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Fred Turner weighs in on the accelerationism debate


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Fred Turner is a professor of communications at Stanford and author of the canonical text From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006). So he might have a particularly valuable take on the techno-utopian politics of accelerationism. In the September issue of Public Books, he reads Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams and is less than impressed. Read an excerpt from the review below or the full text here.

Oddly enough, Srnicek and Williams seem quite comfortable with top-down management. In one of their book’s strangest passages, they invoke the computerized management system known as “Cybersyn” as an emblem of the future they hope for. Cybersyn was designed and partially built for Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile in the early 1970s. It featured a command center that resembled the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise. Like Captain Kirk and his officers, leaders were to sit together watching information stream in from around the nation, and to act on what they saw. Srnicek and Williams see today’s digital technologies as tools with similar potential. In order to free our individual desires, they claim, we need to automate all the work we can, manage that automation together using systems like Cybersyn, and so build a flexible postcapitalist economy in which we work when we want to, love when we want to, and all in all, “create new modes of being.”

If this sounds more than a little like a marketing campaign for Uber, it should. This is the same logic that drives the rhetoric of the sharing economy. And that should make us nervous. New digital platforms really are making work patterns more flexible and automation really is replacing (some) drudgery. Yet, marketers’ claims notwithstanding, they have hardly brought us a new era of social sharing. Instead, they’ve marketized ever smaller segments of time and transformed formerly private resources (such as your car) into potential sources of profit. You of course bear the responsibility for capitalizing those resources (buying and maintaining the car) and getting the training to use them (learning to drive). For all their vaunted computer power, companies like Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit are essentially traditional service brokers. And the vision of sharing that underlies them belongs more to the legacy of Friedrich Hayek than of Karl Marx.

Srnicek and Williams are blinded by their faith in all things digital. To consider automation only in terms of its ability to replace onerous labor is wondrously naive. Who will build the machines? Manage them? Say we succeed in building a new Cybersyn. Who will sit in the armchairs of command? As the current rage for Donald Trump reminds us, leaders need hardly be rational, disinterested public servants. And what will become of those who never reach the centers of command? Or should I say, what will become of us? How will we speak back to power? Will we become the political equivalent of Uber drivers, communicating with central powers only through the data our work throws off?

Image: Umberto Boccioni, Elasticity (1912). Via Public Books.


Peter Wolfendale's Brief 8-Point Response to Fred Turner's Critique of Accelerationism