The Last 100 Days, the Next 100 Years
May 02, 2017
Mostly written on the 100th day, on an Amtrak from New York to Boston, then revised on the 102nd day, and quietly published to a blog because we have a whole lot of hot reckons out there already and no one asked for mine.
It’s been 100 days since the start of the new regime and I keep seeing differing accounts of What That Means. Most of them are inventories of What Happened, or more often what Didn’t Happen, What Was Tried and Spectacularly Failed, What Broke, Who Was Broken. It’s largely an inventory of cruelties and erasures: laws signed (28, most of them about dismantling pre-existing regulations), Yemeni children killed by the US military (9), miles of pipeline approved to run through Native American land (1,172), proposed new hires of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to achieve the regime’s expansive deportation policies (10,000).
As with all somewhat arbitrary anniversary commemorations, the 100-days stories poses another question beyond What It Means: What Happens Now? In these framings is almost always now and not next, and as the dozens of email campaigns from advocacy groups in my inbox remind me that now is and apparently forever will be more than ever. It makes me sad, insofar as that now has indeed changed, but perhaps the path to now more than ever began with the absence of imagination to insist that now is as always, that maybe by insisting on now as a time of triage and never as a time for immanence (and rarely able to see that it can be both at once) a battle was already lost.
One thing I keep circling around with these last 100 days is what the late Mark Fisher described as “the slow cancellation of the future”–that “increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present. Or it could be that, in one very important sense, there is no present to grasp and articulate any more.” I might be misunderstanding Fisher’s point here, but mostly it leads me to the idea that the future lives and dies by the state of the archives. To look hard at this world and honestly, diligently articulate what happened and what it was like in the present is a sort of promise to the future, a new layer to the palimpsest of history that can become someone else’s foundation. And maybe it’s not even a palimpsest so much as a sediment, a geology of different touchstones of history because it’s not a matter of insisting on and nailing down a single narrative of events–no honest vision of history ever really is. But contributing to that multiplicity of stones, of weights and crystal structures and density, is a gesture of faith in a world that is bigger than myself. It’s a reminder that I feel some sense of responsibility to the world, to the plants and dirt and strangers who might someday inhabit it.
At some point in the 100 days I change the default homepage on my browser to a seemingly abandoned HTML page on the U.S. Department of Energy’s website with excerpts from Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. The document outlines approaches to creating signage and warnings at WIPP (currently, the only site in the United States designated for long-term transuranic waste storage) that could effectively deter humans from disturbing the site for the 10,000 years it will take for the radioactive waste to decay. I find radioactive waste signage projects perversely hopeful, if a little missing the forest for the trees. While I’m skeptical of the possibility of accurately predicting what humanity will be like that far down the timeline, I appreciate the willingness to believe there is some form of humanity in that future. (It also seems appropriate to begin my time online each day with a 24-point bold reminder that “This place is not a place of honor”, which is supposed to be on the signs outside the WIPP but is also a pretty good summary of the internet.)
It’s hard to imagine the current regime caring about things like signs to protect human beings who might be alive in 10,000 years (although apparently more long-term nuclear waste storage projects are back on the table). Their disregard of facts has been well-documented, but it’s not necessarily framed in relationship to the future. Perhaps this is because it’s unclear if Trump or his coterie have any particular vision of the future, or if they care whether there is one. Taking down climate science data from official government websites, setting the stage for turning public land into resource extraction wastelands, nuclear war saber-rattling, decimating the public education system–all of this is seemingly in the service of short-term present gains, but I also read it as an argument that knowing the past, that having a past and honestly reckoning with it, is irrelevant. Even the aesthetics of the Trump regime’s photography shows no sense of legacy. I read about the South African truth and reconciliation process and the Nuremberg Trials and I wonder if it’s possible to charge someone with canceling the future as a crime against humanity.
When I’m not thinking about the future (or really, futures, because there isn’t just one, or there shouldn’t be) I’m thinking about the end of the world. Less about how likely it is that the current regime might be about to bring about the end of the world so much as how the idea of America is so deeply intertwined with apocalyptic mythos. America–more specifically, the historically white supremacist vision of whatever “America” means, there are arguably as many Americas as there are futures, do I contradict myself very well then I contain multitudes–is a place born of and defined by its apocalyptic incidents. Whether it’s the Puritans fleeing Europe for prophesized city on a hill, pioneers spurred to a manifest destiny by the Second Great Awakening, or Great Men of Science making the breakthroughs of the Manhattan Project, American exceptionalism is in part constructed through forging through the wreckage and wastelands of one world in pursuit of a promised land, or the possibility of building a new one.
American exceptionalism is also constructed through bringing the end of the world upon others–whether displacing and murdering native people and ecosystems in the process of claiming that manifest destiny, upending societies across continents in the service of the slave trade, or perfecting and using the ultimate weapon of mass destruction to end an already-ending World War II and usher in an entirely new forever war. Even the fantasy of lone survival in the wake of apocalypse fulfills a sort of ultimate libertarian American Dream in which those without a fallout shelter or endless disposable income to build one are rendered literally disposable. America paradoxically acts as its own angel of apocalypse, its millenarian cult always at the precipice of the End of Days.
A Southern Poverty Law Center report on hate groups in America noted that, unexpectedly, aggressively pro-states’ rights, prepper-associated “Patriot” groups had actually seen a decline since the election. “It is almost as if the apocalypse has been canceled and the future history of the U.S. has been rewritten with a much happier ending,” wrote Michael Snyder, publisher of the Economic Collapse Blog and several self-published tomes on the book of Revelations. Meanwhile, stories of Silicon Valley oligarchs investing in secret survivalist getaways suggest that perhaps apocalypse anxiety has merely shifted demographics.
Ultimately, the preppers of rural secessionism and the preppers building private islands share the same fuck-you-got-mine narrow-mindedness that defines the new regime. Trump’s rise was fueled by the anxieties of white supremacy about the end of the world–or, specifically, the end of a specific white, capitalist, heteronormative vision of the world. Tech oligarch preppers might claim to reject that vision of the world, but their survival strategy remains one of white supremacist exceptionalist escapism. At the same time, one of the more jarring things about the last 100 days has been the fact that, simultaneous to the federal foreclosure on the future, industry seems to be insisting that the future is a technological fait accompli.
A fews days before the 100-day mark, I attend a lecture by Eric Horvitz, the managing director of Microsoft Research who last year initiated a project at Stanford called the 100 Year Study on Artificial Intelligence. Its stated goal is to “study and anticipate how the effects of artificial intelligence will ripple through every aspect of how people work, live and play.”
In his talk, Horvitz compares the state of AI right now to the earliest test flights by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. The remarkable thing, Horvitz notes, is that within “50 summers” (again with the commemorative multiples of ten and five) of that first flight in 1904, the Boeing 707 took off for its first commercial flight, ushering in an era of both commonplace annihilation of space and time and commonplace defiance of gravity. Horvitz means this as a reminder of how rapidly innovation can move to transform a clumsy idea into something massively transformative. He makes a vague gesture at acknowledging the other thing that happened between those 50 summers–namely, two world wars in which aviation played a crucial role and which funded much of the research and development that would lead to commercial air travel of the scale offered by the 707.
I’m not entirely sure how this analogy plays out in his vision of the 50 summers between now and whatever artificial intelligence might be, but I think it means that Horvitz definitely thinks advanced AI is all a matter of if, not when. At the talk, I think a lot about asking Horvitz whether or not the Stanford initiative assumes that humans will live under capitalism for the next 100 years or whether innovation over 50 summers is better or worse under authoritarian rule. I don’t ask him mostly because I suspect it is the kind of question that is likely to get a response about how it’s much easier to criticize than do something. Which is true, but I’m also not naïve enough to publicly demand proof of leftist critique bona fides from a long-term employee of Microsoft. That’s not what I’m thinking about. I want to know, genuinely, about the role of capitalism in the Stanford initiative’s 100-year vision because I want to know how imaginiative they’re willing to really be in thinking about and working toward a future.
An argument I keep running into is that the failure of the American left (or, for that matter, maybe a Western left writ large) lies in its lack of imagination. Not only the imagination to actually see how a Trump presidency might be possible, but the imagination to conceive of a vision of a future worth fighting for, a future that mobilizes instead of stagnates. So I want to know what kinds of futures Eric Horvitz and his people at Stanford and the nice white men of the tech industry are thinking about because I want to know if they’re any more capable of actually articulating a future worth looking toward than the current regime. I am pretty sure the best most of them have for imagining a future is whatever Neal Stephenson was imagining twenty-five years ago.
After the 100 days, I meet up with a friend who lives on the west coast, but we happen to both be visiting the same city. She tells me about a long-term vision of land repatriation and reparations, and I’m grateful to hear a description of a future that I actually want to work toward. I tell her about the truth and reconciliation commissions idea–she’s not totally convinced, seeing as there’s a couple of centuries worth of other harms that we could start with if trying to do an American truth and reconciliation commission. Which is fair. But it’s the first time in the last 100 days where I’ve actually felt like someone had a coherent answer to that point about the lack of imagination and actually offered something genuinely imaginative instead of balefully agreeing.