Seed&Spark UpdatesFiguring out how to imagine the future: James Kaelan's #CaseForOptimism
February 21, 2018
1. Express your thoughts about 2017 in an image, GIF, or noise.
Plimmyrocracy, noun: Government by inundation, wherein power is maintained through the dissemination of a constant flood of conflicting information, policy, or scandal. From the Greek plimmýra (flood) and the Greek -kratia (power, rule).
2. What did you take for granted in 2016 that you’re extremely grateful for in 2018?
In 2016, I considered social media, and my participation in the constant online conversation, central to my day-to-day life. I was a Bernie Sanders supporter—not of the Bernie or Bust camp, but at least during the primaries, not so far off. I spent eight or nine months, from the fall of 2015 through the summer of 2016, arguing furiously with some of my best friends. And to no avail. If I persuaded anyone into my camp, it didn't matter. We lost the primary campaign. And then in November of 2016, Trump won.
I am complicit in his election. I donated hundreds of hours and dollars to Bernie. I gave nothing to Hillary. On my sample ballot — and I've never admitted this publically — I filled in the bubble for Jill Stein. Standing in the voting booth, I finally swallowed my pride and voted Clinton/Kaine. But I performed my civic duty bitterly, or perhaps more accurately, with a martyr's pride. Here I am, I thought, sacrificing my ideals for the country. Aren't I wonderful?
But what we've all begun to realize acutely, since the 2016 election, is that civility is a levee holding back a reservoir of hate and chaos. And I was voluntarily digging to undermine the dam. We learned definitively from the February 16 indictments in the Mueller probe — and suspected long before that, thanks to the insights of journalists and activists like Masha Gessen, Garry Kasparov, and Adam Curtis — that Russia doesn't really care about Donald Trump's policies; they just want disunified anarchy. And when we spend our lives in the hyper-pressurized, self-commodifying warzone of partisan social media, we do their work for them.
Oh, and we make ourselves feel fucking crazy.
This is a complicated, imperfect realization to have, of course. Social media shows its revolutionary capacity when it networks and catalyzes to action like-minded individuals. #MeToo doesn't spread without Twitter. Without Facebook, the #NeverAgain movement can't galvanize the literally tens of thousands of school shooting survivors to fight the NRA and Congress. But conversely, without Facebook, Russia can't effectively undermine our faith in American democracy. Without Twitter, Trump can't whip his base into a rabid froth.
As with all technologies, social media is neutral. It can be exploited for good or evil. But so long as platforms like Facebook and Twitter are driven by profit — which is in turn fueled by constant growth — they will listen to their users. If we continue to patronize them, they assume we don't really care how they behave. If we walk away, they start to panic.
3. What piece of art — film, book, album, performance, painting, whatevs — restores your faith in humanity?
Ursula K. Le Guin. Her whole damned body of work. RIP.
I hadn't read anything by her before December of 2016, when through the I-can't-recommend-it-highly-enough reading list Speculating Futures, I encountered her essay "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be." In "Non-Euclidean," she challenges the notions of hyperconsumption and accumulation, which are central to the contemporary condition, by looking back at California in its pre-missionary days. Early in the essay she quotes from Walton Bean's California: An Interpretive History:
The survival of a Stone Age culture in California was not the result of any hereditary biological limitations on the potential of the Indians as a “race.” They had been geographically and culturally isolated. The vast expanses of oceans, mountains, and deserts had sheltered California from foreign stimulation as well as from foreign conquest...
...and even within California the Indian groups were so settled that they had little contact with each other. On the positive side, there was something to be said for their culture just as it was.... The California Indians had made a successful adaptation to their environment and they had learned to live without destroying each other.
By looking into the relatively recent past, Le Guin points to a potential — if not yet realistic — near future: a cooling of culture, a pivot away from growth and conquest, writing:
I am not proposing a return to the Stone Age. My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth. All I’m trying to do is figure out how to put a pig on the tracks.
Since reading this, the prescience of her argument — or postulation, rather, since she never claims to be able to predict the future — has only increased. Browse a bookstore (or search on Amazon) in the technology section, and you might notice a trend: Yuval Harari's Homo Deus, Nick Boström's Superintelligence, James Barrat's Our Final Invention. Humanity is approaching a point where, almost certainly in the next century, and likely in the next few decades, our inventions will do our inventing for us. And humans will be left to...well, to do something else.
Le Guin, in "Non-Euclidean" and elsewhere in her radical ouvre, looks for alternative ways to organize human life. And as the daughter of an anthropologist, she often looks backward to see forward. Was there a time when humans lived in harmony with nature and didn't kill each other over property? There sure was. And that means, there can be again. The impediment is scarcity or resources. But as we move toward a machine abundance—where robots, literally, are doing our work for us — we have an opportunity to redefine, or reclaim, our values. That or we'll blow ourselves up. Or slip into a new Dark Ages. But if we can just figure out how to imagine the future — the real future, in all its potential glory and stability—with love and civility, we might make it.
4. What happened in 2017 that actually made the world a better place?
The #NeverAgain movement. It's happening in 2018, but it has its roots in 2017 (and 2016, and 2015, and every year back to the massacre at Columbine). And as with the #MeToo movement, its success is revolutionary at the counter-hegemonic level.
#MeToo challenged (and continues to challenge) the status quo by weaponizing information. The shift has come from two things: the ability to share information widely and instantaneously; and the particularly monstrous behavior of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Donald Trump (and a thousand others). Oh, and a third thing. Courage. Taken together, a very old and previously calcified truth—women have been harassed, exploited, and abused by powerful men—is no longer acceptable or sustainable. Why? Because the victims have empowered themselves by seizing control of their harassers' reputations. If in 2010 an abuser was safe because everyone, women and men, were afraid of the consequences of speaking out, in 2018, the power has shifted (or is shifting) to the victims. Now the predator must fear reprisal.
#NeverAgain, similarly, is seizing a power that's always been available, but which simply hadn't been unlocked. If #MeToo is breaking the spell of the non-disclosure act, #NeverAgain is combatting the NRA's black magic by threatening massive — and massively expensive — civil disobedience. On March 14, the one-month anniversary of the Parkland massacre, students around the country will walk out of their classrooms for 17 minutes. They will do it again on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. If nothing changes, they must — and I believe they will — cease going to school. That is their power. And it is enormously consequential: because schools get paid per student, per day. If no one shows up, schools don't get money. The cost of a nation-wide student strike, even for a week? A public high school collects on average $10,615 per student annually. If there are 180 school days a year, and 15.1 million public high school students in the US, a one-week strike would cost $6.2 billion. In other words, the students of #NeverAgain have just become the world's largest union, and there are no scabs to replace them if they strike. In fact, they've already won, so long as they don't get intimidated into submission. But when you're facing the real threat of being killed in your classroom by another kid with a fucking AR-15, detention doesn't sound too scary.
5. What are you determined to do—or make or change—in 2018?
I'm going to keep writing and making films, and talking about the urgency of imbuing that work with social and political intention. Anyone who claims good art isn't political is both arrogant, and willfully ignorant. You can seek to entertain, but setting out to tell toothless, fluffy, escapist stories is, frankly, unethical. That doesn't mean every movie should be Sátántangó. Art doesn't have to be punitive to be "worthy." A show can be hilarious and still be deadly serious. But if you actively avoid topics because they might be controversial, because they might not be commercial, you're acquiescing to the same systems that punish women for speaking out against their abusers, or that keep assault weapons legal. Fuck that shit. Let's do better.
Wanna do better right now? Start by following, funding, sharing or even starting your own campaign through 100 Days of Optimism: a crowdfunding rally in partnership with WeTransfer and Bow and Arrow Entertainment.
Or take a minute to create and share your Case for Optimism!