that paints an ugly picture. The actual foot soldiers think they’re fighting for their country, but they’re actually fighting out of loyalty to their fellow soldiers. The Pentagon starts a war simply to deploy assets and make sure that the defense industry gets paid, and the officers execute it because spilling blood is such a fucking RUSH, man! Holy shit, we’re fucked. . . This is a terrible system.

I had sort of accepted that defense contract spending was driving US military intervention, but then I read The Operators, by Michael Hastings. There’s a lot to say about this excellent book and its unfortunate author, but the big takeaway for me was that the military seems to be driven by a cult of bloodlust. On some level, the officers aren’t fighting for their country, they’re fighting to spill blood and to risk their own troop’s blood, in and of itself. It’s not even clear if they see these war theaters as proving grounds for their character, which would have some virtue, I guess. Hastings describes war as a drug, the ultimate adrenaline high. And that paints an ugly picture. The actual foot soldiers think they’re fighting for their country, but they’re actually fighting out of loyalty to their fellow soldiers. The Pentagon starts a war simply to deploy assets and make sure that the defense industry gets paid, and the officers execute it because spilling blood is such a fucking RUSH, man! Holy shit, we’re fucked. The wheels cannot help but come off of this system. Maybe we don’t have to outrun the bear, maybe we just need to outrun the other guys running from the bear, but come on. This is a terrible system.

To my conservative friends, my pals who defend modernism and think that it’s us postmodernists who have dismantled the system: Take a closer look at our systems. We postmodernists are doing you a favor by pointing out the flaws. We haven’t come up with any sustainable solutions, granted, but we didn’t CREATE these flaws. And now it seems to be up to ALL of us, modernists, traditionalists, postmodernists, whatever, to figure out a post-postmodernism that builds sustainable systems guided by principles and not just lust for cash and blood. God help us.