Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

Entering the Anthropocene era in RI

And the coup we are not talking about

Photo by Richard Asinof

The hardcover version of "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" by Shoshana Zuboff.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/1/21
Our entry into the Anthropocene era of climate disruption is also marked by the rise of the age of surveillance capitalism, where the ownership of human behavior is the last great colonization of our lives. How do we talk about it?
Would the Rhode Island Foundation be willing to convene a group of stakeholders to discuss the threat of surveillance capitalism to democracy? Is “Our Town” part of the curriculum in Rhode Island high school history classes? How can the work of Rebecca Altman in her writing a history of plastics be incorporated into a podcast about the limits of recycling in Rhode Island?
One of the conundrums of my current infusion treatment for my malady, autoimmune encephalitis, is that the biologic being used is contra-indicated for receiving a coronavirus vaccine. In other words, the vaccine is not recommended for at least a few weeks after my infusion treatment, even though the treatment reduces my overall immunity to infection from viruses. Translated, trying to weigh the relative risks of receiving the vaccine versus postponing the vaccine, even given the increased presence of more contagious variants of the virus, means that all the other methods of prevention – mask wearing, limiting social exposure, frequent washing of hands – become a matter of constant vigilance. Milk and bread no longer are a priority.

PROVIDENCE – I once was cast -- perhaps typecast might be a more accurate description – as Howie Newsome, the milkman, in Thorton Wilder’s iconic “Our Town,” a drama that portrayed – a more apt phrase might be deconstructed – the disappearing American way of life as reflected in small town values in a rural New Hampshire village, the fictional Grover’s Corners, located not far from the Massachusetts border, in the early 1900s.

In the play, the audience first meets Newsome, as he delivers milk from a horse-drawn wagon, driven by his 17-year-old-horse, Bessie, directly to people’s doors. The character of Newsome appears in all of the play’s three acts, providing a sense of the day-to-day continuity within a rapidly changing landscape – altered by birth, teenage romance, lost dreams, marriage, and tragic death.

In Wilder’s view, the glue that stitches together our lives is revealed in the daily routines of human interaction, often taken for granted.

Wilder’s play, written in 1938, attempted to strip the illusions of theater away, choreographed to be performed on a bare stage with few props, in which the audience [cast members], the stage manager, and characters engage in a conversation, in life and even after death, arguing about the meaning of the fragility of their lives – and our lives. Grover’s Corners was a long way from Hollywood’s Tara, the glamorous fictional plantation in “Gone with the Wind.”

Of all the minor roles I played during my infrequent forays into community theatre productions, I always saw the role of Howie Newsome as a great compliment – reflective of my real-life role as a storyteller, a constant witness, observing, listening and reporting on the “news” in our lives. [As fate would have it, I had to drop out of the production when my real job changed, as I was bumped up from reporter to managing editor at The Valley Advocate, an alternative weekly in Amherst, Mass., where the job became a seven-day-a-week nonstop grind of constant work, generating the news.]

The Anthropocene era in RI
As the polar vortex plunged Rhode Island into a deep freeze this past weekend, with the descent of a major coastal snowstorm underway, and with our state and the nation awash with the new infections from the coronavirus pandemic, all of the news served as constant reminder about exactly how fragile our day-to-day existence had become. How many people did not rush out to the market to get milk and bread this weekend, in advance of the storm? Or, was the bread and milk order through a grocery delivery service? Where was Howie Newsome when we most needed him?

It’s early Monday morning, the snow has begun, and I know that I will have to figure how to shovel out my car on Tuesday, because I am unable to shovel snow, given my current health disabilities. No doubt I will have to depend on the kindness of strangers.

These days, I often feel as if I have become a 21st century version of Howie Newsome, caught up in my regular chores of delivering the news on a digital platform, recording the convergence and impermanence of our lives, as we navigate through a pandemic, the existential threats of climate change, and the violent threats to the American democratic experiment.

A recent obituary in The Washington Post recounted the life of Paul J. Crutzen, the Nobel-wining chemist who concluded that humans were having such a profound impact on the planet that it was time to recognize a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene era.

“I was at a conference where someone said something about the Holocene, the long period of relatively stable climate change since the end of the last ice age,” Crutzen said, describing his moment of insight, as reported in The Washington Post. “I suddenly saw that this was wrong. The world has changed too much. So I said. ‘No, we are in the Anthropocene.’ I made up the word on the spur of the moment. Everyone was shocked.”

It turned out that Crutzen was not the first to use the term “Anthropocene,” nor was he the first to offer a name for this human-dominated epoch of shrinking forests, rising temperatures and soaring population.

But Crutzen’s proposal formalized in a 2002 article in Nature, titled “Geology of Mankind,” spurred an ongoing debate on the need to rewrite geology textbooks and add a new epoch to the planet’s timetable, one that emphasizes the powerful role that humans play in shaping the Earth.

Today, few scientists doubt that we are living – and hopefully surviving – in the Anthropocene era, which some have dubbed the plastisphere, given the dominance of forever plastics and chemicals derived from petroleum products that inhabit our oceans, our waste dumps, our rivers – and even our bodies. Translated, how do you throw something away when there is no away?

But, if there was any coverage of the passing of Crutzer and his contributions in redefining our current geologic age by Rhode Island news media, I couldn’t find it. The visible spectrum of light in the Rhode Island news galaxy is often severely constricted.

The real threat of a coup
In my search for more news coverage of the death of Crutzer, I found myself consuming the latest news coverage in Rhode Island about the most recent coronavirus developments – such as the republishing of news releases from the R.I Department of Health about how all the vaccination clinics had been cancelled in Rhode Island on Monday because of the oncoming storm – repeated on Twitter by seven different news sources by my count, as a kind of modern game of Twitter telephone, where the message keeps getting repeated and garbled the longer the chain of retweets becomes.

In Olneyville, Clinica Esperanza is now offering a culturally congruent pop-up testing site – and, if provided with vaccines, a vaccine distribution site for residents. There was no mention in the news release about whether or not the clinic’s site would be open on Monday. So it goes.

I tried tuning into the cable news networks: there was a predictable flood of breaking news updates – the continuing progression of new strains of the coronavirus making its way across the nation; the efforts by anti-vaxxers to shut down a vaccination clinic at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles; the latest disturbing revelations about the participants in the failed violent attempt to overthrow of the U.S. government on Jan. 6 by seizing the U.S. Capitol; the latest changes in the legal strategy by former President Trump as he prepared for his impeachment trial that begins next week; the latest negotiations around what should be contained in the new coronavirus recovery package proposed by President Biden; and the latest prognostications by Rhode Island journalists about what will  happen with the transition from Gov. Raimondo to Gov. McKee.

In the meantime, there was a coup reported to be underway in Myanmar [formerly Burma], with the civilian ruler ousted by the military. [I wondered: had any of the reporters had even read George Orwell’s essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” which began: “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I had been important enough for this to happen to me.” Orwell described what he called the real nature of imperialism – “the real motives for which despotic governments act” – in which he had to shoot an elephant to save face.]

Meanwhile, tens of thousands Russians protested in more than 100 cites against Putin’s jailing of dissident Alexei Navalny for the second straight weekend, leading to thousands of violent arrests by police. [Once again, I wondered if any of the reporters covering the story in the U.S. had ever read Babi Yar by Anatoli Kunetzov, a seminal work on the repression practiced by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during World War II and its aftermath, a story of brutal totalitarian violence, murder and repression.]

Then there was the report about how Shell Oil had been found liable for decades of toxic pollution as a result of oil “harvesting” in Nigeria. [Had any of the reporters, I wondered, ever read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? Oil production was a continuation of exploitative colonial practices begun under British rule.]

Orwell, Kuznetsov, and Achebe – lost relics of the 20th century writing and wisdom, it seems.

The real threat
The most provocative news, however, was in an article published by The New York Times by Shoshana Zuboff, titled: “The coup we are not talking about,” in which the author challenged the reader to consider: “We can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both.”

In the piece, Zuboff wrote: “I have spent exactly 42 years studying the rise of the digital as an economic force driving our transformation into an information civilization. Over the last two decades, I’ve observed the consequences of this surprising political-economic fraternity as those young companies morphed into surveillance empires powered by global architectures of behavioral monitoring, analysis, targeting and prediction that I have called surveillance capitalism.”

Zuboff continued: “On the strength of their surveillance capabilities and for the sake of their surveillance profits, the new empires engineered a fundamentally anti-democratic epistemic coup, marked by unprecedented concentrations of knowledge about us and the unaccountable power that accrues to such knowledge.”

With a kind of academic precision, Zuboff laid out her thesis, a summation of her most recent work, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power.

Her argument goes like this: “In an information civilization, societies are defined by questions of knowledge — how it is distributed, the authority that governs its distribution and the power that protects that authority. Who knows? Who decides who knows? Who decides who decides who knows? Surveillance capitalists now hold the answers to each question, though we never elected them to govern. This is the essence of the epistemic coup. They claim the authority to decide who knows by asserting ownership rights over our personal information and defend that authority with the power to control critical information systems and infrastructures.”

According to Zuboff, despite the failed violent coup encouraged by former President Trump, “Democracy and truth remain under the highest level of threat until we defeat surveillance capitalism’s other coup.”

The question is: Where do we have a conversation about what Zuboff is telling us within the confines of Rhode Island’s news media coverage?

Is it a question that could drive a podcast, produced by the Carney Institute for Brain Science at Brown University, talking about how the ability to predict and market human behavior by Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter is reflected in the organization of the cerebral cortex?

Would it fit into a two-minute outrage format of “A Lively Experiment?”

Would Joe Paolino be willing to tackle the subject on “In The Arena?”

Would Tara Granahan or Dan Yorke attempt to tackle the subject on WPRO’s talk radio?

For sure, Zuboff’s style is somewhat pedantic and academic in its analysis, but the message she brings is razor-sharp when applied to the current reality of American democracy, where we have government by algorithm and decision-making influenced predictive patterns of personal behavior.

Can we talk?
Ir is a long way from Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” to Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. But the connection is a potent one: How do we have a conversation about the things that make us human, the stories we share, the connections that we create, and the neighborhoods that we live in.

For ConvergenceRI, it is about raising the questions, to begin the conversation, as we have entered the age of surveillance capitalism, a fitting connection to the Anthropocene era. Can we talk?

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