Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Who Will Cook Capitalism?

This is the eighteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Felix Stalder, professor of digital culture and network theories at the Zurich University of the Arts, immediately takes issue with Shoshana’s central recommendation. “I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion that the alternative is to cook capitalism again or face a wasteland,” he says. “Historically what cooked capitalism was the real competition with socialism that put pressure on capitalist institutions and states to mitigate against these tendencies that are inherent in unregulated capitalism, that they increase social inequality.”

For Felix, social inequality is not our biggest problem; it’s a side-effect of the current way we have organised ourselves. He argues that we need to extend democratic participation into the running of the economy, before society descends into anarchy. “This new capitalism,” he says, “creates surplus populations that become very unrestive, not only in the Middle East, but everywhere. And that’s very dangerous.”

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“First of all, Google is not the only problem,” says social media critic and educator Miriam Rasch, “so we have to talk about it in a broader sense.” But she argues that Google already intervene to nudge our behaviour in a particular direction, through algorithms, filter bubbles and the automatic suggestions they provide in their search, for example. “For the billions of users of Google, it looks like an objective tool,” she says. “The first step would be to explain that this is not the way it is.”

Although Miriam accepts that algorithmic interventions lead to an inequality in power and privacy between the few at Google and the many of its users, she does also suggest that Google’s automation “makes the majority into some kind of equal un-individual mass”. She means equal in a bad sense, but I suppose it does also mean that Bill Gates and Barack Obama get the same rough treatment from Google Search as I do, which is something at least.

However, like Felix, Miriam is sceptical about looking to our institutions for solutions. “It’s a problem in the whole of society that everyone is gathering all this data about you,” she says. “You can hardly live your life without going along.” In the Netherlands, where Miriam lives, they have a chip card system for the transport network, much like the London Oystercard. The card gathers data about the holder’s travel around the country.

“This is a lot of data gathered by my government about me and I don’t know what they do with it,” she says. Miriam pays for a card that allows her unlimited travel at any time throughout the Netherlands and yet, curiously, she must still scan her card for each journey. That can only be for the unknown purposes of data collection. “So it’s not only Google or the tech companies,” she says, “it’s really about our real daily lives.”

Micah Lee, chief technology officer of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, agrees. “The problem is bigger than Google,” he says. “Google really did pioneer a lot of this stuff, but, at this point, every time you do anything, there are databases logging this information.” Micah tells us about traffic cameras placed at intersections in cities in the US that log every licence plate number that passes. “This is used to catch people running red lights,” he says, “but this is just a database with a data set that can show exactly where people have been driving.”

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If Felix, Miriam and Micah are sceptical about trusting government institutions with protecting us from the worst ravages of capitalism, Nafeez Ahmed is downright scathing of Shoshana’s proposal. He describes institutionising as a “totally banal response to the scale and systematic nature of the crisis”. Nafeez wants us to be more ambitious: “Surely we should reclaim the commons,” he says, “reclaim public ownership and break the monopoly of the corporations.”

Shoshana takes the opportunity to respond. “I’m not suggesting that we recreate the institutions of the twentieth century,” she explains. “We’re not going back to those social conditions.” She draws on the writing of George Orwell, where he defines cowardice as taking whatever is happening now and assuming it will continue to happen in the future. To make that assumption is to subjugate yourself to the power structure of the moment and that is cowardice.

“The future is not a straight line from the present,” Shoshana says. “The real challenge,” she adds, “is taking the challenges we face now and understanding how we create the new institutions that reflect our conditions of existence today.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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