The Grim Meathook Future, Revisited
Several years ago, I wrote this thing on a private message board run by the writer Warren “No Relation” Ellis. One of the other board members, Jamie Zawinski, liked it so much he posted it on his LiveJournal, and it took on a bit of life of its own, and a phrase from it, “the grim meathook future”, has kind of entered the futurist parlance. Bruce Sterling used it in a SxSW keynote, and most recently it showed up as a bit of a demented character’s inner monologue in Charlie Stross’s Rule 34. (There is nothing quite as odd, by the way, as reading a novel and coming across a phrase you coined.)
Part of what I wrote was this:
The upshot of all of this is that the Future gets divided; the cute, insulated future that Joi Ito and Cory Doctorow and you and I inhabit, and the grim meathook future that most of the world is facing, in which they watch their squats and under-developed fields get turned into a giant game of Counterstrike between crazy faith-ridden jihadist motherfuckers and crazy faith-ridden American redneck motherfuckers, each doing their best to turn the entire world into one type of fascist nightmare or another.
Of course, nobody really wants to talk about that future, because it’s depressing and not fun and doesn’t have Fischerspooner doing the soundtrack. So everybody pretends they don’t know what the future holds, when the unfortunate fact is that — unless we start paying very serious attention — it holds what the past holds: a great deal of extreme boredom punctuated by occasional horror and the odd moment of grace.
What a lot of people seemed to miss, when they read this and ran with it, was that the Grim Meathook Future emphatically isn’t the Mad Max postapocalypse where everybody runs around shooting at each other in body armor made of tractor tires and Wilson’s Leather remaindered items. That future — envisioned by many as a sort of antidote to the gee-whiz chrome-plated futures of Star Trek and 1950s rock-ribbed science fiction — is, in point of fact, entirely as ridiculous and unlikely as any of the technofetishistic Rapture-of-the-nerds bullshit that the transhumanists come up with. It’s a macho fantasy invented by the sort of libertarians who secretly pray for the Poor People to rise up and start a civil war so their friends will stop laughing at them for keeping a cache of automatic weapons next to their Lexus in the garage of their suburban enclave.
Look: in the event of an actual global thermonuclear war, the likelihood is that pretty much all life on Earth would be wiped away, either in the firestorms or during the onset of the resulting nuclear winter, which would kill off the plants and the animals that ate the plants and the people who ate the animals and the plants. Nobody would have time to forget the old ways and revert to pre-civilizational Lord Of The Flies behavior; they’d be too busy dying of radiation poisoning or starvation. Poisoned and starving people don’t spend a lot of time waging tribal war on each other, because they’re too busy shitting out their own intestines or falling down unconscious every time they try to stand up too quickly.
But let’s assume, for a moment, some notional apocalypse that destroys civilization and maybe reduces the human population by 90%. There’s only one really possible scenario that could cause that, which is a fast-moving airborne pathogen with a high mortality rate. Not even global warming could kill that many of us off, because it doesn’t happen fast enough; humans are fast-moving adaptable primates. So imagine, if you like, that Ebola Zaire mutates and becomes airborne and most of the people on Earth die out very quicly, leaving the lion’s share of the remnants of civilization just lying around, a sort of mass version of the Roanoke Island colony, who left their food on their tables and their kitchen fires still burning.
Unless the survivors happened to be absolute drooling idiots, they’d have the power back on and at least the basic necessities of survival up and running in a matter of weeks or months. Why? Because every technological artifact on Earth, from toasters to plutonium power plants, comes with a fucking instruction manual.
Always wanted to learn basic engineering, or how to read a schematic, but never had the time? Well, guess what, homey? You now have absolutely nothing to do but find any one of the thousands of thousands of libraries dotting the Earth’s surface, load the entire 600 section into a wheelbarrow, and retire to some place with a shady spot for reading and a large supply of beer. Hell, armed only with a Boy’s Big Book Of Electrical Projects from the 1960s and the contents of a run-down mini-mall, you could probably build a two-way radio and a dynamo hooked up to an exercise bike to run it off of. Sure, if you weren’t a nerd or a maker, it might take you a while to figure it out…but if the world ends, it’s gonna take your inbox and your Getting Things Done list with it. You’ll have nothing but time.
So no, that’s not my Grim Meathook Future. (It actually sounds kind of lovely; now where did I leave those access codes for the biowarfare lab, again….) My Grim Meathook Future is the one that looks like the present.
Living in America — indeed, in any of the economically top-tier countries in the First World — is like living in a big room. It’s huge, this room, so big that you can’t see the walls, and it’s nice and cozy. To paraphrase Depeche Mode: all you ever wanted, all you ever needed is here in your arms. And you’ve never been outside the room. Intellectually, you know that there’s a world outside, maybe one that’s not quite as nice and cozy; you’ve seen it on TV, after all. But it doesn’t really affect you. When you think of the world, you think of the room; your idea of normality is based on what’s normal in the room.
There are nearly a billion Facebook users in the world, and half a billion Twitter users (though of course there’s probably nearly a 90% overlap between those two). Those are indeed astonishing numbers, but the problem is that sometime around March 12, 2012, we passed seven billion people living on Earth. That means that the vast majority of humans aren’t on Facebook or Twitter. The majority of people have mobile phones, but there are more people still who don’t have mobile phones than use Facebook.
Most of us never see these people, of course, except as faces briefly glimpsed in the background of news footage. They are outside our Big Room. Not because we’re intentionally keeping them out, you understand; at least, not really on any overt institutional level. Basically. We don’t do that any more, and we feel good about it.
It’s just that living in the Big Room is expensive, you see…and, well, these people can’t afford it. They don’t have Facebook because they can’t afford the technological artifacts that would allow them to be on Facebook. They don’t tweet about how much the new version of iOS sucks, because they don’t have any way to tweet and they damn sure don’t have a device that will run iOS, because these devices cost more than these people often make in a year.
But, hey, look, things are tough all over. I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty for having the basic economic and cultural capital to be able to read this essay. You probably had no more control over your circumstances than a boy-child growing up in the streets of Kibera did, and no reason to feel guilty. We are where we are.
But it’s important to understand that the capital-F Future where we become cyborgs permanently mind-melded with our technology is open only to people who can afford that technology in the first place…especially when technological innovation is driven by Silicon Valley-style venture capitalism.
I’ve been a coder for most of my life — not a very good one, necessarily, by the standards of any given hackathon, but I’ve made my living doing it for a long time, at least when I wasn’t making a living by writing. Consequently, I’ve worked with and been around Valley-style entrepreneurs and investors quite a bit. And it’s taken me fifteen years of hanging out in the tech industry and around tech industry people to fully realize that I can’t stand being in the same room with most of them.
“It’s no trick to make a lot of money,” says Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane, “if all you want to do is make a lot of money.” And it’s true. All you have to do is find a lot of people with disposable income, figure out what they’ll spend that income on, and sell it to them. At the heart of it, that’s what Steve Jobs did, to some extent with the personal computer and to a greater extent with the iPhone. Later, Mark Zuckerberg figured out a neat, if creepy, angle on this trick: find the people with the income, find out what they spend it on…and then sell that information to the people who sell the people the things they want to buy.
That’s what Silicon Valley is for: making shit for people with disposable incomes to buy. (And making shit for companies to buy so their workflow is more efficient, so the people who own the company and work for the company can buy more of the other shit.) If it was ever about trying to make the world a better place, that train left the station a long time ago.
It’s my experience that most venture capitalists and serial entrepreneur types are almost identical, personality-wise, to the street hustlers and drug dealers whose acquaintance I’ve made over the years. They may wear polo shirts instead of Fubu and spend their money on organic produce instead of custom hubcap rims, but they operate on the same principle: waking up every day figuring out new ways to get paid. Whether these ways are good for society as a whole, or even for the person who’s doing the paying, is a minor consideration next to the paycheck itself. And if you’re not a means to that end, well, fuck you. More than once, I’ve seen the exact same behavior in a Stanford-educated dot.com startup founder at a tech meetup and a smacked-out panhandler on the Las Vegas Strip: they’re all smiles and handshakes when they approach you, but as soon as they realize you’re not a potential mark with an open wallet you can watch their eyes go dead and look right through you, on to the next target.
I hate these people and wouldn’t piss on most of them if they were on fire, but that’s fine; I hate bankers and lawyers too, like every other blowhard bohemian iconoclast does, and I doubt any of them are losing any sleep over it. What bothers me is that we’ve effectively put these walking hardons in charge of building that capital-F Future, in every sector of the innovation industry, from genetically grown food to biotechnology to communications to spaceship-building.
And none of them, not a single one, is interested in any Future if they can’t sell it for a serious profit. Nor do they care if the process of selling and profiting leaves a swath of collateral damage the size of a Gulf Coast oil spill in its wake.
Which leaves those six billion other people, the people who don’t live in the Big Room with you and me and Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg, pretty well fucked.
The real Grim Meathook Future, the one I talked about back when I wrote that thing and the one I see now, is the future where a relatively small slice of our species lives in a sort of Edenic Eloi reality where the only problems are what we laughingly refer to as White People Problems, like being able to get four bars’ worth of 4G signal at that incredible pho joint that @ironicguy69 recommended on Twitter, or finding new ways to lifehack all the shit we own into our massive closets…while the rest of the world is reduced to maintaining our lifestyles via a complex process of economically-positioned indentured servitude and clinging with the very tips of their fingernails onto the ragged edge of our consumer leavings, like the dorky dude who shows up the first day of school with the cheap K-Mart knockoffs of the pumped-up kicks the cool kids are wearing this year. In other words, the Grim Meathook Future is the one that looks like the present, the one where nothing changes.
But don’t you know, people are talkin’ about a revolution, son? In the streets of Cairo and Tripoli, where they Twittered entire governments to their knees; in Zucotti Park and in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, where they’re Occupying anything and everything they can. Information wants to be free, didn’t you get the Facebook notification?
Yeah, I know that song, and I know who did the original version: Stewart Brand, at the first Hacker’s Conference. But what Stewart also said, that most of the cyberlibertarians forget to mention (or never knew in the first place) is that information wants to be expensive. Information — and the economy around it — wants to be sold to teenagers at the highest possible price point that their parents will tolerate. It wants to be unlimited, if by unlimited you mean two gigabytes per month, after which you get charged a dollar a megabyte. Information wants to be marketed to you, and if it could put a microphone in your bedroom to hear what you muttered about in the deepest darkest depths of your dreams, it would do it, and it would convince you to let it do it by allowing you to share your dreams with that dude you made out with one night at a party in college who, by virtue of the social networks, is still a part of your circle of interaction for no apparent goddamn reason at all. And then it would sell your dreams back to you, with free shipping if your order is over $25.
At least, that’s what all the evidence these days suggests. If Western companies are helping developing nations throw off the various yolks of tyranny, it’s only because they’ve identified potential future markets. A free society, after all, usually means a free market. The Occupy Movement is very good at identifying the problems with the world – shit’s fucked up real bad – but not so good at coming up with viable solutions that anybody with actual power pays much attention to. The social networks have been coopted by the activist movements, but only to the extent that you can now watch Iranian soldiers or NYPD thugs beat the shit out of teenage girls in real-time. The beatings haven’t stopped; no one has truly been held accountable; same as it ever was, same as it ever was. Knowing may be half the battle, as they used to tell us on the old G.I. Joe cartoon when I was a kid, but that’s just it: it’s only half the battle.
If I sound dismissive and cynical, it’s because I am. I’m deeply, irreconcilably cynical about the technology industry, especially when anybody in it starts mouthing off about human rights, as if they gave a shit. Of course tech lobbyists frame things like the file-sharing issue as a human rights issue, and tell you that it’s all about your right to have as many Dave Matthews MP3s as your hard drive can hold; they work for the people who make the software that shares the files and run the websites that link to the torrents, almost none of whom are doing it out of the kindness of their hearts. They don’t talk to you about musicians who can’t make money from album sales anymore or newspapers that lock their doors after decades or centuries of publication, simply because the people who run them can’t figure out how to instantiate an instant technological pivot — because, you know, they’re just stupid journalists, not social media gurus.
Is it good for humanity when these things happen? Is it good for individual communities, or the creative arts? It doesn’t matter. It’s good for the technology industry, for those hustling pricks in the polo shirts, whose job is to find new ways to sell shit to people. And that’s all that matters.
That’s the Grim Meathook Future I see lying before us, a long game of technological determinism where the only people who get their jetpacks or their self-driving cars or their anti-aging nanotech are the ones who can afford it, and everyone else can simply go fuck themselves and rot in whatever Third World toilet they were unlucky enough to be born into.
Is there a way around it? Man, I don’t know. I really don’t. And I actually think about this shit a lot, not just on my daily commute from my bedroom to the coffeeshop patio. I read Bruce Sterling’s blog and I watch TED talks and I sit around in the dark heat of the Las Vegas night and spend hours thinking about it…and I just don’t have an answer.
I’m afraid that avoiding the Grim Meathook Future might require the dismantling of American-style corporate capitalism. I’m not a Communist or anything, but it seems to me that corporate capitalism as it’s played in my country is a lot like throwing a hundred sharks and a hundred minnows into a small tank. Sharks are machines that eat minnows: they’re incapable of doing anything else, even of keeping a few minnows around to make more minnows to eat later. So they’ll eat and eat until there’s nothing to do except eat each other, and the last one left alive in the tank isn’t the winner: he’s just the shark who gets to die slowly and horribly of starvation. People can only buy so much shit until they run out of money or space to put it in, and then what?
I hope that we’ll wise up and take the sharks out of the pool, or at least muzzle them for a while. If we do — if we stop thinking entirely about the Benjamins and start thinking about the survival of our species as a whole — I think things will change, and some other future will open up, an even more radical future than any Singularity of social networks that might occur.
I hope so. I’d love to see a future I couldn’t predict.