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[18.0] Time isn’t real on the Internet
The present is an incessant slap between past and future.
To experience something “live” through a screen is to be lied to. There is a lag, no matter how infinitesimal or imperceptible, between the events you think you’re seeing in the moment and their actual unfurling in space and time. You’ve just missed the present, perennially tardy for the party.
The closing of Divine Innovation’s last issue described the bifurcated afflictions of automagic. In the pandemic, the (continued) existence of two worlds: one quarantined, sedentary, remote, bored; the other “essential,” fodder, exposed, out there. Automagic permits the latter to remain faceless so as to appear seamless to the former.
In a show-and-tell with members of Congress in 1844, Samuel Morse, the telegraph’s inventor, dispatched a message to his Baltimore-based partner Alfred Vail, displaying one old-school incarnation of automagic. The message sent to and fro was a Biblical passage (Numbers 23:23): What Hath God Wrought? It proved through a speedy dot-dash reply, to the politicians’ wonder, the technological capacity to transcend time and space through wire. (Well, with a small delay, of course.)
These wires have turned fiber-optic since Morse, while their audiovisual pull has grown stronger. (I doubt you’d find people doomscrolling via telegraph?) But the basic illusion of here-and-now-ness and its state-sponsored underpinnings live on. Time as mediated through supposedly real-time technologies is as dichotomous as automagic’s split-class cities. We’re slapped between past and future in such rapid succession that we think we’re riding along in the present, our gaze locked in front of us. Our live feeds are a syncopated pummeling of events as they have just occurred, paired with pontifications about the yet-to-come. This facilitates an understanding of our reality that is at once post-mortem and anticipatory, shaping relational structures in the service of antidemocratic ends.
The consistent drive to push the present toward the past helps maintain inequality by sustaining worlds of haves and have-nots. Contemplate how quickly U.S. discourse has slid into “post-pandemic” mode: approximately half of U.S. residents have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and yet the CDC (with more nuance, but still woefully misunderstanding “don’t tread on me” libertarianism and adjacent worldviews) has already started gunning for a hot girl summer in which we’re all maskless indoors, including in public. That’s terrifying! Almost every state—“blue” and “red” alike—is 100% reopened; hundreds of people continue to die every day from Covid-19 in the U.S., and tens of thousands more receive a positive diagnosis. With it, a serious risk of death and/or disability. Vocal maskers are subjected to media scrutiny (if not ridicule), caricatured as “anti-science” Nostradami riding out an apocalypse that never happened and never will.
To depart from American solipsism but remain in lethal navel-gazing territory: India’s Prime Minister claimed to have successfully defeated the coronavirus back in January, crop-dusting attendees (virtually) with a hot-air victory speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Weeks later, though, the nation’s “post-pandemic” dispensationalism shattered, and India now struggles through a disastrous wave of infections. Thousands die daily due to preventable infrastructural collapse: a dearth of beds, ventilators, oxygen. By some estimates, 4,200,000 people have died of Covid-19 in India. And, as the virus subsides in wealthier Indian cities and rips through rural areas with even fewer resources, others claim the situation is already “improving,” bringing with it another “post-pandemic” mirage sans accountability.
“In the times to come, we will certainly remember events as either pre-Covid or post-Covid,” Modi foretold on Wednesday, killing a third, extant category: the intra-Covid time for which Modi is responsible. And, as long as he speaks in vague visions of the future and behaves accordingly, failing to address his horrendous public health response, then the future yawns wide, creating a perma-Covid in which the “post-” lies forever out of reach.
Because of the urgency of India’s Covid-19 wave, the Biden administration has reversed course on its initial export bans and pro-vaccine-patent zeal. It does so much too late. The pandemic is not over, and viruses don’t give a shit about political borders or kinky pro-pharma psyops:
Most Covid-related discourse (including conspiracy theories!) asks one of two core questions: What are the pandemic’s origins? and When will it end? Peering into the past and future of our epidemiological crisis, merely guesstimating the point at which the future will have become the past. These inquiries, while understandable and a necessary survival mechanism for so many, spawn a temporal mitosis distracting us from a central question: What is happening right now, and why?
The American 180° on shipping vaccines to other countries complements Modi’s dogmatism with technocratic policy-wonking; the new strategy attempts to cloak the neocolonial panic of vaccine-hoarding governments. What if their political subjects continued to contemplate the pandemic in its present form, shedding an attraction to prophecy, sitting here, now, with the implications and underlying conditions of this longue durée to the extent it deserves? As sedentary classes emerge from the lull of automagic, engaging with the pandemic in genuinely live time and space, what kinds of political demands could arise? Might a reckoning materialize?
Multigenerational forms of political oppression are subjected to conceptual truncation and sporadic, symbolic responses so as to prevent the very reckonings described above. Contemplate the language used, for instance, in relation to the apartheid state in Palestine-Israel. News outlets spoke of “clashes” and “flare-ups”: discrete, artificially symmetric terms for an ongoing violence in which one faction really holds magnitudes more power than the other. In its “wake,” both time and toll quantified; an “eleven-day” conflict in which 242 people died, the vast majority of them in Gaza.
Hours into last week’s cease-fire, the U.S. announced its intentions to lead the charge in rebuilding post-“flare-up” Gaza. A senior Biden administration official, according to the New York Times’s Lara Jakes, projected a multibillion-dollar budget for “restoring health and education services, and other reconstruction.” (Think about this the way we do an Uber press release: an attempt to rally shareholder faith rather than a material commitment.) Jakes’s reporting describes recovery efforts as both a balm and a high-leverage carrot through which the Biden administration can shape the Gazan political landscape in its image. A different wonk quoted in the article identifies a U.S.-imposed fork in the road:
“In a sense, you need to put Hamas in a position where they have to choose between their rockets and the well-being of Gaza,” said Dennis B. Ross, a veteran American negotiator of peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians and Middle East policy for at least four U.S. presidents.
At the same time that the United States demands the termination of furtive weapons manufacturing in exchange for the construction of literal homes, it has, to much less press attention, granted a $735 million unconditional weapons sale to Israel—replenishing Israel’s stockpile with the very types of bombs it dropped on people in Gaza only a week ago. Writes Alex Kane in Jewish Currents:
For decades, the US has delivered millions of dollars in humanitarian relief for Palestinians in a bid to stave off Palestinian uprisings that could shake the Middle East. At the same time, the US has sent Israel billions of dollars in military aid that helps fund human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite increasing criticism from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party for this aid paradigm—both sides of which serve, in different ways, to support Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories—the Biden administration’s recent moves are consistent with its predecessors’ approach to the region.
Treating Gazan “recovery” as a brick-and-mortar solution to just two weeks of violence, the U.S. moralizes its own two-facedness by dismissing ongoing oppression in the Palestinian present. A “post-conflict” approach denies the forced displacement of Palestinians and their disenfranchisement. To echo abolitionist Mariame Kaba: Why are “workaday” forms of violence not considered “excessive?” Between “clashes” and beneath militaristic shock-and-awe, who is inherently presumed to deserve surveillance and punishment? Who is denied a freer future, relegated to the statuses and punishments of the past? Temporal binarism as mediated through the screen and its 0/1 code marches in lockstep with other monolithic, dehumanizing, and politically utile dyads: friend/enemy, Jew/Muslim, human/barbarian, Sunni/Shi’a, Black/white, innocent/guilty.
To digest systemic violence as a retroactive—the pandemic, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, or other forms of oppression—is to transmute its significance from a semi-synchronic site of public concern into a small layer within a long, sedimentary sequence. In other words: treating these issues as a matter of the past casts our future in the image of previous social relations, gravitating us autonomically toward “normal” social structures. And this, itself, is a prophecy; by judging an epoch as entering its “post-” stage, the future has become already known.
The next issue will discuss how we, by submitting ourselves to a transfiguration from person to user, help sustain the Internet’s anti-present temporality. Our main character energy propels us forward through time, careening blindly into the yet-to-come.
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.