Landline Stories in a Smartphone World
Previously featured in Asylum Magazine.
Seraphim Rose and the Occult Stack
In 1975, Hieromonk Seraphim Rose wrote a book called Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, where he identified a list of sci-fi tropes which correspond to “the everyday reality of occult and demonic experience through the ages,” and the “standard claims of sorcerers and demons.” These tropes include: communication by telepathy, ambition to fly, materialize or dematerialize, traveling at speeds beyond any existing technology, the ability to transform the appearances of things by means of pure thought, and a philosophy which is beyond all religions, where intelligence is not dependent on matter. We will refer to Rose’s list as the occult stack.
Rose thought the first science fiction was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the stories of Poe (e.g., The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar; The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfallor) and he highlights these authors because their occult influences and their influence on later sci-fi are both evident. But if Rose had known more about science fiction, he might have mentioned Somnium, Johannes Kepler’s 1608 novel about a journey to the moon. The book contained speculations about space travel, methods for breathing on the moon, and xeno-astronomy, and it makes Rose’s case even better than his own suggestions, because Kepler’s astronauts are carried to the stars by literal demons.
This seeming paradox is central to science fiction; we think science is the apex of “rational” materialist thought, but sci-fi takes inspiration from magic and occultism, because it explores how technology might let us bend or break the rules of the world we inhabit. It’s undeniable that sci-fi draws from the occult to imagine fantastical science, but the attempt to condemn it on these grounds fails, because the real first sci-fi novel was the Book of Revelation. John of Patmos described a future government which, in conjunction with Satan, implemented a universal credit score system, where trade was only permitted to people who were cybernetically enhanced with a cryptographic hash, signed with the private key of the antichrist.
The method of Revelation was the same as Somnium: it married occult power to then-current technology to imagine a novel system of social control, delivering a version of James C. Scott’s thesis in Seeing Like a State: governments impose schemes of regularization on their citizens to make them more legible to their organs of rent extraction. The dystopia at the end of the Bible has been realized many times, so often that we now think credit scores are mundane. It might be that our predecessors were correct to fear them, but it's impossible to make an objective evaluation of that to which you are accustomed.
It is curious that the elements of the occult stack can be found in witchcraft, Buddhism, psychedelic drug use, new ageism, UFO encounters, and science fiction, but attributing all of this to demons is exactly as reductive and parochial as dismissing all supernatural forces a priori. These domains of discourse cross-pollinate each other in ways that are innocent of sinister motives; adherents of the new age movement were living through the upstroke of a period of dizzying technological advance, wherein powers previously relegated to fantasy were becoming reality. The green revolution yielded a world of agricultural post-scarcity. Air travel became ubiquitous. The chemistry of plastics let us conjure previously impossible materials. Through computer simulation, we really could “manifest our will” in a virtual space.
In fact, most of the elements in the occult stack are reasonable objectives in their own right, because they have obvious utility, and the view of these advances as demonic is predicated on a popular, lazy pessimism regarding technology. “Ambition to fly” is a compelling idea that occurs to anyone who has ever seen a bird. What kind of spiritual cripple, what goblinous wretch of the soul has never looked to the sky and imagined the ecstasy and freedom of flight? Angels have wings, but Rose insists this desire is demonic.
As is so often the case, the only objectionable entries on Rose’s list are the strictly philosophical ones, and this is a common mistake: to conflate bad philosophy with good actions, when neither is contingent on the other. Seraphim Rose presented a thesis that the occult stack is the foundation of a new religion encompassed by the tropes he identified. And indeed, we have a new religion, but it has nothing in common with the occult stack. Rose’s predictions have not come true, and they won’t, because Rose made the classic futurological mistake: he extrapolated from a passing fad into a stable institution.
Peter Thiel and the Decline of Scientific Optimism
It’s rare to read about aliens advocating post-religion these days, even rarer to find a sci-fi story about telepathy, because antiracism and smart phones perform the same roles, respectively. The tropes in the occult stack no longer strike us as occult because we have added them to our mundane reality. And we have seen that these technologies create new problems as we find ourselves in a mismatch to our environment of evolutionary adaptedness. It is no longer a great leap of imagination to propose magical technologies for communication, space travel, or biological engineering. Instead, our hardest challenge is to envision a future where we do not fall victim to their externalities.
Peter Thiel claims we are in an era of technological stagnation, and this is evident in the decline of scientific optimism and the rise of dystopianism in science fiction. We can be certain technological development has stagnated; our total civilizational energy consumption has flatlined since the 1980s, (one thinks of the Kardashev scale) but the idea that dystopian themes are rising bears more scrutiny.
Culturally, the failure of an imagination, a different future, is seen in science fiction: if you look at all the science fiction films in the last quarter-century, they show technology that’s dystopian, that doesn’t work, that kills people. So you can choose between the Terminator or the Matrix or Avatar or maybe Elysium. And that does not portray a future that’s radically different and better. The Jetsons are a completely reactionary aesthetic at this point. (Thiel)
Identifying the dominant current in science fiction is as much an aesthetic as a quantitative judgement. We could count all the works of sci-fi produced, give them each a dystopia score, and try to figure out if dystopianism is increasing or decreasing. We could note if the enemy is man or machine. But this quantitativeness misses the forest for the trees; to evaluate a story as dystopian requires moral judgements. Wikipedia (inferior younger brother of wikifeet) lists eight dystopian claims about technology, of which number three is “technology reinforces hierarchies” (no one ever even tries to explain why this is bad). Even if we strike this dubious moral claim from the list, it casts doubt onto the whole approach.
Dystopia is the oldest modality in science fiction. In Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), a pandemic nearly wipes out humanity, though the technological drama is that science and medicine were ineffective, rather than overreaching. Even Poe tried his hand at the genre, publishing his underwhelming story Mellonta Tauta in 1849. Throughout the 20th century, we have such famous examples as Brave New World (1932), That Hideous Strength (1945), 1984 (1949), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Minority Report (1956), Harrison Bergeron (1961), I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (1967), High-Rise (1976), and on and on. One thing we notice about these dystopias is that the badness of the place derives less from the negative consequences of technology itself, and comes instead from the stifling of technology, or of knowledge, or of secular humanism more generally.
In 1984, the party uses technology to monitor and control its own members. This was no future prediction, but a stylized retelling of actual life in Soviet Russia. In Fahrenheit 451, the problem is that they burn all the books. In Harrison Bergeron, the doctrine of social equality is taken to its logical conclusion. The futurism is secondary to the diagnosis of social problems. In contrast, Thiel’s more recent examples seem to point to a change in the character of dystopian sci-fi. In Terminator, The Matrix, and Avatar, the antagonist is the machine itself, technology itself. This change of character seems to track with the collapse of the occult stack; once the technology was realized, the philosophy could no longer attach to the promise of a better future. Scientism is now permeated by manic denialism regarding its failures, and the only place honesty leaks out is in popular sci-fi.
The dirty secret of all dystopias is that they are always anchored in the present moment, though they are set in the future or the past. If sci-fi has grown more dystopian, it’s because it’s not an engine of hope for the future, it’s an engine of reflection for the present, and the technological world itself has grown dystopian. We have seen the dark tradeoffs of every new technology from the past century. Plastics, miracle materials that can take any shape or color or texture, are so cheap that the world is now flooded with mountains of durable garbage. Runoff from pharmaceuticals pollutes our water and contaminates our bodies. The technology we use to talk to our friends also traps us in an automated global panopticon. Software tools for artists let them achieve any conceivable vision, and make it impossible to trust any image or video. Cheap international travel spreads novel pandemics to the whole world in a matter of weeks.
You have heard the claim that everything is getting better all the time, that there is less disease, less violence, less death, more food, more prosperity and so on. These claims feel hollow to us because we can see the aesthetic and spiritual decay all around us, and we know aesthetic decay is not captured in the metrics of our managerial overlords, with their narrow attempts to quantify the good. The truth is every technology has its costs and downsides, and the marketing brochures don’t mention that. When we first discover the negatives of technology, we may feel betrayed; many do recover from this, suffering something akin to Paris Syndrome, the culture shock that Japanese tourists feel when the grubby realities of the city fail to live up to their romantic ideals of it. Seraphim Rose’s proto-satanic-panic finds an eager audience because technology and modernity are obvious, lazy scapegoats for the pervasive discontent in the human condition.
In times of peace, the man of war attacks himself, and we attack technology because of the peace it grants us. The dangers of technology, which are legion, are the thrill of holding power; they will always be dangerous because power is dangerous. There is no spiritual difference between the bugman who uses technology to soften every hard edge in the world and the luddite who believes technology is bad because it creates hard edges. With this understanding, it becomes even more critical to recognize the benefits of technology, because we are so ready to blame it for our problems, all of which long predate technology. The shackles of the digital panopticon also give us tremendous intellectual freedom; we can learn anything about any place or time in the world with a few keystrokes. We can read the greatest works of philosophy or poetry for free, and instead most of us choose to watch videos of undulating women.
It is a cliché, but it’s also true: a poor craftsman blames his tools. If aesthetic and spiritual decay are upon us, we must examine ourselves.
Douglas Adams and the Semi-Orthogonality of Social and Scientific Progress
Douglas Adams coined the term zeerust to denote the condition where future technological development is portrayed without accounting for its concomitant social changes. In fact his definition was: the particular kind of datedness which afflicts things that were originally designed to look futuristic. But mine is better.
We are living in a smartphone world and most authors are still writing landline stories. Many classic plots rely on a mechanism where vital information cannot be conveyed in time to avert calamity, or on the difficulties of being lost, or on the discovery of hidden things in common places. The internet (i.e., telepathy) has rendered all of these plots obsolete, because communication is now instantaneous, because everyone has a GPS device in their pocket, and because social media flattens the social landscape and positions all secrets and all cultures in the same plane of immanence. Plots about information traveling too slow are anachronistic. Plots where people fail to act as if we have these tools are zeerustic.
The canonical example of zeerust is when old sci-fi movies have in-world ads for fifties housewives using atomic cleaning products, ostensibly because the fifties housewife is now an extinct species of woman, to the point that many now question whether she ever existed at all. Even if she did exist, she is now verboten as a demographic; we are only permitted to portray her as an object of pity, or as an ironic deconstruction of femininity. But the atomic housewife is a terrible instance of the form, because there is nothing about atomic power, space travel, or any other industrial technology that necessarily engenders women’s “liberation.” (Just as there is nothing about airplanes that necessitates a philosophy beyond all religions.)
A better example is that people in Star Trek have access to holodecks and FTL communication channels, but they conduct most of their conversations face-to-face. This isn’t even still true in the world of wireless internet and webcams. Star Trek communicators are zeerustic because a change in communication technology will inevitably produce changes in communication norms. Moreover, if there is a moral aspect to this change, it is the opposite of emancipatory. It’s neither a bug nor a feature, merely a fact: every digital communication system is always inexorably a digital surveillance system.
When we look at sci-fi today, we see a field almost entirely composed of zeerust; anyone can imagine smaller microprocessors or quantum hyperflangulators because they’re all in our noetic water supply, but the modal authors lack the sensitivity to even capture our present social conditions, let alone hypothetical futures. As a result, most plots are stuck in the early 20th century. No one knows how to tell a story about industrial post-scarcity, let alone instantaneous anywhere-to-anywhere communication. To create a portrayal of future technology that avoids zeerust, the minimum requirement is to capture the social conditions of the current year.
The parochialism of the average writer is nowhere more evident than in the narrowness of their moral imagination, which can only conceive of one kind of social change. The only concept of social development that current year futurists can articulate is one where norms are more sexually libertine, entailing less individual responsibility for any moral outcome, and in particular less responsibility or connectedness to one’s family. This spiritual paucity is called progress, and its defining feature is its belief that all prohibitions on behavior are wicked, and that moral and spiritual development are constituted chiefly of the lifting of all restrictions. Anywhere progress finds a rule, or a rulemaker, or a ruler, it sees “a system of oppression” which must be dismantled.
Technological developments do precipitate social change, but it doesn’t work in the abstract way that Obamanian moral-arc-of-history-believers imagine. Developments in agriculture change the way we eat. Developments in communication change the way we meet. Developments in reproductive suppression change the way we skeet. The progressive contention is that there is a deeper paradigm of social change that underlies all merely surface level advances, and that morality advances in the same way as technology, and that both forms of advancement are inevitable and somehow even coterminous in a virtuous upward spiral, where greater levels of freedom and equality cause greater levels of scientific progress cause greater levels of freedom and equality.
Not only is there “no evidence” for the progressive theory of techno-moral inter-causality, there is substantial evidence against it. The British Royal Society, once the most prolific scientific organization in the world, flourished in Victorian England, while consisting entirely of white men, during the zenith of Anglo sexual repression. (Ignore Foucault’s National Enquirer tier ‘scholarship’ to the contrary.) If the progressive hypothesis were true, we would expect the rate of scientific discovery to increase as sexual norms relaxed, but the opposite has occurred.
If any organization rivalled the early Royal Society, it might be the Manhattan Project, which also happened entirely before the Civil Rights Act, the Hart-Celler act, Griggs v. Duke Power, before second wave feminism, before the mainstreaming of homosexuality. If the progressive hypothesis were true, these changes should have brought an age of unimaginable scientific advancement. But somehow America, the most progressive nation on earth, the epicenter of racial and sexual emancipation, no longer even builds its skyscrapers as high as 20 years ago. We don’t build high speed rail, we retired our commercial supersonic jets, we manufacture vaccines that barely work, and something like half of our scientific research can’t be replicated.
Thiel’s famous quote is that we were promised flying cars, but we got 140 characters. Well I am telling you that 140 characters was a genuine innovation compared to what came after it. We were promised flying cars, and instead we got puberty blockers and government-subsidized PrEP. Social progressivism is an attempt to cope and soothe ourselves into accepting the pervasive technological stagnation of the current year, a consolation prize for the technological development that has failed to manifest, and it terrorizes as many people as it comforts.
Three Doors: Roddenberry, Greer, and One Who is to Come
Science fiction is hyperstition, the fiction that makes itself true. In the current year, SCIENCE is the name of a church that inverts the motto of the British Royal Society; where scientists once proclaimed “take no one’s word,” Scientists (big S) now command us to “trust the science.” The former motto gave us antibiotics and rockets, the latter has brought mask mandates and genital affirmation surgeries, a procedure in which one denies one’s sex.
The old science, small s, really is an epistemology so powerful that we mistake it for magic. Everyone knows the Arthur Clarke quote. But the truth is that deductive reasoning is a form of time travel, even at its most quotidian; it’s an eye that can see the future. Students of the occult will tell you that human intellect is a vain accessory to the ultimately demonic origins of technological innovation, but they have it backwards: the third eye is a primitive fetishization of the intellect, not the other way around, and now that the church of Science has reached the asymptote of its corruption, this primitive way of regarding the world is returning. If God made man in His image, and endowed us with intellect, then the cultivation of the mind is a part of the journey towards God, and occult conceptions of these things are anemic parodies, pale shadows.
Predictiveness is the barometer of scientific knowledge because it’s an honest accounting of the success of deductive time travel. But time travel is never quite linear; by knowing the future, we enable it to reach back and transform the present. But for the future to have power over the present, it must be different to the present, and Thiel suggests there are exactly three possible doors to a different future.
Behind the first door is the path we are on now, and it leads to a communist AI world; the big eye of Sauron that will be watching you at all times in all places. It is the path to the total apotheosis of the state into mother, father, priest, doctor, and lover. The only value in this state is emancipation, which is a particular kind of freedom: the freedom of a child, freedom from responsibility, from the pain of adulthood and obligation. This is the world of social cooling, where people are no longer comfortable having sincere interactions with each other, because they are always watched through their phones by a fickle mob and a paranoid state. In this world, everyone’s spirit is eroded away, until we are all soft, squishy, HR-approved blobs. In the name of individuality, all individuality will be destroyed. Communist AI world seems to be an attractor in the space of technological development. No one even has to try to build it; it’s the default option when you build ubiquitous pocket computers with high speed telephony.
There is no mere advancement in technology that can break us out of the Eye of Sauron death spiral, though it may appear so: every new technological frontier brings with it an initial phase of free-wheeling, spontaneous order. I have no doubt that when cars first became popular (vs. horses), pundits wrote paeans to the new mobility that would decentralize towns and cities. Whether we are talking about combustion engines, 3d printers, internet access, or cryptocurrency, flows of energy and capital always form networks where traffic is distributed according to a power laws, where the main center of activity is an order of magnitude bigger than the secondary center, which is an order of magnitude bigger than the tertiary center, etc. In China, the possession of this centrality is known as Tianming, the mandate of heaven. The fantasy of the decentralized world is a utopian eschatology almost as naive as the fantasy of the harmonious workers paradise; the former is the mythical final triumph of markets over people, and the latter is the mythical final triumph of people over markets.
Behind the second door is the green movement, where we deliberately retard and restrain our use of technology and energy. This is supposed to be an alternative because, instead of slowly slouching towards future #1 and lamenting our stagnation, we embrace stagnation and pretend it was for the sake of “the environment,” as if the environment isn’t a place of infinite cruelty, predation, storms, floods, diseases, parasites and meteors. The green movement is a total capitulation to the elder gods of nature, it is defeat and defeatism, tempting only in the way that the grave is tempting. I may draw the ire of my friends for saying this: if you choose this you are a f*gg*t.
Maybe you know the parable of the talents. Green stagnation is the path of the servant who was given only one talent, who buried it in the earth, the wicked and slothful servant who squanders the gifts of nature and nature’s God. There is only one interesting question in all of philosophy: will you fight? Or will you perish like a dog? To choose the inglorious ecofuture is to choose “perish,” because it only takes one defector from the green coward equilibrium to build nukes, and then the whole thing goes up in a mushroom cloud. Those who reject technology will be slaughtered by those with courage, and they will deserve it.
John Michael Greer, perhaps the most lucid proponent of door number two, and a science fiction author in his own right, understands how to bundle his vision of the future into a package of aspirations expressed through stories. In other words, he does everything that Peter Thiel suggests science fiction ought to do, except his vision is to die quietly and with dignity on the road to eco-austerity. As Greer is to green collapse, Gene Rodenberry is to “luxury” space communism. In fact, Greer had this to say on the subject of Star Trek:
That an imaginary future churned out by the corporate mass media more than half a century ago is still the cynosure of our collective imagination is good evidence that the civil religion of progress is sprawled flat on its back, struggling for air, as the medics shake their heads.
And it’s true; Star Trek always hand-waved over its political conditions, taking for granted a competent one-world government with the values of the American mid-century. In a way, this is zeerust par excellence, because people in Roddenberry’s world do not seem to suffer from derealization despite having the ability to simulate anything with perfect fidelity. Yet it may be this exact obstinacy that has cemented Star Trek as the “cynosure” of our collective imagination; all of the characters in the original series and the next generation are aligned in their moral calibrations. It’s as if Baudrillard and Lyotard (to say nothing of Marcuse and Foucault) never happened. It’s not clear at all how the economics of Star Trek are supposed to work, and when later series tried to explore this, all of the optimism dissolved, and the gleaming future lost its glimmer. In hindsight, it appears the people of Star Trek have been through the great reset; they own nothing, but we strain to imagine them happy.
Behind the third door is the actual third position, which is not national socialism or any such shibboleth. In fact it is far less socially acceptable than that. In Thiel’s formulation, the third door leads to Sharia law. But this need not mean Islam; in this case it refers to any paradigm where homosexuality is outlawed, where women are not permitted to wield political or corporate power, and where this is enforced as a matter of theology. This sounds radical to us because we have forgotten, in a strikingly short time, the social arrangements that obtained throughout human history.
But this is no argument, only a heuristic. Indeed, Nassim Taleb has done as much to discredit the fallacy of argumentum ad antiquitatem as “the libs” have done to discredit the fallacy of the slippery slope (the belief that orientals suffer from a debilitating excess of sebum). All slopes are slippery and old things have tended to endure for a reason, even if that reason is not legible. But technology has changed so many immutable conditions of our environment that tradition alone is now insufficient to guide us. When we say “theology,” we mean there is something which drives men to action which is beyond money, beyond incentives, beyond rational self interest, beyond even altruism (which is perfectly rational if one knows what to look for) and that thing is ineffable and irrational, though it’s something like desire, and something like faith, which is our knowledge of God. Science, rationality, fairness, and progress all supervene on faith, HOWEVER – this is what traditionalists often miss – so does tradition.
You have heard that “growth for the sake of growth” is the ideology of a cancer cell, but this credo itself is the ideology of a corpse. Growth is the sine qua non of life; that which is not growing is dying. We believe technological development correlates with collapsing fertility, and this is evidence we are living in a sci-fi dystopia, specifically a sexual one, and secondarily an agricultural dystopia and a medical one. It is beyond the scope of this essay to trace the contours of this, or to fully make the case for the following: but if there is a future for technological development, it is a future which has renounced sexual emancipation, because the thrust of sexually emancipative ideology is towards sterility, both at the individual and the societal level.
The democratization of science has culminated in a crisis of replication, and this, of all things, was predictable. Our attempts to formalize the scientific method are as claudicant as our attempts to conflate social and scientific progress. It may be that we can no more articulate the technique of our thoughts when we think than the technique of our legs when we run, which is to say, as a kind of post hoc abstraction which is necessarily disconnected from the poetry and kinematics of the act. Francis Bacon was a redditor by virtue of retroactive nominative determinism, and also in his temperament. His clumsy inductive Novum Organum is most notable for the way it utterly fails to capture the masculine poetry of scientific discovery. The machinations of a genius like Einstein or Newton are more alike to revelation than to any Baconian algorithm. Medievals called theology the queen of the sciences because they believed that knowledge of creation was a path to knowledge of the Creator – and this is the faith that lies behind door number three.
The Possibility of Optimistic Futurism
Do you know the futurist manifesto of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti? His aesthetic movement was a story of folly and failure, which even his commitment to fascism could not redeem, being only mewling obsequity to the ruling powers of Italy in his lifetime. But despite his shortcomings, there is a thread of techno-optimism in his famous manifesto, a spirit and a joyousness I have scarcely encountered in all my fascinations with the science fiction genre.
Marinetti declares that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for a bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.
These words inspire me. Who among you will have the courage, audacity, and revolt to praise the beauty of speed, to glorify war, militarism, patriotism, the beautiful ideas that kill, and contempt for woman?