Today we continue with Lyttenburgh’s essay on Futurology. In our last installment, we left off where Lyttenburgh was debunking that sacred word “Progress” in its various mis-uses and over-uses. He pointed out the sad fact that WAR is the engine of actual technological Progress. This has to do with social organization, and the fact that only authoritarian governments or command economies have the wherewithal to organize the masses around bold new projects. In the next section Lyttenburgh discusses the relationship between true innovation and free-market frilliness. Along those lines, I hereby invoke my editorial prerogative here to insert a thought of my own, which I believe is relevant to the main point of this section of Lyt’s essay:
- Human inventiveness involves an element which anthropologists call “ornamentation” type behavior. Simple example: early humans figured out how to mold clay into pots. Pots are extremely useful, you can use them to carry stuff.
- Useful additions to the basic pot: A lip to prevent spills; handles to help with carrying, etc.
- And then comes “ornamentation” because people simply can’t leave a good thing alone: Frills, colors, designs, pictures, etc. which add nothing to the core usefulness, but just make the pot look prettier and add value of some type, even if just psychological enjoyment. The added value, as all good Marxists know, raises the price of the thing when it’s sold at the bazaar.
- One tends to identify “ornamentation” behavior with modern consumerism and the “free market” which is the modern bazaar. Typical example: all the (mostly useless) bells and whistles added to the basic concept of a mobile wireless telephone (yeah, I’m talking about the iPhone). But, as we see with the pot example, this ornamentation behavior is core human and even predates capitalism.
- In fact, ornamentation is as old as humans in general and even affects the languages we speak. Language itself is a type of tool, as well as an anthropological behavior. American linguist John McWhorter (who has penned some rippingly-good books popularizing Linguistics for the masses) has written about ornamentation in the context of Language. In fact the more “primitive” the people, the more isolated they are, the fewer the number of speakers of their language — the more complex their language becomes, adding complex grammar, bells, whistles and frills galore. This is a universal rule: Languages of “less-developed” peoples are the iPhones of the world of language! If you want to know the reason for this paradox, then read McWhorter’s books. (Hint: it has to do with Creoles and anti-Creoles.)
Having sneaked in this point about ornamentation, as well as a plug for one of my favorite Linguists, I now turn you back to Lyttenburgh and the continuation of his masterful and erudite essay:
Part II [continued]: [Progress via Stick Without a Carrot]
Invisible Hand – Illusory Results
“For the merchant, even honesty is a financial speculation.”
– Charles Baudelaire
Free market capitalism is notoriously slow and particularly ineffective when it comes to delivering real results regarding the military sphere, i.e. Progress in general. And no, the much lauded capitalist competitiveness won’t help here. Why?
- Point One.
The “newer” (read: “progressive”) the product, the greater are the various risks involved with it. Say, some firm which is producing the product “A” (it can be anything – fridge, smartphone, sneakers, internationally lauded medical drug “Dangitall” against early symptoms of Ugh), has an opportunity to start making new product “A+” based on 50% brand new cutting edge technologies… Which means – a 50% modernization of production line; new enormous funds are now required to invest in the facilities; again all new expenses on new ad campaign(s)… All of it must be done without knowing, whether you will get back your invested money. At the same time, this firm has an opportunity to start churning out a product “A^”. It’s absolutely like the old one, with just 1% of real “improvements” (i.e. a fridge with a special section for ice cubes; any new smartphone you see advertised aggressively as the “Must Have” year after year; sneakers produced by the same cheap near-indentured Third World labour, but with fancy new laces; “Dangitall” with banana flavor). The amount of investments/ways to cheapen the production is thus absolutely acceptable and the end result will be better than what your potential competitor can produce on the market anyway. But they also have a third option – to start producing a “B” product – not worse or better than the one potentially produced by the competitor right now, but just an absolutely different kind of it .
Two guesses, which option this profit-conscious firm gonna choose.
Then why do the people insist that there is some “progress” afoot in the market sphere? It’s only an illusion – perceptions, influenced heavily by the sheer brightness and loudness of the throngs of hawkers praising their goods. Speaking in absolutely primitive terms, imagine that you have, say, 10 possible “service functions” for this or that product (e.g. – for a smartphone). Out of this combination, plus after applying variable price ranges, effective advertising and marketing campaigns, several stylistically pleasing gubbins, bells and whistles of no real importance, and in the end… voilà! Behold a true beast of “Commercial Progress” – an endless Cash Cow. Always changing. Always the same. Never committed to actual “progress”.
- Point Two.
There is such a thing as the paradox of implicit competition, as described by Cyril N. Parkinson. In one of his typical tongue-in-cheek, but very apt paradoxes, he said that an ice-cream vendor is not really competing with other ice-cream vendors – but all of them, no matter their personal feelings, are competing with sellers of beer. An individual bookseller does not really compete with other booksellers big or small, but with cinemas and/or bars. Suppliers of the now memetic “Laboutins” in fact have a rivalry only with perfume boutiques and/or the shops of “designer” clothes.
This redefines the term “consumers’ niche” completely – thus, it is not one particular example of a common type of goods. No, it’s something like a pastime, a particular interest of the consumer, a style, an idea or a task, for which a potential client is willing to spare an (always limited!) amount of resources. A person, who wants something “tasty” to consume while on the street faces a choice between (any) ice-cream and (any) brand of soda –or even shaurma and/or beer. A person with free time who wants to spend a certain amount of money for some type of pastime will choose either a book or a ticket to the cinema, etc. But, for the most circumstances, no one has both the time and resources to spend on everything.
Deep down in it’s essence, any kind of reasoning of whether a book is better than a ticket to the cinema or vice versa is just pure sophism and propaganda. The real question (free market wise) is in message and advertisement. But you know in what this results? This takes out the really important question of actually improving the product, putting the pesky “progress” issue at rest in the process. Thus, consumer goods – any consumer goods –now are getting less “developed” and “progressive”, and more “diverse”.
I’d like to end with an apt example, that also has everything to do with the notion of Progress and about which I’ve learned a thing or two via personal suffe… experience. I’m talking about the sphere of mobile operators in Russia. It’s hard to believe, but there was once a time when I lived carefree without a cell-phone. Now, as if overnight, the whole of the Russian populace got one around the mid 2000s. Of course the question immediately arose as to which Mobile Operator to choose. This happened in a time when no one had any idea about what’s that kind of beast, what you really need and how the market will develop in the future. Naturally, by the tried and tested method of constant pitfalls and legalized robberies masked as “our brand new tariff plans” the people learned the truth – all of them are screwy. The Needs of Progress should dictate the elimination of the numerous problems that plagued Operators and their “mobile offers”, so that only the best, the most effective would remain, bringing nothing but concentrated Happiness to its clients.
Instead, the Invisible Hand of the Market ruled to set our expectations as low as possible. More than a dozen years later, the Russian internal market of mobile operators is dominated by the same Big Three Names as it was when I first acquired a cell-phone for the first time. All of them are literally unsinkable, no matter how much damage their reputation took from angry clients. We have the all too familiar situation now, when two or more “monsters”, near-monopolists, collide, coming to an understanding that it’s more profitable to divide the spheres of influence/ads time/possible spheres of “service packages” applications etc, than to waste time and effort to really compete among themselves before the greedy eyes of the pack of up-and-coming newcomers.
A truly dialectic “stability” descends. But could you call this a Progress?
When the two worlds collide
“We can do without butter, but, despite all our love of peace, not without arms.”
– Sir Winston Churchill
A very interesting thing happens when two such different forces meet. I’m talking about Free Market Enterprise and the material culture of means of violence and suppression. And a market it is – as of today it is a very huge one. Everything from a gun to the cutting edge spying hardware is covered by it.
Want another, more recent example of military technologies “bleeding over” into the civilian sphere? Drones. Early prototypes were tested during the Vietnam War. The much lauded Operation Desert Storm had grognard vets of the military services, armchair marshals and suddenly humane Western pundits screeching to High Heaven, that “the War now is resembling a video game”. That was in 1991 – and they were too early in their prediction. Nowadays, in late 2010s, an ordinary person – like you or me – sitting behind a monitor on a cruiser somewhere in the Adriatic or the Baltic Sea, or in the Persian Gulf, or in the bunker at the undisclosed locality, sees the world like we do – via monitor. There is only one catch – said ordinary person (like you and me) – sees an objective reality given via sensation in the form of electronic impulses on the monitor of the potential victims.
But does anyone who buys a cheap drone at the corner-store for $99.99 ruminate about the fates and ironies of Progress? Of course not! So, what then – has the fabled Equilibrium between the MIC and the civilian consumer oriented industries been finally reached, and the Sacred Progress is assured to us all? Oh, if only it was so simple…
On the one hand – any given tank must compete with another tank, and not with, say, an ICBM equipped submersible. This tank must be better than the competition – it must kill it. If one tank doesn’t look like another – that’s okay and really is of no importance, because tanks are bought not because of their good looks. A purely commercial approach of having +100500 “service functions” in a ballistic missile simply “won’t flight” – such a missile will be either really bad or it will be really good, but of the “one-of-the-kind”, too expensive white elephant variety.
At the same time – the civilian sector has nothing to complain about. All developments researched, tested and debugged during this or that “arms race” will surely, in due time, “leak” into the civilian commercial sphere – and this will be proclaimed as yet another victory of Progress.
Hey, self-described “progressives” of the Wide-Wide World! How does it feel? How does it feel for you to realize, to grok that our whole Human Civilization (and culture, in the end) is the product of Fear, Rivalry and the Desire to Dominate? Feels “Grrrrrrrreate”, right? 😉
But what about the “on the other hand”, implied earlier? Don’t worry – Free Market Enterprise can and will corrupt even the most stalwart fields! This is exactly the reigning philosophy of the export focused military industry, when these arms and hardware are produced not to be a Thing, upon which the producer-side’s victory is based. This means that such raison d’être like “survival” (and “dominance”, while we are at it) will be discarded immediately, replaced by vanilla commercial logic. In this case, a tank becomes a commodity no different than a smartphone or “Dangitall” pills. One can be reminded about that when re-watching recent reports from Abu-Dhabi’s biannual arms fair .
Such commercial approach would be helped immensely by the fact of having a world with the possibility of low intensity, no great powers involving conflict(s) constantly simmering in the background. So, if, for example, two more or less non-aligned nations situated somewhere not on the tectonic rift between competing spheres of influence of two or many great powers, decide to spend their (always limited!) amount of funds on a particular “point of interest” of theirs – military hardware in this instance – that would be a godsend situation for a hybrid form of MIC/Free Market chimera. They will face a staggering amount of widely different systems and types of hardware from a countless number of brands. In the tank “section” the gamut will run from the no-frills, rather cheap to acquire and maintain, easy to handle-and-service tank from the state-enterprise of one nation, to another one, stuffed to the gills with electronics and various “service options”, but very pricey and from private producers of some repute. They are different, with the different set of “service functions” – and varied price tag, naturally.
Don’t worry. Relax! Switch on the TV. Read some newspapers. Go to your favorite Social Media news aggregator. Freak out. Take a deeeeep breath. Good? Good.
As you can notice, the “Progressors” were busy at work. Futurologists were busy too, but they are more akin to hamsters in their wheel – these too are always busy and just as bright, and given a chance to be let out from their autistic self-imposed ivory towers will turn into lemming agitators, calling everyone to have one (and final) Long March to the Sea.
“Progressors” by their actions, words and decisions, put the idea of “World Peace” all the way back, far away into the darkness – where it, probably, belongs. They deprived us of the Free Market without Suspicion and fakey rivalries. They allowed us to dodge the bullet of the all-pervasive consumerist quagmire (this time it’s a rare instance when this also very abused word could be used appropriately!). They allowed the Human Dream of Progress to keep living on – fed by Fear, Suspicion and Violence.
But you will never read in the so-called “Futurologists” rants about the stuff I’ve spent not inconsiderable time and effort printing here for all of you to see. No, they remain obsessed with “bigger things to come”, ignoring the reasons why thing come in the first place, or what makes said thing possible.
And more often then not, they are proven to be incredibly wrong.
[to be continued]