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Friday, October 14, 2022

The Cloud People

Luftmensch meant a 'man of air' who lived detached from the real world, had no income or any way to pay his bills, and yet here he was. With the internet, we're all cloud people now. Our economy is dominated by companies with unclear business plans except that they somehow involve the cloud.  


Facebook, which despite its recent downturn, still has a stock price twice the value of GE, unveiled its big achievement, 'Legs' which will allow its avatars to enjoy the appearance of feet in the metaverse. Netflix's stock price is double that of IBM, even though it suffered some reverses when investors realized that its plan to continue growing forever while spending $17 billion a year on creating bad movies and TV shows was not actually sustainable. Good thing there's solar panel and wind turbine companies to bet on.


Beyond cryptocurrencies (just imagine if your money were even more intangible, less secure and backed by even less in the way of assets than it is now) and software as a service (why own when you can rent), the effect of the luftmensch on our society has been far more devastating. The social web eliminated personal and geographic space. No longer were people kept apart by neighborhoods, communities, classes, national borders or even languages. Like a great slum housing project, we were all living on top of one another. And there was never a respite from life in this ugly, loud, noisy and dangerous neighborhood.


And yet living in the cloud felt empowering. Our phones could replace over twenty different appliances. That selfie could reach all your 50K friends on Facebook. Instead of a wallet, there was a phone. Instead of mail, there was a phone. Instead of a television, there was a phone. Instead of human contact, there was a phone. On a social scale, the potential for change seemed massive. For the first time we could all participate in the endless marketplace of ideas. And what we discovered was that we hated each other.


But above all else we came to believe in the power of the medium. Social media and its influencers flattened the world into narratives. And the narratives appeared omnipotent. Like medieval wizards, they claimed to hold the power to change everything with the right word, the right idea or the right meme. In a world of worlds, reality appeared to be infinitely malleable and outcomes could be 'memed' into existence.


The reality was that reality stayed the same. And the human reality changed to be more unstable. 


People had become cloud people, infused with magical thinking and faith in the power of the unreal, not in a Higher Power, but in our own power to change things by saying that they should change. This profoundly leftist idea, that human nature could change because we willed it so, this essentially luftmenschlich notion, became widely accepted among all creeds of the new race of cloud people.


Influencers, the biggest luftmenschen of them all, got big claiming that they possessed the voodoo to make it happen. All we had to do was believe in them. And if they failed, it was because we didn't believe in them enough. In such an environment, doing the work, as wokes put it, often became secondary. 


A technology sufficiently advanced may be indistinguishable from magic, as one dead Englishman in Sri Lanka put it, but it's only really magical if it makes you feel like you have magic powers. Splitting the atom and sending spaceships to the moon didn't excite us half as much as smartphones. Technologies that could have fundamentally transformed civilization withered on the vine because it was much more exciting for each individual to feel like he or she had vast powers at their command.


None of this was free even when it was free. We had to become part of a system by handing over our privacy and our personal information. But we also had to turn over a part of our minds. We had to believe. And those who became the cloud people did believe. They rose into the air, they ascended and entered the realm of the clouds where so many ivory tower thinkers had dwelled. They had no clothes on, but there were fewer and fewer people left to point that out. And really, when you condemn a company for lacking a business model when its stock is at over a thousand, who looks foolish? 


The luftmenschen had won. Anything was possible. We printed money as if it would never end. Everything was set on fire. Any experiment could be tried. We might have built a tower to rise to the sky, but most agreed that it was too much work. We could just build a tower of words instead.


And we did.


And if those words were lies, if the towers were as unreal as the rest of it, what was one more illusion.


The money is running out. The clouds turn out to run on servers. And the tech giants are getting hungry for cash and squeezing their users. The banks are panicking, crypto is imploding and all the takes are bad. It turns out that you can't meme your way out of reality. 


We had become unserious and so seriousness had to come to us. The question is how much seriousness do we need before we get serious and stop escaping into fantasies in a medium of fantasy. We haven't so much changed the world as we have ourselves, not in a methodical way, but like a castaway on a desert island performing amateur brain surgery on his own corpus. The one thing we are not is happy.

What everyone can agree on is that we are much less happy than before we went to live in the clouds.


But can we get back down again?


10 comments:

  1. Anonymous14/10/22

    Karl Marx, archetypal Failure-to-launch Pajama
    Boy of the XVII Century, sponged off his parents
    and Friedrich Engels all his life. He already
    had a grasp of Virtual Reality before software,
    semiconductors, LSD. And it turned out not to
    be a good thing.

    This shows that an Intellectual Priest Class,
    "Freed" from mundane chores of actually making
    things or doing useful service can get into a
    lot of mischief.

    "Idle hands are the Devil's workshop."

    Thomas

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous20/10/22

      Aha! Knew I'd seen your picture. Metropole (1927)
      the "Tower of Babel" at 18:44. Great early classic.
      https://youtu.be/5BBnMCAIuQg?t=1124

      Thomas

      Delete
  2. Anonymous14/10/22

    I've had interaction with cloud dwellers. What makes them unhappy is the knowledge that there are many who don't take them seriously. They are incensed over that. They create ex nihilo, they say something and believe it to be universally true and all who don't agree are members of the kook fringe who should be dealt with severely. Most believe Biden is, so far, the greatest president in their lifetime...or at the very least tied with BHO for that honor. Every social failure is laid at the feet of the unbelievers. As 0bama once quipped, "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." Upon hearing that the first time my dog looked at me and said "What does that even mean?" But the cloud dwellers know that, it's one of their guidestones along the path to self-illumination.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous15/10/22

      Ha, ha; right on. Like the character "Chauncy
      Gardener" in the movie "Being There". -- Thomas

      Delete
    2. the more people are detached from useful accomplishments and gifted with unearned power, the more they become an aristocracy insistent on taking itself seriously

      Delete
  3. Anonymous14/10/22

    Why on earth is the article and these comments displayed in GREY on white print,
    instead of BLACK ON WHITE, like the other publications do?
    W H Y ??? No longer a spring chicken, I have difficulty reading this, as much as
    I appreciate the writings of the great Daniel Greenberg. Regrettable.
    But if the Editor insists on this idiocy, I offer an advice: think BIG, like the American
    pioneers, don't reduce yourself to grey on white! Try, for example, yellow on white or,
    better yet, white on white!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm sorry you're having trouble reading the comments, they look black to me, but I know that for different people and on different browsers, they can look different

      It's not a deliberately choice

      I can try to play with the color codes, but at this point that's labor intensive work and I need to find the time and energy for it

      best,

      Daniel

      Delete
    2. Anonymous18/10/22

      Great metaphor of the social transformation brought by smart phones and internet life. A more mundane reality is the smart phone is the new form of interactive identification for the authorities, i.e., Amber and Weather alerts and more to come, and the ability to track people. A cell phone is now the two-step verification for online access. I see a time when a smart phone and cell number linked to an ID will be required by law (or effectively so) and issued for free if someone can not afford a phone and service. Illegal aliens are even given smart phones on entry to the US. The smart phone will become the dystopian telescreens of 1984. In addition to the authorities keeping tabs on everything we do, not complying with public cell based edicts will be a crime.

      Delete

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