the end
As we sit at our desks waiting for it to end, we might ask ourselves what we are looking for in our spreadsheets.We: the office workers, professionals, creators, artists even; teachers, administrators, stranglers; the not-yet-dead ones that are deeply unhappy and by all accounts lucky. The data around us flows sickly and assuredly, not completely unaffected by the collapse around us, mind, not seamlessly, but steadily enough to keep everyone going. The sheer will of management (our grand collective delusion), makes everyone attend the meetings. We can joke and say, ‘this should have been an email’, so we don’t have to say, this should not have been at all.
The assertion that the world is ending is accepted and virtually unrefuted among scientists,Not being a scientist myself, I am referring mostly to the reports of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which as of 2021 is in its sixth assessment period. Meta-analyses of papers … Continue reading and yet it is also considered poor taste to say so at work. It is not in the positive spirit that both haunts and eludes us, and it is often considered offensive to our co-workers. To present a problem without a solutionThe ‘problem without a solution’ is itself a liberal talking point. There are solutions, many even, but few of them fit into the institutional structures that are already in place, and thus they … Continue reading is unproductive, it invalidates the efforts of our colleagues, and indeed it wastes everyone’s time, of which we have so little left. While it is accepted to say that the catastrophes of capitalism (climate change, institutional racism and the ongoing aftermath of slavery, neocolonialism and brutal border regimes, etc.) are connected to every aspect of our lives, we shy away from articulating this assertion to its very end, the end of the miserable life as we know it. This is especially true at work, which is resolutely not allowed to be a realm of political action.
I attend to this situation with varying degrees of generosity. When I forget to take my anti-depressants, I am annoyed and think that we all simply love the boot. On other days, when adequately medicated, I have the strength to admit that, in the public/third/community sectors, many of our colleagues believe that their work, however compromised, is a way to social justice. At the very least, it is a means of temporary relief for our service users. And so, every day we labour, and we continue to move about in the inadequate systems of managing care, education, justice (or the lack thereof), mitigating risk, and the many other things we do in the public sector.
While we are so busy with our daily work, the consequences of catastrophic weather events, pandemics, and the ongoing ‘slow’ death of capitalist exploitation can feel far away (although when they come, they disrupt the illusion of distance brutally and quickly). Many of us already know that so many aspects of our civil infrastructure are unlikely to survive the next decades, our care system and the NHS among them. But we are cautious not to give in to panic. After all, it’s not the end, right? We find ourselves in the prolonged end of the world that only feels like the end of many small worlds, and nobody seems certain when the final straw will be reached.
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in particular shows us the messy mechanics of this unwillingness to reckon with the future. Announcements of new events, whether real or anticipated, chase each other on the news, and everything bleeds into each other. Is this now, or was this before? Or will this be after? Is this number higher than last year’s? We are told that the pandemic is a rehearsal for climate change – a practice for the actual event of collapse. But is there ever going to be the recognisable event if we are already in the event?These thoughts on the event and its arrival were spelled out to me in Callie Gardner’s review of Jackqueline Frost’s The Third Event, see Callie Gardner, ‘Letter 4. Events.’, the second moon … Continue reading And so, my own question, professionally and personally, is: how do we know when to look up from our spreadsheets? When is the moment that we recognise doom knocking on our door? When do we act, given that we tend to act so predictably late?
 sweet, sweet content
In this dying world, then, we are trying to make some money online. I believe it is what the government calls ‘working in cyber.’ We hone the digital skills needed to make a living. We fashion our digital selves to various degrees of success. Together we produce that sweet, sweet content that acts as a witness to our joys, our loneliness, our anxieties, and the differing intensities of precarity. It is also a goldmine for corporations. This is what sets it apart as content: not an inherent difference to any form of art and creation, but its use. Content is a digital commodity, dematerialised data of any kind that is used in the transactions of digital capitalism. Platforms such as Facebook/Instagram (don’t make me say metaverse), Google, and Netflix contain, distribute and manage this content, acting as world-making ecosystems, amassing unfathomable amounts of wealth with the profoundly intimate, deeply alienating informatisation of our private lives.For a good overview of the historical typology of ‘content’ and ‘platform’, see Marc Steinberg, The platform economy: how Japan transformed the consumer internet (Minneapolis: University of … Continue reading
I am, of course, suitably embarrassed to make ‘content’. I am reminded of when Callie Gardner wrote about the silliness of writing ‘when everything is burning, dissolving, sinking,’ calling it the equivalent of ‘rearranging deckchairs’.Callie Gardner, ‘Letter 4. Events.’, the second moon letters, 10 July 2020 <https://secondmoon.substack.com/p/letter-4-events> If literary criticism is rearranging the deckchairs, creating online content might be like taking a short clip of the burning deckchair over the track of ‘oh no – our table – it’s broken’, in a continuous referencing loop of all the broken things and our strange attempts to feel unaffected by that brokenness.
So, when we look away from our spreadsheets to our social media feeds, what are we looking for? Or rather, what are we looking at? Recently I have been obsessed with AI-created images, which most clearly prompt this question of what it is exactly that we see on our screens.Karen Hao, ‘These weird, unsettling photos show that AI is getting smarter’, The MIT Technology Review, 25 September 2020 … Continue reading What looks like a real face is simply code, has no referent in materiality. Does that matter at all? Byung-Chul Han wrote about this ghostly world of the nonobjects, the foggy island of disintegration of eternal loss that our lives are becoming.Byung-Chul Han, Undinge: Umbrüche der Lebenswelt (Berlin: Ullstein, 2021). While his writing speaks perhaps less to the necessities of carving out a living within the digital sphere, it still spells out clearly some of the things that are at stake in the informatisation of reality.
Information is this Unding, nonobject, that structures our environment, making it ever ghostlier, less tangible. Digitalisation dematerialises, disembodies and eventually strips away the substantiality of our world. I suppose the question that Byung-Chul Han ultimately poses is what happens when we increasingly amass data and information (when we become infomaniacs, as he is fond of saying) and by that very process increasingly lose the world? How can it be that the world is disappearing, drowning, and burning, while the digital world built on its ruins is ever bigger and emptier?
It is not a small question, and one we must reckon with in our practice and our work. I predictably love Byung-Chul’s cheeky comparison of digital culture and religion, as he likens the smartphone to the rosary, the swipe to a liturgical gesture. While I am charmed by this, I wonder about the eschatological implications. When we lie on our sofas, immobile and anxious, “just scrolling,” I cannot help but feel like we are the very opposite of religiously inclined, stuck in a constant present that refuses all messianic time. We are plugged into a loop that references itself over and over again. From the sea of constantly new data, nothing truly new ever surfaces. The endless variations of digital capitalism that are allowed to emerge are all equally boring.
All these words, in such poor taste! Such nasty things to write and read at work. I don’t want to overstate the value of offense and insult – let’s not be cheap. After all, we all want to be expensive. And yet, in this lonely fashioning of the digital self, it seems rather intuitive that part of the answer might be an alternative construction, one with ourselves as part of a dying world. I’m not sure how to go about looking up from our spreadsheets myself. But I have a feeling it will require us to upset the respectability and professionality that regulates so much of what we can expose as problems at work. At some point, many more of us will have to get up, look their managers in the eye and say exactly this: ‘Fuck you!’
<< back to journal
|↑1||We: the office workers, professionals, creators, artists even; teachers, administrators, stranglers; the not-yet-dead ones that are deeply unhappy and by all accounts lucky.|
|↑2||Not being a scientist myself, I am referring mostly to the reports of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which as of 2021 is in its sixth assessment period. Meta-analyses of papers published in peer-reviewed journals show that over 97% of scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities, and there is no sign that the scientific consensus is shifting. See John Cook and others, “Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming,” Environmental Research Letters, 11 (2016), 1-7|
|↑3||The ‘problem without a solution’ is itself a liberal talking point. There are solutions, many even, but few of them fit into the institutional structures that are already in place, and thus they don’t qualify for recognition.|
|↑4||These thoughts on the event and its arrival were spelled out to me in Callie Gardner’s review of Jackqueline Frost’s The Third Event, see Callie Gardner, ‘Letter 4. Events.’, the second moon letters, 10 July 2020 <https://secondmoon.substack.com/p/letter-4-events>|
|↑5||For a good overview of the historical typology of ‘content’ and ‘platform’, see Marc Steinberg, The platform economy: how Japan transformed the consumer internet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), pp. 69-93.|
|↑6||Callie Gardner, ‘Letter 4. Events.’, the second moon letters, 10 July 2020 <https://secondmoon.substack.com/p/letter-4-events>|
|↑7||Karen Hao, ‘These weird, unsettling photos show that AI is getting smarter’, The MIT Technology Review, 25 September 2020 <https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/09/25/1008921/ai-allen-institute-generates-images-from-captions/>|
|↑8||Byung-Chul Han, Undinge: Umbrüche der Lebenswelt (Berlin: Ullstein, 2021).|