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[21.0] tech’s stratospheric p*nis envy
things don’t have to end with a bang!
Oh, how wonderful the rising world is, oh how the holiday they will not let us celebrate sparkles. Everything flows from this, the new era, everything is drawn to it, it will get the best gifts and exclamations. I love it, this world that’s coming toward me, more than life, I worship it and hate it with every fiber of my being! I sob, tears gush from my eyes, but I want to poke my fingers in its clothes and rip. Don’t outshine me! Don’t take away what might have belonged to me…
It’s clear that everything is on its way to wrack and ruin, everything has been predetermined, there’s no escape—you’re going to perish… Every minute the humiliations are going to multiply, every day your enemy is going to flourish like a pampered youth. We’re going to perish. That’s clear. So dress up your demise, dress it up in fireworks, tear the clothes off whoever is outshining you, say farewell in such a way that your ‘goodbye’ comes crashing down through the ages.
Yuri Olesha’s Envy can be best described as a fever dream, a listless, englutted stumbling through the somatic, the magical, the real. Starting as the hagiography of a rotund Muscovite sausage mogul; cliffhanging 150 pages thereafter with an unexplained polycule comprised of an eloquent drunkard, a lonely widow, and a tech-innovator-slash-demagogue (the sausage maker’s brother). V v linear and coherent, right? :)
Published in 1927, the novel depicts a tug-of-war between two eras. The thousand-cuts death of an ancient régime and its attendant range of emotions and dreams (ambition, the titular envy, sorrow). The roar of a new, more efficient, sausage-consuming, brawny, altruistic society. Envy’s polyamorous losers are left stranded in between, straddling each other, for one, as well as the eras sandwiching their sandwich.
Envy rambles and defies Goodreads-friendly binge-read speeds. It’s too hot to handle, some might say. True to the book’s idiosyncratic “let’s show-and-tell the feelings of a byone era” vibes, I had a hard time naming my reaction to the at once slapstick and esoteric writing unfurling before my meek retinas.
But that “you can’t put my work in a box!”-ness served a political purpose. To cover so many themes at once (sausages; polycules; changings of the guard) helped the novel bypass Stalinist censors. Flirting with our canonical urges, Olesha made his writing so invertebrate so as to permit any reader to project themselves onto the text and interpret accordingly. Is Envy a treatise on misanthropy? or the perils of techno-capitalism? of Sovietism? cirrhosis of the liver? Whatever you want, sweetie.
Despite its opacity, explains Ken Kalfus in his introduction to Envy’s English translation (I would argue because of it), the novel was an “immediate sensation” in Russia and beyond, earning praise “from several leading Communist literary journals.” Yet, seesawing on the boundary between permissible and seditious critique, Envy was eventually banned, only to be republished after Stalin’s death.
Here I am, tinkering on my keyboard, stringing sentences more inchoate than usual because of a baby tome that covers everything and nothing. Maybe you want Divine Innovation banned and yeeted to irrelevance after this rambling issue, too. Like, Envy isn’t about religion and technology per se, but it isn’t not about religion and technology. Olesha smizes from his grave.
Not that the major tech founders took a cue from an obscure Russian novel, but I think variations upon Olesha’s kitchen-sink-throwing-for-survival strategy continue today. A little less Stalinism and a little more billionaires riding in phallic spaceships that don’t really go into space. Our stratosphere-tickling tech oligarchs clearly want to abandon this era with a big, big bang, leaving us with as dramatic an epochal mess as possible—echoing the insecurities of Envy’s Russo-polycule who “dress up their demise in fireworks.” In our present day, though, we face new eras with weightier carbon footprints, and, potentially, slavery on Mars.
To continue speaking of craft in both a literary and extraterrestrial sense: both Olesha and tech giants, by doing literally everything, complicate our capacity to encapsulate their work, their strategies, and their implications in sufficiently concise and lucid terms so as to respond effectively to their intentions.
How often do lay critiques of Amazon discuss Amazon Web Services, a giant company within a giant-er parent company? In the aftermath of Jeff Bezos thanking Amazon customers and employees for funding his expensive penis envy joyride into the stratosphere, TikTok and Twitter (my social mediæ of choice) have been crammed with erstwhile Amazon customers ditching their Prime accounts. Which, okay! But while Amazon started as a bookstore and then grew into an everything e-commerce goliath, it’s grown beyond our conceptual boundaries to power a huge chunk of the Internet via AWS (and profit off its indispensability and revenues), work for the U.S. military on various contracts, cozy up with fossil fuel giants, and get away with a whole slew of other schemes.
But, again, when we discuss the smoke-and-mirrors allure or deception of tech companies, let alone esoteric novels, we have to remember to turn to the question of politics. That’s why calling a startup a “cult” is self-defeating! What does the law afford those in power that makes these various transgressions feasible? How does it shape our language, our capacity to cogently name the phenomena around us, and our emotional and constructive responses to those dynamics?
The burgeoning (and long-extant) antitrust battle within the tech world is therefore more than just an attempt to bring tech oligarchs down to earth. It may help us regain conceptual control over what a corporation is or does, and rapture (if it’s ever existed) a popular capacity to respond to institutional fuckeries. By whittling tech giants down to “I do what I say I do”-sized companies, we may get a better sense of how we’re being exploited by the blue-chip realm. To start, we need pockets of this realm more regulated, say, the platforms through which our discussions of tech’s transgressions are circulated (Facebook, Twitter, et. al., hell, even Substack).
Possession is, according to my fancy friends in law school, 99% of the law. Obviously private property can stem from messy, violent, ir/rational processes—early subscribers know!—but that non-possessive 1% of the law is still clingy af, belonging to a highly emotional realm. Both Amazon and Facebook are shitting their (metaphorical) pants re: FTC Chair Lina Khan, a stated antitrust advocate. Unlike Envy, where the incoming era was ostensibly set in stone, tech oligarchs at our current fork in the road want our new era to head in their chosen direction. One path, the antitrust one, holds some promise in undoing tech’s antidemocratic and ecocidal effects; the other is decidedly pro-status-quo.
It’s crucial that we pay attention to how Big Tech begins to shapeshift its missions and intentions in the coming months. Lawyers (the successful ones, at least) are masters in the opposite of Olesha-esque storytelling; taking the soup of evidence and frayed strands, weaving them into unambiguous parables. Facebook and Amazon’s advocates will be sure to do whatever the antitrust equivalent of wokewashing is. Stay tuned for pro-tech pablum scattered across Wall Street Journal op-eds, etc.!
Thoughts and prayers for our space billionaire dads, though. I hope this dispatch from a fellow commoner earthling finds you well—or finds you, period, having successfully weaved via self-censoring asterisks through your email’s (understandably) phallic-phobic spam filters. Ttyl!
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.