We Are Not Living in a Simulation, We Are Living In the Past
The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 9
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. What I try to do here is pretty simple. I think about how technology, broadly understood, shapes our personal and collective experience. In this case, I’m thinking about the seemingly common experience of feeling stuck, feeling as if nothing can change, feeling as if we cannot move forward. I do not claim that this experience can simply be tied, without remainder, to our technological systems, but I do think our media environment has something to do with it. Usually, my reflections take the form of a relatively well-considered long-form essay. In this case, I offer a series of theses for your consideration with only a modest amount of clarification. They are also less cautiously formulated in the hope that they might incite some useful thinking, even if in critical responses. Each theses circles around the same basic premise: life online is life lived in the past. Hopefully, they’ll prove useful.
1. On the internet, we are always living in the past.
The internet, as a mediator of human interactions, is not a place, it is a time. It is the past. I mean this in a literal sense. The layers of artifice that mediate our online interactions mean that everything that comes to us online comes to us from the past—sometimes the very recent past, but the past nonetheless. This is so because …
2. On the internet, all actions are inscriptions.
These inscriptions include verbal expressions as well as images, audio, videos, memes, likes, shares, buttons hovered over, forms filled but never submitted, location data, etc. The inscriptions are legible either to humans or to machines, or to both. The fundamental fact of our online experience is that we are at all times expanding the massive reservoirs of the documented past. By contrast, consider the evanescent spoken word, part of which has already vanished before it is fully articulated by the speaker.
3. On the internet, there is no present, only variously organized fragments of the past.
We no longer encounter the past principally as a coherent narrative informing our present and future action into the world. The past, is now encoded in ponderous databases, and it can be readily and endlessly re-interpreted, reshuffled, recombined, and rearranged. This activity is what now consumes our time and energy. (AI-generated art is an interesting development from this perspective: it is not exactly new, but rather a melange of the past as transmuted by the generative model.)
4. On the internet, fighting about what has happened is far easier than imagining what could happen.
Because we live in the past when we are online, we will find ourselves fighting over the past. Because our fighting is itself inscribed and inscriptions cannot be defeated only overwhelmed, it very quickly becomes part of what is fought over. The casus belli recedes inexorably from view as it is layered over by the cascading inscriptions, which themselves become things to be fought over. Soon, it becomes impossible to map the course of the conflict or even make sense of it. And nothing changes.
5. On the internet, action doesn’t build the future, it only feeds the digital archives of the past.
Action, without a narrative to creatively propel it, is reduced to ritualized behavior, tired routines, unimaginative and reactionary responses. Narrative yields direction and meaning, databases generate moods.
6. Because on the internet we live in the past, the future is not lived, it is programmed.
The digitally inscribed past is chiefly legible to machines and becomes the means by which to program the future. Human activity is diffused into an ever receding and chaotic databases of the past. Those databases are mined and processed, chiefly in order to predict, manage, and structure our future actions. The energy we pour into building archives of the past is transmuted into a means to condition our action in the future.
7. On the internet, the past is a black hole sucking the future into itself.
As the databases of the past grow in mass, their gravitational pull absorbs ever more of our attention and energy. Consequently, our capacity to inhabit the present and imagine the future deteriorates. The internet is Saturn devouring his children.
One more comment: this substack is one of the few things I value on the internet. Thank you for your excellent writing and ever-illuminating reflections.
I never did quite figure out the Angel of History and the wind direction. The best we get are personal letters; an old-fashioned crossing of an ocean, and that has to include time. Newspapers are gone, and 'news' seems to be mostly people advertising something. The names for me rarely mean much to be remembered.
Change might be coming. I have a friend who is a long time computer expert. He worked long ago in one of 'Her Majesty's rabbit holes', as he put it. Nowadays he deals with daily incoming requests from clients who have random problems in the entrails of their digital systems. It is usually, as again he puts it, 'archaeology'. I take this to mean history without documentation.
PS A longtime ago I wrote a line about a Broch on the West Coast of Scotland. (Brochs were ingenious dry-stone towers, which judging by the archaeology probably derived from a single source of design.) "The brothers who set this stonework right are long way downwind tonight"