Interview w/ Mark Dery (3/4) : The misleading promises of one obvious bright future

By 2035, Africa’s labour force will be larger than China and between 2015 and 2020, 15 of the 20 fastest growing cities of the world, will be African. Besides economics, politics and social issues, this states for an environmental (yet cultural & artistic) one, still more topical.

Black(s) to the Future : Wouldn’t a new definition of Afrofuturism have to be found in the association of both these ideas – a growing earth population leaded by Africa / a boosted life expectancy thanks to techs – and their logical consequence being the conquest of space ? Indeed, as the history of the mankind being a story of expansion (always motivated by the environmental pressure) the next step – as Earth being fully “occupied” – would be extraterrestrial…

Mark Dery : There are a number of assumptions embedded in your question, and in the statement that leads into it, that beg to be challenged.

First, there’s the assumption that nanotechnology and AI are destined to bring about a posthuman apotheosis—the Singularity, as enthusiasts of posthuman potential like Raymond Kurzweil call it. And have been calling it for some dreary years; this millenarian miracle, in which we’re all transformed from mundane flesh into pure mind, is a little late in arriving, isn’t it? Like all the best prophecies, it’s a dream that’s always deferred. “Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow/ You’re always a day away!” as the musical Annie puts it.

Second, I hear—maybe I’m mishearing?—in your statement-cum-question the implication that population explosion is all to the good; that population growth in Africa is giving rise to one of the planet’s largest labor forces; and that this will open the door to a future where Africa is ascendant, a major player on the world stage in macroeconomic or geopolitical roles. In the scenario you conjure, the long-term consequence of this runaway population growth, coupled with increased life expectancy, will be a starward migration in search of habitable planets, since we’ll presumably have trashed the Earth.

Pumzi is a Kenyan science-fiction short film written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu. It was screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

The question you tie around this bundle of assumptions is: Don’t we need to redefine Afrofuturism for this landscape of the future present, where science fictions of every kind are leaking into the here and now?

My shoot-from-the-hip response is: if Afrofuturism is anything, it’s the realization that science and technology can be both engines of liberation and tools of repression. Science has revealed just how socially constructed the “irrefutable truth” of race is, refuting popular perceptions of phenotype as a reliable marker of genotype. But, once upon a time, racism was a science, and most white, Western scientists, progressive or conservative, preached the gospel of eugenics and before that of social Darwinism. In America, in the ‘20s, the forced sterilization of “morons” and criminals—many if not most of whom were poor people of color—was widespread, sanctioned by law and supported by science. So science and technology do the Lord’s work, no doubt, but they’re also the devil’s imps. Not so long ago, eugenics demonstrated beyond any doubt that the Darker Other was genetically predestined for the bottom of the cognitive and social ladder, while the Great White Race ruled, as evolution decreed, from its topmost rung. Afrofuturism demands that we keep an eye peeled for the ideological malware lurking in the supposedly value-neutral pronouncements made in the name of that unassailable cultural authority, science.

Afrofuturism reminds us, too, that power still comes to ground on human bodies, as the murders in Ferguson and Charleston and elsewhere make clear, despite Foucault’s insistence that “soft power”—repressive media myths and other cultural narratives and techniques of mass behavior modification—has replaced the vulgar exercise of brute force. So when the overwhelmingly white geek elite lionized at TED talks and in Wired magazine and at the Aspen Institute and in the media is given airtime, at tedious length, to rhapsodize about how AI and nanotech will make gods of us all, Afrofuturism asks what happens if we bring this religious fantasy—and it is unquestionably that, a Pentecostal Rapture for geeks—crashing down to earth? What happens if we relocate this floating world, this cloud city of the philosopher kings, in the real world, where the precariat and the working poor live and labor?

District 9 is an US/New-Zeland/Sout-Africa sci-fi movie co-written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, released in 2009. It tells the story of extraterrestrials who have landed in Johannesburg (South Africa), and are confined “ghettoized” in specific areas and working as slaves..

One of the first things that occurs to us is that AI and nanotech won’t fall from the trees in some Garden of Paradise Regained. They’ll be brought to us by the Silicon Valley equivalent of Dow Chemical or Exxon or Archer Daniels Midland. And what does history teach us about multinational conglomerates? That they want to dismantle environmental protections and workplace-safety laws and any other regulatory impediments erected by already weakened nation-states that stand in the way of the profit motive. It teaches us, too, that Shit Happens: oil spills foul vast swathes of ocean, nuclear meltdowns give us a glimpse of apocalypse now, toxic runoff poisons local water tables. So, the next time you hear a geek well-rewarded by his corporation or university (many of which are happily in bed with industry and the Pentagon) sermonizing about how AI will enhance our brainpower, transforming us into prosthetic gods, and nanomachines will patrol our bloodstreams, scaling off plaque and insuring our immortality, ask yourself: What would the nanotech version of the BP disaster look like in my bloodstream? And: Am I willing to make the Faustian bargain of cognitive enhancement by means of a neural implant that comes fully loaded with Facebook software that records our memories and a Google engine that searches them? Do I really want Facebook to data-mine my childhood and sell it to advertisers? Do I really want my most politically subversive, even radical fantasies downloaded to NSA servers when the government subpoenas Google?

NOISE GATE is an experimental sci-fi short film about a dimensional traveling Scientist who is in search of the ultimate reality. Directed, filmed, and edited by Donovan Vim Crony in 2013.

Meanwhile, back in the present, AI is eliminating low-skill, low-wage jobs and is beginning to affect white-collar jobs; I wonder if Kurzweil and other evangelists of the coming Singularity will be as ecstatic about posthuman potential when their lunch is eaten by artificial intelligences. We’ve been promised, ever since the Jules Verne era, a future in which labor-saving gadgets and robot servants insure lives of leisure in which we nibble grapes and read Plato’s Republic. But the history of automation and the outsourcing that has resulted from globalization tell a different tale: it’s a story about the collapse of the manufacturing sector and the demolition of the middle class; of the replacement of industrial jobs by dead-end, low-skill, exploitative service-sector jobs or permatemp gigs. The day SkyNet becomes self-aware, the human race is out of a job. Will it, and the uber-rich, see fit to give us all a pension and let us laze on the green in a new Eden, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace? I’d love to think so, but I’m not betting on it. So you’ll forgive me if I’m not as sanguine as you seem to be about the liberatory potential of AI and nanotech, which like all technologies will always be made by somebody somewhere, and thus will always have hidden costs (human and environmental) and, under capitalism, will be part of a system of exploitation (human and environmental) in the name of profit maximization, driven by shareholder demands.

Read the first part of our interview w/ Mark Dery
Read the second part of our interview w/ Mark Dery
Read the last part of our interview w/ Mark Dery

Cover photo :

Image Taking of Earth-Rise by HDTV, November 13, 2007 (JST), © Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation)

By Mawena Yehouessi

Diplomée de Philosophie puis Gestion de Projets Culturels, Mawena fait ses premières armes dans les milieux de l’art contemporain tout en menant de front divers projets : soirées, édition, collectifs artistiques… Fondatrice et directrice de Black(s) to the Future, son objectif est simple : mettre en lumière la part « afro » du monde et performer le futur. | // @ma.wena


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