· About 15 minutes read

Controlling Culture

I wrote this on February 23rd, and just came across it now when I was going through my drafts. It goes a bit far and wide in a rambly tone, which is probably why I didn’t originally publish it, but since the Icesave election is on today in Iceland and the situation in MENA still hasn’t resolved I decided to throw it out there anyway. I’m not sure I still agree with all of the statements, but the sentiment is still valid. Word of warning: This article may invoke a drawn out Wikipedia tabbing session. Sorry!


The uprisings in MENA (Middle East & North Africa) are becoming endemic and to some degree successful. One dictator after another giving defiant speeches and then disappearing with the country’s GDP sequestered away into a maze of bank accounts riddled through the numerous countries that function as tax havens such as Luxembourg, Delaware, the Netherlands and .. oh, I’m sorry, the tradition is to only mention the ones that aren’t part of the Western political norm: Switzerland, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Turks & Caicos Islands and so on. Although to be honest, a lot of it can probably be found in the United Arab Emirates or being invested in the Jebel Ali Free Zone, perhaps on the numerous American companies that provide censorship equipment to the various regimes.

In the meantime, most people in the country I live in are largely unaware of these uprisings, their scope and implications, choosing rather to focus on the third round of the Icesave deal, or in the case of the less politically mobilized public, the latest antics of transgender drama legend Vala Grand.

There’s a subtle irony in imagining former dictators and hedge fund directors standing in a long line outside a bank waiting to withdraw money to pay for a day’s worth of Pina Coladas.

The Icesave deal is in effect a row about whether the Icelandic government will socialize private debt to placate the Dutch and British governments, that allowed a piece of faulty legislation to become European doctrine and refuse to take the blame when a group of individuals in a country that, by virtue of being in the EEA, has no authority to legislate on economic issues in the region, but must obide by the European Directives. And obide by them they did, in such a way that when Landsbankinn collapsed, it took a bunch of deposit insurance money with it. This has long since stopped being an issue for most of the people affected by the collapse of Landsbankinn, since most of them weren’t wealthy enough to go beyond the deposit insurance rate.

The vocal minority is a comfortable one.

Really though, this is about imaginary debts – whether the Icelandic government will be forced to imagine up more money to pay an imaginary debt to deposit insurance funds in countries with faulty legislation, and an imaginary debt to people who had a lot more imaginary money in the Icesave database than most people on the planet will have over the course of their natural lives.

Imagination is of course a central design feature of the world’s monetary systems.

Either way, the Icesave deal is keeping the Icelandic government on edge, as last Sunday saw the President pushing the issue to public referendum for the third time, showing a remarkable level of sensibility on his part but more importantly highlighting the tradition in modern politics of repeating the proposal in slightly varied form until the resistance grows tired or becomes distracted and accidentally lets a stupid idea slide through.

While this is happening, the people who perpetrated this imaginary coup d’absurdité are living off the funds they sequestered away in various tax and capital havens around the world.

There’s a subtle irony in imagining former dictators, failed businessmen, banksters and hedge fund directors, standing in a long line outside a bank on a sweaty day in George Town, chewing the fat, waiting to withdraw money to pay for a day’s worth of Pina Coladas.

The farce is thin

Although all of the above, accompanied with human rights violations, poverty and greater social inequity bother me, these are not but the icing on the my cake of concern.

You see, all of these issues and the many others that plague the world of humans are phenotypes of the social order we live by. I’ve previously identified various aspects of this, drawing a lot of the blame towards artificial scarcity (see my essay “The End of (artificial) Scarcity” in the book Free Beer for details!), but I’ve generally tried to avoid being too bleak. This often means not talking about stuff that rattles around in my brain a lot.

One theory in particular has bugged me for a while. In part because the theory is well thought out, is logical, has a lot of research behind it by a number of independent actors, and is very certainly correct. And in part because its implications spell doom to human society.

The theory I refer to is the theory of metasystem transitions, as originally put forth by Valentin Turchin but later developed and expanded by Francis Heylighen and tangentially by John Maynard Smith, Eors Szathmary, and others.

In short it’s a theory about how development of control mechanisms provides a system with more viable state space, which can in turn lead to further developments of control mechanism. As an example, a human may be able to sustain his basic needs in nature without any tools, but the introduction of tools gives him greater control over his environment, which in turn provides him with potential to transcend previous limitations, giving him the potential to develop more advanced control mechanisms.

One of the traditional examples of metasystem transitions is at the core of my concern though. It follows the developmental steps, in very rough terms, from a vegetative cell to a sentient consciousness. The sequence goes:

  • Ability to control position provides the faculty of motion.
  • Ability to control motion provides the faculty of irritability. (Being able to roughly assess the viability of a location.)
  • Ability to control irritability provides the faculty of reflex. (Being able to respond to irritation with predetermined motions.)
  • Ability to control reflex provides the faculty of association. (Being able to adapt to environment and associate situations with appropriate reflexes.)
  • Ability to control association provides the faculty of thought. (Being able to create associations on demand by way of reasoning based on previous experience.)
  • Ability to control thought provides the faculty of culture. (Being able to channel creative thought into a meaningful social context.)

… what comes next?

The control of culture is the next step, but no matter what I put into it, I cannot imagine the ability to control culture to be anything short of sinister.

Everybody wants to funnel human culture in the direction of their choosing, with varying degrees of elitism, nepotism, malfeasance and pure malice.

Implicit in those steps, for all their flaws – I do not maintain that this model is in anyway complete or even meaningful beyond its explanatory value – is a step between single-cellular life and multi-cellular life. The development of language, tradition and so on follow from the control of thought, as language, tradition, and so on are cultural artifacts. But they don’t exist in a void. Culture is created when multiple individuals share ideas, notions, and communicate between themselves. Communication can be rudimentary at first, but as language develops, the control of thought becomes more valuable. Society develops. Therefore, implicit in the control of culture is the step between individuals and collectives.

We’ve by and large come to think of society as a good thing, and as human societies develop greater technologies and more nuanced culture, we all prosper, to some extent. But at some point in the development of our societies we seem to have become obsessed with controlling the culture itself. From Hammurabi to Jesus to Mohammed to Caesar, from Sun Tzu to Genghis Khan to Peter the Great, from Rudolf I to Napoleon to Victoria, from Lenin to Ferdinand to Hitler to Roosevelt, from John Lennon to Jack Valenti, from Bill Gates to Bill Clinton… everybody wants to funnel human culture in the direction of their choosing, with varying degrees of elitism, nepotism, malfeasance and, in some cases, pure malice.

Thankfully, we’re still not particularly good at controlling culture. Not only is human culture inherently anarchic, as it is being generated collaboratively by a couple of billion individuals who’re all independent agents, but human collectives collectively push back against developments they consider a threat to their own existence – or agenda. However, at the end of the day, we all follow some rules, and much as our obedience towards those rules differs, so do the rules themselves.

In dictatorships cultural production is stifled by regulatory behavior gone crazy, and frankly, with people like Gaddafi at the helm the arbitrariness abounds. It’s said that self-organization occurs at the edge of chaos, and while it often seems that western “democracies” are pushing a bit too far into the realm of order, some dictatorships travel as chaos in the guise of order, a semblance which cannot be anything less than lethal to those who irk it in any way.

But stifling of cultural production is in itself a cultural productive mode. Driving down Jade Nadir Pashtun in Kabul, inching through the crowd of bustling marketgoers with the Ministry of Interior building on your left and the Aryana cinema on your right, nobody would even dream of making the claim that this city which only a decade ago was under the control of a brutal theocratic dictatorship was anything other than a cultural hub. The culture clearly molded by the succession of previous regimes, but yet distinct, multifaceted, and beautiful.

The Subtle Dictator

What has control of culture got to do with offshore banking and failing dictatorships? A lot, actually.

Think of a dictatorship, any dictatorship. Now take a pencil in hand and write down what makes it a dictatorship. Let me guess, you probably wrote something like “censorship”, “torture”, “disappearing citizens”, “rigged elections”, “nepotism”, “rule of fear”, “poverty”,…

Consider for a moment that the United States have recently started issuing takedown orders for domain names, that Sweden and Denmark have censorship laws in place, that EU commissioner Cecilia Malmström is actively campaigning for the adoption of Internet censorship lists throughout the EU.

Consider that the US has been repeatedly found to be engaged in acts of torture in its military prisons such as Abu Gharib, Bagram and Guantanamo Bay, in gross violation of the Geneva conventions, but so far entirely unsanctioned – perhaps due in part to their permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

Consider that in the US a number of political prisoners, such as Bradley Manning, have not yet been put on trial, in violation of their constitutional rights, and various other people have at various times been arrested for crimes as serious as participation in the 911 attacks, and yet still haven’t been publicly charged or tried, nor do they seem to have resurfaced.

The political parties have manufactured the political system to the exclusion of dissent.

Consider the fact that the outcome of the US presidential elections in 2004 was finally decided by the supreme court after widespread claims of election fraud and miscounts; that the election system in the UK is so strongly geared towards unequality that one pundit suggested offering development aid to the United Kingdom in the form of a modern election system.

Consider that the current foreign minister of the United States is the wife of a former president, and that the former president’s father was also president. Consider that a small elite of political families have started playing musical chairs with some of the most powerful chairs in the world. Consider that in the meantime, the European Union has between 3 and 5 presidents depending on how you count, and that the EU high representative for foreign and security policy is a British life peer who got appointed to the post as a result of having been friends with Tony Blair.

Consider that literally thousands of people have decided not to enter the United States or the United Kingdom ever again out of fear of repression. Consider that there’s in the realm of two million CCTV cameras in the UK, thereof over 500.000 in London alone, all of which are allegedly put up for “our protection”. Consider that in New York all the MTA subway tickets have “if you see something, say something” written on the back.

I tried, but I can't find any evidence that this is a spoof. Please tell me it's a joke.

Does anybody want to even begin to discuss poverty in the west? There’s plenty of it, with social inequality reaching new heights as more and more private debt from large corporations is socialized in order to bail out the rich.

Now let’s be clear here. The living conditions in England aren’t as bad as the conditions in Libya by a long shot. I wouldn’t dream of stating that citizens of Union City, New Jersey are in anywhere near as bad condition as citizens of Suez, Egypt.

But we have to differentiate between standard of living on the one hand, which is essentially controlled by access to infrastructure, and political freedom on the other hand. And while in the West anybody is free to form a political party or hold an opinion on the ruling elite, recent events in the UK have shown that the right to peaceful assembly isn’t as cherished as many would claim.

To be realistic, new political parties are locked out of the political system. The political parties that have been taking turns for the last several centuries have manufactured the political system through iterative processes to the exclusion of dissent. The inherent failing of Western democracy is that despite centuries of peasant uprisings, wars and liberalization demands, we didn’t actually get rid of the dictators. We just trained them to be much more subtle.

So subtle are they now that nobody gets killed for opposing them, nobody starves to death. Nobody sets fire to themselves in protest. The British and the Americans have been increasingly sloppy of late, that’s true, but we’re still pretty far away from any real problems.

By and large, our political system has been running smoothly. Not democratically, but smoothly.

This then begs the question: What is the next decade’s Gaddafi going to look like? More interestingly, which country will he rule over? And by what process will he be elected?

The Cultural Revolution

Culture is controlled in various ways. Market forces, laws and regulations, habits and traditions, misinformation and misconceptions. Public opinion is steered this way and that by people so adept at manipulating us that they don’t even realize it themselves half the time. Terms like “sheeple” are used to describe our latte-drinking, clock-punching, YouTube-browsing everyday behavior, and they’re not wrong at all.

The system we live by isn’t the only possible system. We’ve become so used to being controlled and manipulated that we’ve stopped being creative about our own cultural control mechanisms. The light at the end of the tunnel is our individual nature.

Look, there’s almost seven billion of us. That’s a lot. Remember what Shelley said? “We are many, they are few.” And while we certainly come from different classes and castes, have different opinions, different skin tones and languages, different styles of dress and different levels of education, we’re all at the same metasystem state. We’re all at the point where we learn to control our culture, not just in the manipulative sense, but in the sense where we are an active participant in its manufacture and use. We’ve got to be very careful not to be elitist about it, or fall into any of the other pitfalls we’ve been trained to crawl into. We’ve got to be good about reminding each other when we’re getting out of line.

While I agree very broadly with what Evgeny Morozov has been saying about Internet and how it isn’t the golden goose of freedom, I’d contend that the Internet is actually something better. The Internet is the set of tools that provide us with the ability to very carefully and very precisely sculpt our culture to be what we want it to be. If our brains are the control mechanism for culture, then the Internet is the Global Brain. Freedom won’t come from us using the Internet, at least not idly – we’ve got to be very careful about how the economic forces, laws and regulations, habits and traditions, and misinformation and misconceptions influence our interactions with the Internet. We’ve got to be very careful about protecting it, because it’s a pretty powerful set of tools. The Internet isn’t the Harbinger of Freedom, but it may well be a New Hope for Freedom – and failure to protect it may mark the beginning of a new dark ages.

But given the Internet, and the other tools we’ve got at our disposal to control our culture, we’ve got to use them correctly. We need to break free of every shackle that binds down our culture and controls it. That includes such things as copyright, identity, gender, family, governance, business and so on.

Perhaps I’m off my rocker, but if there’s anything that I’d like people to take from this rant, it’s that we urgently need to change our entire society, not just the bits of it that appear to be rotten. The festering happens under the skin.