Monday, February 28, 2011

The Value of Secrecy in an Era of Excessive Sharing

1) The euphemism is the art of the open secret. If translation means (among other things) transferring meaning from one linguistic context into another, and metaphor means (among other things) transferring and connecting meaning from one sensory/physical context to another, the euphemism is much cheaper, debased: saying one thing but meaning another. The metaphor, simile or translation's meaning can be obscured, but its nature as metaphor/simile/translation is never in doubt. The euphemism, however, has an incredibly clear meaning, but only once you recognize it as euphemism. When millions of voters talk about state's rights and small businesses they genuinely believe they are not talking about race and tax cuts for millionaires: because they do not access the embedded truth, for them the euphemism qua euphemism does not exist: it is only a lie. Just as internet data does not exist until it is called up by the user, a euphemism only becomes itself when its embedded truth is accessed. The euphemism is the lie that tells the truth. The euphemism is the criminal hidden in plain sight. The euphemism is the public secret.

2) The internet is a space of euphemism. Bits become electrical charges that excite impossibly small units of plasma which, arranged together, become a cat chasing a laser pointer. All information appears within a single context (the screen, and, more specifically, the browser window) and exists both nowhere, actually, and everywhere at once, potentially. Information on the internet only exists to the extent that it is accessed: in this way it is psuedo-linguistic: a language is considered "dead" when no one speaks it (ie: accesses it). Nevertheless, it would be wrong to describe internet information (qua information) as purely metaphorical, worse still purely linguistic. When accessed internet information actually does, physically and briefly, exist, though only as electrical impulses. We imagine, somehow, (because it makes intuitive sense), that this information is stored as a sort of "computer language", and that the computer translates from "computerese" into human language for us. However, the "computer language" from which it is translated is entirely meaningless (even nonexistent) without the human accessing it and the computer representing it as human language. Translation (or metamorphosis) requires two actual end points, e.g Vulcan to Esparanto (or Man to Cockroach). But the "computer language", a series of bits and code, despite having reached such heights of complexity that no human could look at it and understand it without the machine, is not a language at all, merely instructions for a tool. Computers do not reason, they do not interpret, they do not speak, they only follow instructions. Translation and metamorphisis involve changing contexts while maintaining the core text: meaning is maintained while context is changed. But the meaning of this sentence that I write now does not exist in computerese: the computer merely takes each key stroke I make as an instruction, and then represents my instructions back to me. The complexity of this task is where euphemism enters: it fills my monkey brain with wonder: how does it do it? When I hit a nail with a hammer, I think: witness the power of my will. But when I google "cats farting remix", I think: my God, it is so complex, so accurate, so wonderful, surely it must be doing something other than merely following instructions. The computer is the liar that always tells the truth: if you distrust it, if you recognize the internet and computer as master works of euphemism, you can understand their truth and use them as a powerful tool. If you believe the lie, that what they are doing is beyond the comprehension of man, that they have power greater than the sum of their use value, then you are doomed to be their slaves. Trust me, you could smash the screen you read this on right now with a hammer, you could melt your computer in acid, you could take a dump on the keyboard and shove the mouse up your ass, and it will be completely indifferent to the experience. Complexity is not consciousness.

3) The internet is a tool to amplify and record human discourse, nothing more. To vilify or defend the internet sui generis as responsible for the noisy meaninglessness of our cultural discourse is to already lose the game; so too specific aspects of the internet (ie: blogs, twitter, google, etc). This is precisely why you would be a fool to deny the role of twitter or facebook in the current Arab uprisings, but you would be twice foolish to believe this means they are of similar value here. Take this New York Times Headline: "Facebook and Youtube fuel the Egyptian Protests". The subject/object position is completely fucked. What the Egyptians, Syrians, Tunisians, Iranians, Iraqis, Morroccans, etc. understand, and that this headline shows many of our commentariat, at the very least, do not, is that the story is actually "Facebook and Youtube useful tool when employed by people fighting for freedom." Not as snappy, granted, but at least it's true. Facebook and Youtube cannot fuel anything. They are tools, following the instructions of human beings. Do you think there is any value to the sentence "Paint brush fuels production of Sistine Chapel"? Facebook and Twitter will never help free someone who believes that it is possible that they could. Believe the lie, that the network has autonomous power, outside and above the power of the people who built it and use it, and ideology defeats you.

4) The euphemistic nature of computer information has not been grasped on a conscious level by the majority of society, but mankind is innately aware of it, and acts accordingly. You see it in the words and phrases used to describe internet processes. Though early internet terms are more directly metaphorical (eg: email, website, etc) later terms become more and more euphemistic. (Perhaps, it occurs to me, Internet has won out over Web as the mot juste because it is less metaphorical, more euphemistic and less descriptive). Witness the Smart Phone and the Social Network. The smart phone (not unlike its linguistic predecessor, Reality Television) works to undermine the very definition of both its words by creating a potent oxymoron which, over time, with widespread usage and acceptance, models reality after itself by denuding the nature of the idea "smart" and exponentially increasing the power of the idea "phone." This is not merely linguistic griping, this is a deep philosophical perversion that underlies the way we talk about technology. Social Network is particularly relevant, because it has just been used as the ironic title of a beloved blockbuster film. Perhaps the only thing Fincher really achieves (other than an amusing and diverting couple hours) is underlining the euphemism behind the phrase "Social Network". A "network" cannot possibly be social: as we witness through Zuckerberg's crushing loneliness. A network, by its definition, is singular, an object not a subject, it is an agglomeration of people, and nothing more than the sum of its parts. However, by embracing an oxymoron we devalue hundreds of years of ideas about what constitutes the "social" while giving the "network" undue power. Indeed, we give great respect to "social animals": something social is something nearly human, sociality is on the list with opposable thumbs, language, tool use, and sex for pleasure. We attribute de facto consciousness and humanity to the network in the same way we do the phone and the computer in the same way that we do the brand and the corporation and the image. In order to ascribe human attributes to these inhuman tools, we must de-specify our definition and lower our expectations of the human attribute. In other words, we turn something which once was incredibly meaningful and particularly human into a meaningless bit of euphemism (brand LOYALTY, corporate PERSONHOOD) in order to satisfy our thesis that these things are in fact human-like (if not completely human). Social Network actually means Alienated Individuals; Smart Phone: Dumb Person.

5) The result of 50 years of the euphemization of the English language by corporations, lawyers, politicians, advertisers, media pontificators, cultural administrators, and general noise makers of all stripe is knee jerk ironic detachment, devaluation of the currency of public language. And why not? How many times can you be told that a product/politician/piece of art will "change your life" before you stop believing in the phrase "change your life"? Why do you think "Change you can believe in", an incredibly empty phrase, carried so much water? We don't believe in even the possibility of change: all a politician has to do is offer us belief and they can become president. Tell a lie big enough, long enough, and people will believe it: but they'll stop believing in the words you used to tell it. As a culture, we consider public language to be devoid of truth, purely euphemistic. Arguing against the pettiness of raking a politician/public figure over the coals for one misstatement (perhaps the most absurd example in our lifetime being Howard Dean yelling in a weird way at a political rally and losing the chance to be president forever) is certainly the correct thing to do, but it is beside the point. The problem is not pettiness, nor is it a result of "our" desire for simple, sound-bite driven news (it's actually the advertising funded media that prefers sound-bite simplicity, because it's cheaper to produce and easier to sell. Then they hide behind supply and demand, claiming they're just giving us what we want. To hear them tell it, they are totally stripped of agency by a rabidly vocal public, desiring constant sound bites. Supply and demand is not an economic term when it comes to cultural production, but rather a euphemism meaning the market understands desire, art and truth better than the individual cultural producer. It's also a convenient way to dodge responsibility for their own despicable uselessness). We destroy figures who misspeak because we desire truth, and the complexity it reveals, but we do not believe that anyone speaking publicly or any piece of public speech can provide either. We always already distrust public language. Therefore, we disregard the context in which statements are made not because we desire sound bites or simplicity, but because we do not believe or trust any statement made in the public sphere, except those that appear to reveal the unconscious truth beneath the euphemism of the public speaker, where it seems truth has bubbled up out of lies. Juan Williams, a despicable piece of shit, was fired for statements that, in context, are not despicable. When we feel truth has been crystallized, the euphemism recognized, we do not allow any further statement or explanation to interfere with our understanding: once it has been said it cannot be unsaid. Sarah Palin was the biggest celebrity of 2009-2010 because her whole public life was a series of absurd gaffs: precisely because she so blatantly and clumsily speaks in euphemism (Mama Grizzly? Really?). Sarah Palin, however, had a beautiful moment of insight, early in her tenure as America's favorite lady: "Gotcha" is the operating philosophy behind public language.

6) Enter Web 2.0 (are your euphemism radars beeping?), and suddenly, just when public speech is at its most valueless, we begin producing and consuming an almost impossible volume of it. And, surprise surprise, give Americans a megaphone of unlimited power, and they mostly scream about themselves. There are systemic privacy problems on the internet that can't be ascribed to individuals' behavior, that are built into the technological framework of the web, mostly rising from the internet's terrifying and inhuman inability to forget any information ever decided worthy of an email, blog post or status update, (a facet that has also sped the decay of our historical consciousness and memory faculties) but I don't intend to discuss them here. We are, however, equipped to answer the question that CNN anchors and New York Times editorialists have to pretend to be interested in every time we get a major online bullying/privacy invasion/identity theft news story: why do these damn kids keep putting all their infos on the interwebs? Because public speech is never true. Privacy dies by technological accident; collateral damage to spectacular capitalism's war on public speech. But what a happy accident for the powers that be: advertisers and governments alike can quickly find everyone who, let's say, liked the movie Che. The government can peg 'em, keep an eye on 'em, with no filing cost, no brick and mortar expense, and google can send a company that sells revolutionarily sloganned t-shirts and beard trimmers at their eyeballs. A "public space" that is neither publicly owned and governed (you email on google's property, blog on wordpress', make friends on facebook's) nor actually space, not only dangerously weakens the concept of (legally protected) privacy in public space, but begins to dissolve the possibility of privacy ever existing again. Euphemization is no game, and when "public space" comes to mean "privately owned and managed databases" then what distinction can possibly exist between public and private? People are instructed to use the internet for everything (and not in a soft-power, "I hear the phrase twitter every fifteen seconds on the news and so I will go look at it" way but in a hard power "I need an apartment but classifieds are online and my boss emails me at all hours and I spend my entire work day in front of the computer" kinda way), convinced that public speech has no meaning beyond euphemism, and then reprimanded for foolishly indulging their own secrets online. As Admiral Ackbar would say: "It's a trap!"

7) And so the cyclical return of the value of the secret. You might hear some argue: "As scarcity produces value, then, in a world of total publicality, nothing is more valuable than a secret." This is completely wrong, and they are an idiot. Scarcity is only valuable to the extent that a public market is aware of its availability. The very nature of the secret denies market value, because to be saleable it must be publicly displayed, or at least desired, and as soon as anyone else knows of its contents, the secret is destroyed. No, secrecy is more valuable now than ever because we have lost (or are quickly losing) the inclination to secret thinking. The secret provides great strength to the individual who carries it: it is a point of resistance against membership in a network that can never represent your needs or desires, but will always use them to entrap you deeper into itself. The real problem with the collective commons/free culture/file sharing activists is not the assumption that everything should be free, which is a healthy and exciting idea to have added to the cultural discussion (although if they were truly revolutionaries and not capitalist libertarians, they would hack, or at least advocate hacking, amazon and freshdirect and sending everyone free food and clothes and books, as well as distributing culture online), but rather the thesis that ideas should be free, that products of the intellect are for everyone, while "property" only refers to physical objects. Of course this is disastrously backwards. The secret is property that gives you strength without exploitation, without stealing or alienation, while each physical object you purchase (and each dollar you spend on it) is built on the pain and suffering of untold and unseen proletariat. The secret is the only perfect, moral property.

8) The secret society, fifteen years ago an outdated and goofy model of organization, is now an incredibly powerful form of personal protest against the ideological invasion of the self. Though the ultimate power is still (and has always been) that of the people, united and organized, any political, cultural, or intellectual organization which hopes to be at the vanguard/avant garde must be secret. Deeply, truly secret. Not just unknown to friends and lovers, not just unspoken of in "public" spheres of the internet, but never recorded online, never euphemised into bits and electrical impulses. Neither text message nor email nor google doc nor blog post. Nothing. Meeting only in person, communicating in code over phone lines (the last spectacular communication not constantly recorded: who ever thought we'd get used to discourse so much more alienated than the phone that it would become almost quaint, pastoral), such a society could hope to produce something truly new by disavowing constant euphemistic contact with the perverse, cliched, empty voiced private/public non-space/space of the internet in their work. No remixing, mash-upping, re-digesting or re-posting of ideas. The reason to do so, importantly, is not Ludditic. There should be no injunction against individual members going on the internet, no question of shutting down email accounts, closing blogs, etc. This is a stupid idea, unpractical and antisocial. The secret society is produced to rebuild the walls between public and private within the artist/revolutionary/intellectual, and thus reinvigorate his cultural/intellectual/political products with such a distinction, to rebuild his personal status as an autonomous and powerful individual, to distance him from the poisonously vapid euphemisms of online personal expression, at least for a moment, and to give him a life that transcends the alienation of the pseudo-public sphere without requiring his removal from it.

9) The secret society rebuilds public space for its members. Public space is defined by the meeting of shared physical experience with personal/subjective observational experience. The internet is the exact opposite of public space: not only because it's neither public nor space, but in that physical experience is not shared (physically, sensorally or temporally) while observational experience is shared (as writing, images, videos). The intrusions of digital culture into public space (via iPods, "Smart Phones", etc.) is quickly draining "public space" itself of shared sensory experience. We are moving into a world in which shared experience in public space is almost non-existent. The secret society reinvigorates the experience of public space because it meets in public. The secret society meets at cafes, or in bars, or goes for walks, or goes to parks. Thus the intellectual content of the experience remains personal/subjective to the society, while physical experience is shared publicly. The secret society must be opposed of euphemism: the secret society is the truth that hides itself in another truth: a matryoshka doll instead of a hyperlink. If the euphemism is the public secret, the secret society is the secret in public. The new secret society must adhere to public meetings if it should hope to be meaningful for its members and for its production.

10) The secret society is at present a thought experiment, not yet put through the rigors of social science. The secret society is always a thought experiment, because if you know about it, it does not exist. If you have to ask: do they exist, are they around? Then the answer can only be no. I myself am not part of one. I have never been. And no one has ever been a member of one. What about those ones at Yale? Or the Masons? Exactly. They don't exist, because you know about them. There is no such thing as a secret society, all you can do is imagine one. That is why you can be sure that they exist.

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