Transmission #03

There is an extremely painful dilemma that we find ourselves in. One could even argue that it is a tragic one. We live in a time in which the problems that confront us have grown in both their intensity and their scale, but simultaneously we find ourselves becoming increasingly powerless to influence those problems. At one time, it might have been sufficient for us to devote ourselves to being ‘better informed’ or to develop better critical theories. And these activities still have a certain validity. However, it has become clear that no amount of knowledge or critical discernment is adequate to cope with what is really happening. In this sense, what we know has actually become a curse, an unbearable weight that only makes our impotence all the more oppressive.

Our dilemma can be thought of as the conjunction of two major historical tendencies. On the one hand, there is what some people call the ‘paradox of automation,’ in which the very success of technical and social systems in solving some of their problems leads to the emergence of new and more intractable ones (the automobile, for example, creates pollution, congestion, etc., and we cannot simply go ‘back to horses and buggies’). On the other hand, there is what some people call the ‘paradox of freedom’ (a term borrowed from David Hume), in which our efforts to increase liberty lead to increased social complexity, and so to new forms of constraint and domination. Both of these trends contribute to making our world more difficult to live in. Both contribute to what is called ‘social pathology,’ that is to say, a condition of conflict and stress that makes collective life more unendurable. And it is in attempting to manage this social pathology that the power-elite create ever more totalizing structures, including the communications and information system that facilitate the dissemination of what I will call ’non-usable knowledge.’

In attempting to solve their problems, the elites necessarily attempt to control the sources of information, since what is learned by the public must be channelled and selected in such a way as to direct it toward certain ‘solutions’ (usually only those that are convenient for the elite themselves). In this sense, we can see that power resides in the information system, since it is through controlling the flow of information that power is exercised. For example, it is in this way that our financial system directs the popular will toward endless accumulation and consumption, despite the clear signs that this course is leading toward ecological and other forms of disaster. It is in this way that the military-industrial complex maintains support for the arms race (as Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have said, ’the public may not want to fight in Vietnam, but they’ll sure as hell pay for it’). The media function in a similar way to control and direct our attentions and fantasies, directing them toward whatever it is that those who own them want us to do and think. And what we find is that all social systems require such feedback loops that allow them to maintain control and grow ever more complex. In this way, they increasingly dictate the nature of information. In my book, The Simulation of the Future, I explored some of these trends, in terms of the development of what I called ‘directive technologies.’

As we learn more, the elites become more capable of channeling this knowledge, and thus it becomes increasingly non-usable from our point of view. Our sense of powerlessness grows. The concept of ‘usable knowledge’ was first proposed by Bertrand Russell. What he meant was that the science that was available to him during his life was in many cases useless for the kinds of problems that really needed solving. He spoke of the ‘folly’ of thinking that the knowledge available to us would somehow be used to ‘alleviate the common burdens of humanity’ rather than to develop ’new means of slaughtering one another.’ The problem becomes how to bring usable knowledge to bear upon real problems, in ways that the power-elite cannot divert or corrupt. We are forced back to more ‘primitive’ means of organizing, sharing, and disseminating information than the system permits, since our freedom can only lie outside the system. As our knowledge becomes more useful to the elites, it becomes less usable to us. Thus we find the information system itself operating to maintain the structures of domination. This is how Informational Impotence becomes the engine of our servitude. It is not a solution, but a trap.

Of course, even this problem may have a use, and there are some signs that we can redirect our attention to activities that will increase our freedom. But the impotence itself may be necessary to our servitude, and so we cannot necessarily rely on it to evaporate. For now, it is still something to be thought about, the central issue of our time.

–R. Artaud (Telos)

᯾᯾ ᴛᴇʀᴍɪɴᴀᴛᴇᴅ ᯾᯾