30 March 2016

The Great Digital Swindle by Mark Fisher

Author | Mark Fisher

Who dares dissent from the gospel according to Silicon Valley? There is – we are insistently told – no alternative to the invasion of capitalist cyberspace into all areas of consciousness and culture.  Anyone who expresses even the mildest scepticism about social media and smartphones is roundly denounced as nostalgic.  The old, desperate not to seem out of touch, rarely dare question the young’s compulsive attachment to their smartphones. Anti-capitalists join with
tycoons to celebrate the potentials of network society. In article after article, conference after conference, the “new” is routinely equated with “the digital”, to such an extent that is now difficult to remember a time when “technology” wasn’t a shorthand for communicative software.  When mobile phones entered the marketplace, they were the object of mockery: who could be so self-important as to believe that they needed to be contactable everywhere and anywhere? Now, everyone is required to act like some cross between a hustler always on the make and an addict jonesing for contact.

But how has this model of progress, in which history culminates in the glorious invention of iPhones and apps, become so uncontested? And, if we attend closely, isn’t there a desperate quality to all this cheerleading? Addicts always rationalise their compulsions, but the desperation here belongs to capital itself, which has thrown everything at the great digital swindle. Capital might still swagger like some data cowboy, but iPhones plus Victorian values can only be a steampunk throwback.  The return to centuries’ old forms of exploitation is obfuscated by the distracting urgencies of digital communication. 

What if Silicon Valley was not – as we are relentlessly hectored to believe – a stupendous success story but a massive monument to failure? In Defence of Serendipity encourages us to pose this counter-intuitive question. Sebastian Olma demonstrates that neoliberal capitalism has systematically destroyed the conditions which allowed Silicon Valley to emerge, at the very same time as it pimps 70s California as the definitive model for all cultural as well as business innovation. In Olma’s narrative, Steve Jobs and the other Californian oligarchs come to seem like the hapless figures from a fairy tale. They wished to totally transform the world, but instead they received unimaginable wealth. Their devices only led to more of the same: the ‘changeless change’ of a capitalism that endlessly crows about innovation in a manic attempt to cover over the glacial monotony of its homogeneity and repetitiveness.  The Silicon Valley princes provided capital with new tools of capture and captivation. More than that, they gave capital a new hymn sheet, a way to sell drudgery as creativity and hyper-exploitation as sharing, so that we are all expected to be “passionate” about our cyber-serfery.

It is by now screamingly clear that innovation does not spontaneously effloresce when capital dominates society and culture. Generalised insecurity leads to sterility and repetition, not surprise and innovation. The conditions in which the new can appear have to be produced and nurtured. This, Sebastian Olma demonstrates, is the real import of the concept of serendipity when it is properly understood. The irony of Silicon Valley is that its very hegemonic dominion has contributed to the disappearance of such conditions in the capitalist world. Silicon Valley emerged from the serendipitious synthesis of the counterculture and state-sponsored cybernetics, but neoliberal capital has destroyed the possibility of a counterculture even as it has annexed and subdued the state. In Defence of Serendipity shows that that the real future is building itself beyond the instrumentalising urgencies of business, in the spaces between a new bohemia and a revived public sphere.

This is an edited version of the introduction to Seb Olma’s In Defence of Serendipity, which will be published by Repeater in November 2016. Available to pre-order now: Amazon UK / Amazon US.