May 15, 2023, 05:55AM

The Apparatus

Reality is raw material that can be plundered and utilized for capital points in the hyperreal social realm.

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Grasping aesthetics, in the modern era, is to be aware of what Christopher Alexander coined “the quality without a name.” While this phrase was initially used to parse the difference between good and bad architecture (one can just feel it), the quality without a name can be applied to making value judgments about the good and bad aspects of the social. The irony of analyzing the social is that one must believe, or presuppose, that the social even exists. In the wake of Covid, big data, and social media’s inundation into all aspects of modern life, the social has been transformed into the asocial, or what I call “the apparatus.”

The apparatus, like Virgil, is a docent. It holds your hand, lives inside your brain, is best defined as the hyper-technological, neoliberal stranglehold that capital, and its media- and finance-handservants, has on culture. In the way that James Woods’ character in Videodrome eventually becomes the gun he’s holding, so do we, as late-modern humans, meld with the apparatus, the blending of culture, consciousness, and consumption. Humans have always participated in consumption as a way of being of and with the times. The hood ornaments on our cars speak for us; our lawns, however green, inform others of how much time we can devote to what ultimately doesn’t matter. What the apparatus has accomplished in recent years extends beyond even the radical assertion that sign value has eclipsed all other forms of value. The sign is now in full control of the human, and as eager and anxious buyers, we’ve become unaware supplicants. The irony of ChatGPT gaining prominence, and everyone freaked out by it, is that ChatGPT is the apparatus in its purest form. ChatGPT, to invoke Baudrillard, conceals the fact that nearly everything in our world is technified and artificial. Below are examples of the apparatus at work.

The profundity of AirPod people (successors of the Bluetooth earpiece people). I don’t know what they’re listening to, but it feels off to choose to be one with devices for the majority of your waking hours. One could make the same argument about phones, how they’re practically tethered to our bodies, or even the Apple Watch, which so often hugs a wrist, but the AirPods are different. They’re living in your orifices and you can talk to them.

The phone-as-videocamera phenomenon. Since the kinetograph, humans have enjoyed being in front of the camera. And yet, the world was the world, and the camera was the lens through which a glimpse of human interaction with that world was captured. Now the world has become a prop for whatever act is intended to happen on camera. There are restaurants, the marketing campaigns of which are intent on selling you a photo you can share to your social feeds. If you’ve ever walked by anyone recording a dance for TikTok, you’ll understand. Reality is raw material that can be plundered and utilized for capital points in the hyperreal social realm.

Smart devices in general. Your fridge can tell you when you’re running low on milk; your phone can tell you how many steps you need to take tomorrow in order to work off those drinks from last night; your doorbell can tell you when unsavory people are skulking by your house. The devices also communicate to each other, advertising utilities and upgrades that may be needed.

Taylor Swift concert tickets sell for $5000. I wouldn’t pay anything to see her, but can guarantee that the ticket price includes one’s opportunity to capture the moment while tagging the location, T-Swift herself, and sharing it with your friends.

The profusion and celebration of elective cosmetic surgeries. Once the “med spa” found its foothold in common parlance, it was over.

Neoliberal HR corporate-speak used in day-to-day social interaction. My theory is that because we’re never really not working, we can no longer “turn off” work consciousness. Internalized fears of automation, downsizing, and inflation have risen to the degree that we’ve become our jobs; even in downtime, which is often used for the purpose of networking, recharging, and consuming what leads to either heightened productivity or conversation amongst colleagues and superiors, we still work. “Productivity” as both ethos and injunction appears as the collective social cope for fear of falling behind, downsizing, or going bankrupt. As Foucault wrote, to measure the health of a society, one must look only at its prisons, schools, and how its homeless and mentally ill are treated. Don’t want to end up like them? Then do the opposite of what they do, even if that means sacrificing your time, spirit and soul.

I don’t have any big ideas or ways to salvage the social. Nothing that’s invented ever seems to be scaled back, even when “regulated” by a federal agency. I find it odd and off-putting that so many people are content to speak to their devices, and I think a part of this acceptance may be the fact that humans have become objects which serve the purpose of letting their technological devices do the talking for them. It’s not inconceivable to imagine fully robotic babysitters who both take care of and accompany a child through its younger years. The Joaquin Phoenix movie, Her, from a decade ago, got a lot of things right as far as artificial intimacy goes. I imagine scenarios in the future where every human will have a robotic companion that’ll do the talking, studying, and socializing for them, and when humans’ robots meet, they’ll have conversations while the robots’ human owners/companions sit on the sidelines and watch. Science fiction’s ideas of robot takeovers are often violent and far too stark. The Matrix, however, seems realistic. 


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