Fear and Loathing in the Hive-Mind Cafe

2010 July 17
by Ando Arike

Not long ago, I was walking past the Atlas Café at Havemeyer Street and Grand, here in trendy Williamsburg, when I overheard two young Latinos several steps ahead of me—neighborhood natives, presumably—discussing the strange regimentation of the café’s habitués, on prominent display in its plate glass windows. The gist of their critique was a variation on that old theme, “White folk sure are crazy,” and looking inside, I had to agree.

What the young Latinos were remarking on is, of course, a common sight these days: i.e. the café as study hall or corporate work annex, patrons rigidly arranged one or two per table, each staring raptly into the screen of a laptop, nobody talking or even acknowledging another’s presence, as though each were in an imaginary cubicle. So why not stay home and do this? Well, people get lonely, and why not be lonely in a crowd?—perhaps a natural next step for people whose early family life was mediated by the TV. But only a totalitarian social engineer could have consciously designed such an alienating environment, and here are the most privileged youths in the world falling into line voluntarily, eagerly! As Mark Crispin Miller puts it, “Big Brother Is You, Watching”—obedience at its best! Indeed, many young people seem to think a laptop is required just to enter a café, and that the only behavior allowed is that which takes place on the Internet. Conversation? Shhhh! Keep it down wouldja! We’re trying to WORK here!!

It’s a disturbing trend. Cafés have historically served as breeding-grounds for all sort of flamboyant free-thinking and rebellious talk, as hothouses for plotting artistic, political, and sexual revolutions—my fear is that with Starbucks and other Wi-Fi meccas as their only model, today’s young people are helping turn this vital site of anti-State-Corporatist resistance into a creeping suburbia of the mind. Electronically hammered into one of the most submissive and boring generations yet, American youth seem determined to prostrate themselves ever more fully before their rulers.

Where this mediated submission strikes me most forcefully is in the freshman I teach, clutching at their iPhones and Blackberrys as if these were childhood blankies, unable for more than two minutes to restrain themselves from peeking at the screens or scrolling through their apps—lest some new command from Massa has been received—“Master” meaning the mass mind. So much communication—so little said! I see them texting incessantly, new inductees to the Kozy Amerikkkan Konsensus, the tyranny of the statistical mob, the “we Americans” of TV’s talking heads telling us what “we,” the mainstream, are thinking today, and what “we” shall think tomorrow. I imagine my students’ social lives as if arrayed on the threads of a spider’s web, each tug on the mesh sending quivers of fear, envy, or desire through the network of Facebook Friends.

If adolescence and early adulthood are when our vulnerability to social disapproval is highest, what does it portend that “social media” are increasingly omniscient and inescapable? What does it signify that in order to facilitate text messaging, English is being transformed into a sort of Orwellian Newspeak, incapable of supporting complex thought? Will we one day distill all necessary communication to a dozen emoticons, and dispense with our cumbersome language altogether? 😉


Remember how neat and cool the future was gonna be? How much awesome technology we’d all have to help us defy authority? Some twenty-five years ago, when desktop computers were still toys and the Internet but a gleam in programmers’ eyes, William Gibson spawned the sub-genre of science-fiction remembered as “cyberpunk” with his novel Neuromancer. A high-tech remake of Shane, with joysticks and computer keyboards instead of six-guns and shootouts at noon, Neuromancer featured Case, outlaw cowboy of the Internet, “jacked-in” to the Net through an implanted neural connection, popping amphetamines and designer drugs to better hack code, fight the bad guys, get laid, and ride the data-surf across new frontiers of human possibility. Cyberspace was gonna be cool, man! Badass dudes in mirrorshades sunglasses, hacking into the mainframes of the cosmic Man…awesome hacker chicks with shape-shifting implants and dangerously sexy software.

But, in hindsight, beyond producing one or two memorable memes, as a literary “movement” cyberpunk functioned more as a sales pitch for “The Digital Age” than anything else, providing a Hollywood façade of romance and intrigue while behind the scene the bureaucrats at the Pentagon were stoking the chip-ovens of the growing information industry. Like so much of the “visionary” speculation from the ‘80s and ‘90s about virtual reality, cybersex, and so forth, the Real Reality was a vast consolidation of the military-industrial-entertainment complex.

We were being softened up… Instead of orgasmic cybersex on the Information Expressway, we got Predator drones, the Surveillance State, and the War on Terror…

“Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated…”

As corny as this sounds, it may have been Star Trek, the ancient, long-running space-opera, that came closest to predicting the shape of digital culture—namely, in the Borg, arch-enemy of the Federation in the later TV shows and films. Intergalactic imperialists of the forty-fifth century, the Borg are a high tech melting pot army, conscripting their legions from each solar system they conquer, and enhancing these by way of cyborg limbs and sensory prosthetics. But the Borg’s most important weapon is their ant colony Hive-Mind—each soldier-drone’s brain is electronically connected to all others, becoming a mere node in the larger networked whole, on-call for duty 24/7. It is a capitalist’s wet-dream of an army of worker-consumer drones, marching as one to the same computer-synched beat.

Of course, in contemporary America we like to imagine that we’re all rugged individualists and free agents, freely choosing our consumer goods, ideas, and lifestyles from the vast marketplace of globalized culture. But consider the diagram below (figure 2), which I devised about ten years ago for my Ph.D. dissertation, “What are Humans For?”:

Although my diagram is admittedly a bit dated, I would submit that the Self—the “me” in the triangle’s center—is but a minor and momentary node in a much larger circuit of information and exchange, and that the viviparous family progenitors—“mommy” and “daddy”—have become assimilated via various technologies (represented along the triangle’s sides) into the corporate Hive-Mind, which is ruled by the Logos, the Platonic corporate brand-essences that give our lives meaning and structure.

Again I think of my freshmen—poor cyborg puppies!—suckled on the ubiquitous corporate teat, more or less ignorant of a single thing on the planet that isn’t commodified, scripted, mechanized, symbolized, programmed, or turned into a fucking app. Life: the App. Alas, that’s all for today…

[For more on all this, see Carl Watson’s brilliant “Satan Stumbles”].

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