Jun 25 2012

The Counterculture Is Better In The Suburbs



The first time I was ever in San Francisco it blew my mind. It was a city of freethinkers and artists who were “on the level” and “got it.” Sometimes it’s hard for me to accept that I was born in South Florida. The isolation and alienation was so severe that I literally believed I was another species. In San Francisco, there were crazy people everywhere and it was the utopian dream. For several years I was born again. The freaks were everywhere and I united with my people at last.

So what happened? I gradually started to notice that people in the mass counterculture were as blind as “the sheep” only they were conforming to a different set of social norms. I came up with the term anti-sheep-sheep to describe them. I felt myself longing for the initial alienation of identifying as a mutant and feeling like I was the only one. After all, meeting people like you is a lot more exciting when you feel like you are the only one. The people who truly influenced my life were the few counterculture people who I met in South Florida. They were as isolated and alienated as I was. They felt like they were another species too.

I remember how we would have all these exciting discussions. “What are we?” was the question. Everyone seemed to have their own answer. “We are an alien species that has been put here to study the human race.” “We are demons from hell and our job is to eliminate the homo sapien.” It seems quite silly to me now but back then it was my inspiration for creating art. It was my job to become a tribal leader. I was going to give “what are we?” the best answer possible.

One of the kids I remember from South Florida created an entire civilization on paper. Since he did not belong in the world of the suburbs he was intent on creating his own world. He showed me a map of his civilization that consisted of a notebook full of beautiful drawings and cryptic messages. “This is where people like us are from,” he would tell me. His civilization had its own language consisting of symbols that he personally designed. We took acid together and discussed the possibility of replacing their civilization with our own.

I met some others in Miami. Thor was the metalhead philosopher. He carried a scepter, recited street poetry, and ranted about how nothing around us was real. His mission was to show people that they were living in the matrix, by any means necessary. Jackie was the transgender shaman punk who did not belong on this planet. Her goal was simply to return home so she could be among her own kind. “I think you guys are from my planet too,” she once whispered to Thor and I. “But what are we?”

The suburbs were an alienating place but the conversations were the best. It was all about being the few. We had a sacred sense of tribal unity that related to our sheltered and conservative upbringings. We were the ones. In San Francisco people didn’t grow up like us. They didn’t grow up like us in Los Angeles or New York either. In major cities people grew up with the counterculture being a visible part of mainstream culture. They grew up homo sapiens.

I want to make the argument that the counterculture is actually better in the suburbs. The scarcity of artistic and eccentric thought forces people to create their own civilizations. It fosters an intense unity between people who do not fit into the mainstream and creates extreme connections among those on the edge.

In contrast, larger cities force marketers to be “on the edge” so they can appeal to the counterculture demographic. You cannot walk down the street without seeing punks, ravers, goths, or at the very least hipsters. There is an over-the-counterculture element of commercialization that makes being a freethinking mutant another fad. The anti-sheep-sheep run prominent.

If I grew up in San Francisco: surrounded by counterculture models on billboards: always having a record store to hang out in: there is no way I would be the person I am today. Being a natural freethinker I would have rebelled against the dominant liberal culture. I wouldn’t have gotten any tattoos. I wouldn’t have become an alternative musician. I wouldn’t have made my artistic goal to answer the “what are we” question.

People were always shocked when I told them I was from South Florida. I was way too “cool” to be from the suburbs and obviously must have been from New York or LA. When I met other kids from the suburbs we would talk about how much easier it was to meet people like us in these big cities. We shared a deep knowledge about alienation that people from New York and LA simply couldn’t understand.

Big cities are known for their thriving countercultures but I see counterculture at its peak when it is at its most obscure. When there are only 5 other people in your entire city who “get it” you tend to get creative, start a fantastic cult, and plot world domination. It is the sense of alienation that connects people in the suburbs and it is through this alienation that new subcultures, tribes, and species are defined.

Maybe it is better to grow up human. You don’t need to sit alone in your room and wonder why you have been put on the same planet as “the sheep.” You don’t need to cry and scream because everybody around you is stuck in the matrix. You don’t need to be the real life protagonist of the movie “They Live” because nobody will put on their glasses. Still, there is so much that you take for granted because you have been surrounded by counterculture your entire life.

Is big city counterculture actually counterculture? I am not so sure that it is. Listening to GG Allin in New York is great but it does not give you the same rebellious thrill as listening to GG Allin in the suburbs. The more taboo something is the more exciting it becomes. Something cannot, by definition, be both popular and edgy. In South Florida it is edgy to be against war. In San Francisco it is socially enforced to the point of banal conformity.

The counterculture is better in the suburbs. It is through the isolation of “being the only one” that your life changes the moment you meet a brilliant person to make art with. Some of the most eccentric minds in existence are currently stuck in these boring towns of nothing. They have “what are we” conversations until 6 AM and it never gets old. They represent us because the billboards refuse to.

Aug 31 2011

Transhumanism Against Scarcity: A Conversation with AnonymousSquared


“… why should anyone want to participate in an infinite unending marketplace.  What kind of human being sees that as the ultimate goal?


A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by AnonymousSquared — a fellow who had read somewhere that I was thinking about writing a book titled “Steal This Singularity.“ (I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.)  He sent me a copy of his book-in-progress, which he calls “Transhumanism Against Scarcity.”   And while the book needs some work, it had some interesting ideas.  So I decided to have an email conversation with him.  Here goes more-than-nothing…

RU SIRIUS:  This discussion about ending human scarcity has a long and deep history.  Technologically, we may be moving in the right direction… towards molecular machines, desktop manufacturing, the digitization of everything.  But you say in your book that we’re headed in the wrong direction.

ANONYMOUSSQUARED:  I see two problems.  One is that environmental problems may intervene.  I don’t know if I can do anything about that.  The other problem that I see is a strain of libertarian absolutism that is fairly prevalent inside transhumanist circles and that is having way too much impact on politics in the real world. Maybe I can have some impact on that in a small way.

I don’t really have a beef with libertarianism per se… as a soft concept, finding our way towards a world with a lot less government coercion seems like a good thing.  I think the problem comes when ideals collide with the real world.  And you’ll notice that much of what I’ve written is focused on the world today, not on the future.  I thought of calling it Transhumanism Against Austerity, which is the way that global monetary policy is reintroducing scarcity into parts of the world where it had been all but eliminated.  It should be obvious to futurists that this is the wrong direction, if for no other reason than to avoid massive riots and an uprising of neoluddism.

We’re already very deep into a wildly technological time.  People notice stuff like artificial biology, bulletproof skin, the stuff that kids take for granted on their cell phones… people running around talking about robots overachieving us.  This is not lost on ordinary people.  And they’re looking around unemployed and with their homes “underwater” and medical costs rising and bankers getting free money from the government while they’re being asked to tighten their belts and they’re saying to themselves, “So this is what the techno-world is!”  Some of the people in this transhuman community have no idea what’s going to hit them.

RU:  The argument, of course, goes that the best way to end scarcity is to unleash an unfettered market.

AS: Sure, and you can’t argue with someone who is absolutely convinced that is the case.  It could conceivably even make sense at some point in the future, where a sort of tipping point is reached with nanotechnology and even the garbage pickers will be rich.  But it’s more likely that we need to think about how to get wealth to a majority of people who are economically superfluous… or we abandon them to penniless suffering.

The two main forces that are making most people economically superfluous are roboticization and globalization.  And of nearly equal importance is disintermediation of the intellectual creative classes.  Certainly corporations and business still need workers and people still want services and apps, but there’s a limit to all that.

The obvious one that everybody thinks about is that, with globalization, most types of work can be farmed out to places where there’s cheap labor, lower expectations and lower expenses.  Less obvious is that — with a globalized market, individuals are also superfluous as consumers.  So it’s the death of Keynsean economics, in the sense that global corporations and financing concerns feel no pain when Americans or Greeks stop spending.  And that’s because the possible market is so large that even with economies in recession, they’ve got more consumers than they’ve ever had before.

RU:  A few years ago, I was at a Singularity Conference and somebody whose name I forget gave a talk about robotization.  And he suggested that when robots can do everything that humans do faster, better and more efficiently, then we’ll have to give people what they need gratis.  And about a third of the audience booed him.  It was the only time I’ve ever heard a speaker get booed at one of these conferences.

AS:  Those people are against the future.  That’s the irony.  They’re trying to force ideas from the past onto the future and they’re doing damage to the present in the process.

I understand that in the 1970s, there was a lot of talk even among many libertarians that there was going to be this cybernetic age soon and people’s jobs would be replaced by machines… and how are we going to deal with that?  And they talked about the least bureaucratic ways to let people enjoy their lives after the machines take over… ideas like a reverse income tax or running some large centralized enterprise and giving everybody free stock.  It was just assumed that we wouldn’t leave people out in the cold when they were no longer necessary.  After all, as a society we wouldn’t be any poorer because the machine rather than the human is producing.  This seems so fundamentally human and obvious.  I think there’s been a massive dehumanization since then.

RU:  I lived through the seventies and they were pretty miserable.  Alienation with the internet is definitely less isolating and boring than alienation with it.  

Anyway, the popular argument with the idea that you have to help people who were replaced by technology is that we’ve learned that new technologies create new economic opportunities and new jobs and so forth.  I think it’s a partial truth that deteriorates as we go deeper into the postindustrial era, but it’s an argument that’s out there.

AS:  Well, we could go into the conventional arguments about actual income stagnation and insecurity but it’s all been said before and everybody has their arguments ready.  But I think anybody would have to admit that it’s already a weird economy. A big chunk of the market economy exist solely on the basis of the eventual expectation of advertising. How perverse is that… when you actually examine it? Where it really falls apart is when you have a billion busy little small entrepreneurs hustling some product.  Who has the attention and the need for what they have to offer… assuming it hasn’t already been hacked and distributed free anyway?  And why should anyone want to participate in an infinite unending marketplace.  What kind of human being sees that as the ultimate goal?

RU: Is there any reason to be optimistic?

AS:  Sure.  There are plenty of people with all types of ideological influences including libertarianism who are truly humanistic and want only to solve big problems ranging from scarcity to death. I want to ask them to be against austerity policies now. When you’re inviting people to be bold and excited and transhuman about the very extreme technological changes that are taking place, maybe it would be smart not to yank the floor out from underneath them at the same time.