Tuesday 17 September 2019

Sherelle Jacobs: 'Why robotic middle class is trapped in The Matrix'

There is a way out: We need to step back from ‘The Matrix’, as depicted in the Hollywood film, see the mental chains that imprison us and annihilate them. Photo: Snap Stills/Shutterstock
There is a way out: We need to step back from ‘The Matrix’, as depicted in the Hollywood film, see the mental chains that imprison us and annihilate them. Photo: Snap Stills/Shutterstock

Sherelle Jacobs

'Now more than ever we need human creativity and independent thought'

The biggest elite lie fed to the middle class in modern history is that 'progress' is linear. In fact, steroidic globalised innovation is dangerously circular. Medievalism is not some 600-year-old blood spatter fading into forgottenness in the history hardbacks that students increasingly spurn. These days feudalism wears a white lab coat and is using technology to destroy capitalism.

The internet is a backwards plutocracy where human value does not derive from profit-driving labour but from personal data, seized by our tech masters in the shadows without any payment in exchange. From accounting to brain surgery, AI robots are elbowing the middle class out of the jobs market on a scale that will eventually lead to unprecedented unemployment.

To bastardise Francis Fukuyama, we are heading towards the end of capitalism: the final chapter is a tragic tale of consumerism's collapse (as we'll all be on the dole), the scientific discrediting of libertarianism (as neurologists peddle the bogus claim that free will is a biochemical illusion) - and the crushing of the aspirational middle-class spirit is the ethereally clinical concluding sentence. The good news is that the march to techno-serfdom is not inevitable. The even better news is that there is also a tidy middle-class profit to be made out of opposing it.

There is just one snag. The bourgeoisie does not grasp the scale of the existential challenges they face and lack the basic critical and creative tools required to tackle them.

The middle-class stampede to ditch "arts" subjects in favour of the sciences in order to "compete" is a dismal case in point. One can't help but suspect that the plummeting popularity of English literature - in the UK a subject that taps the passionately lucid nectar of the most perceptive imaginations that ever lived (and sharpens analytical skills as well) - is not motivated by a modern zeal for the cutting-edge but rather a dull desperation to be "marketable".

Unfortunately, politicians are in danger of encouraging this kind of close-minded competitiveness with a "vision" of scientific progress, which, if it was a colour, would be an empty-headed iPhone white meets dull Soviet grey. Take Dominic Cummings, a man who is literally trapped in 'The Matrix'. No 10's new 'Prince of Darkness' views Britain as an "operating system". He thought the referendum would fix it by "rebooting" it. Since that has failed, he now thinks it must be "rewired" in key places, and import new parts from abroad - most notably, by creating a new Silicon Valley-inspired national science programme.

Reminiscent of Neo in the Hollywood film, Mr Cummings - who openly sneers at the concept of global Brexit Britain - seems unaware that the broken British programme is but one piece in a completely corrupted international one.

And, in a devastating twist, the latter status quo software is being feverishly recoded to a whole new authoritarian level by - you guessed it - Silicon Valley, the centralising, monopolising behemoth so worshipped by our tragic protagonist Mr Cummings.

There is, of course, a way out of 'The Matrix', and it involves acquiring a higher level of human consciousness; man is able to step back, see the mental chains that imprison him, and annihilate them by imagining an alternative reality.

It explains why moments of high innovation - from the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras that birthed geniuses as diverse as Michelangelo and Isaac Newton to the early computer age, which was inspired by the psychedelically poetic, if naively reductionist, hippie counter-cultural theory that everything is connected - have occurred at points in history when people have shown hunger for artistry and deep thought.

The big lesson in this is that the middle class will not stay "competitive" by becoming like computers, but by challenging and mastering technology in ways that demand rebellious creativity rather than robotic conformism. We should thus be seeking not to emulate Silicon Valley, but rather to bankrupt it by creating an 'alternet' to rival the internet.

The latter is an autocratic deep state floating somewhere between Putin's Russia and 1300 AD, where people are effectively having to prostitute their personal data in exchange for access to basic services.

Handily, constructing a modern, democratic alternative where personal data is privately owned, and where basic infrastructure like search engines and selling platforms are public goods - like public transport or running water - could prove to be a counter-intuitively lucrative project, as successful anti-establishment entrepreneurial endeavours such as blockchain and bitcoin hint.

In short, saving the future is an intellectually mind-blowing task. But better stuck down the daunting rabbit hole than trapped in the dastardly 'Matrix'.


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