Shall Do What Thou Wilt Be the Whole of the Tech?

Image Copyright The Independent UK

There is nothing that is not magick, if apprehended correctly, and there is nothing that is not technology for the same reasons. We’ve mentioned, before, that the roots for both technology and magick are in “craft.” The Greek root for this is “Techne,” and you can look to Athena and Hekate and Hermes and Hephaestus and see deities of both Art and Artifice. They are goddesses and gods of skill and cunning and language and creation and weaving—stories and textiles—and theft and all of these things are bound together.

This is part of why we talk, here, about magic and technology, and what “artificial intelligence” really means when we break it down.

But the Western world’s Greek ancestors aren’t the only ones who bound their technology and their magic together. Egypt saw Thoth creating language and magic, being a god of technology and the repository of all memory and knowledge. Odin is the Master Speller and the great artificer (and thief and Cunning Man). Legba and Ellegua are spiritually tied to crossroads, thresholds, beginnings, endings, and communications, making the Lwa the obvious choice for Gibson to map onto the Internet.

And in all of this we have the root technology of language. The manipulation of words and memories and “spelling” and, again, “craft.” Kim Boekbinder reminded us, some weeks ago, that, “Songs are spells, incantations. Careful what you sing for. Songs are spells. Be mindful of what you listen to.” And we’re back around to phonomancy, again. But these are the more poetic uses of language, and their intent, as stated, is to hit you in the heart, in the viscera, in the instinct. Less prosaic (but no less powerful) uses of language than these are laws.

The law is a spell that works on you, at every moment, whether you will it or not. Laws are the codification and concretization of moral codes and systems of justice, all of which are derivations of a society’s values. They are the concentrated beliefs and essences of what people think and feel and believe are best, and their particular parsing and deployment can have long lasting, permanent effects on your life, even at great distance from you, and without your conscious knowledge. But, just like other forms of magick, the law can be learned, can be understood, and in most cultures, one can even become fully initiated into its mysteries. And when you know the law, you can use it to your own advantage.

The law is alive, and somewhat adaptable, but it’s also rigid, the pace of its change is often glacial, and its outcomes are not always Justice. The knowledge and recognition of that last fact allows for those who see antiquated and even repressive expressions of the law to do things like erecting a 9-foot-tall Baphomet Statue, and carrying it around the country to places where one religion’s views seem to be given state-sanctioned preference. Or Wiccans and Pagans working out how best to use various “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” against the people who only ever seem to mean Christian religious freedom.

If we understand the law as a technology of social control, we can see the cruxes of influence and words of power that allow us to utilize it, and to leverage its often purposefully-occult nature. We can, as with many ritual forms, use it to transgress against itself, to subvert its grasp long enough to craft a more permanent solution.

Greetings from a Ghost Town

My friends who write newsletters tend to start them off by noting where they are. A coffee shop or a train or park bench. I don’t usually do that because I’m pretty much always writing from my desk in my home office since the only coffee shop within a mile of my house is a Starbucks in a shopping center. And because writing with my laptop in my lap, instead of on a table or desk, gives me shoulder pain for days afterword, which limits the amount of writing I can do on the go.

Warren Ellis, on the other hand, has taken to introducing his writings with variations on the phrase “Greetings from out here on the Thames Delta” when he’s writing from home.

“‘Out here on the Thames Delta” is starting to sound like my ‘Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, my hometown,'” he wrote in one newsletter. More recently he’s noted that the term is sort of a joke. But I like the idea of a personal codename for the place I live. I’m putting down roots here, and since I work from home and don’t get out much, I spend the vast majority of my time here.

But where is “here,” exactly? The obvious answer would my neighborhood: Park Rose Heights. But not only does that sound like a retirement community, but it also seems a bit too narrow. Parkrose Heights is just a few square miles of houses, apartment buildings, and, yes, retirement communities. What makes it a unique place are the areas that surround it, the context the neighborhood exists within.

Parkrose Heights is part of, or adjacent to, an area of town known as Gateway. “The Gateway area” is actually where I tell people I live, because no one has heard of Parkrose Heights. But that feels like it’s missing some context too. The gateway to what, exactly?

Well, it’s the gateway to East Portland, but this requires some explanation since when many people hear the term “East Porltand” they think it means all of Portland east of the Willamette River. And indeed, there was once a township on the east side called “East Portland,” back before it and the town of Albina merged with the City of Portland.

But today the name East Portland is used to refer to the parts of Portland east of 82nd Ave., which was the border of the city until the East Portland neighborhoods were annexed in the mid-80s.

But the name “East Portland” isn’t just confusing. Inner Portland actually feels like a port town. The name of the city is descriptive. Out here in East Portland, which looks nothing like the city you see in Portlandia, it feels like a misnomer.

So what about a more geographic name, like “Thames Delta” that describes the physical landscape? I live on the Columbia Ridge. Just south of the Columbia River, just east of Rocky Butte, a couple hours by car west of Celilo Falls, the site of what was, until 1957, the longest continually inhabited settlement in North America. Ah, now that’s a place.

And “Columbia Ridge” has a double meaning. It was the name of a proposed city that would have been composed of the then unincorporated neighborhoods east of 82nd Ave., as well as the closer-in Cully neighborhood, before they were all subsumed by Portland.

Columbia Ridge is a ghost town. Not in the sense of being an abandoned city inhabited by ghosts. Rather, the city itself is a ghost, a specter haunting the minds of the people living within its hypothetical borders even today.

Hello there from the Columbia Ridge.

This post was adapted from the Technoccult newsletter.

On the State of “Careers”

Is digital journalism a viable career? Financial journalist and media pundit Felix Salmon says no.

His lengthy and dismal assessment of the future of journalism as a career path — ie, a job where your salary increases over time and you make enough money to support a family — was, shall we say, widely panned by other journalists who think he’s being a negative nancy and discouraging young people from entering the field. Personally, I think things are even worse than Salmon says.

Now, Salmon and I are in pretty good posiitons. Him more so than I, but neither of us is cranking out articles for $0 a pop just to build a portfolio in hopes of landing a staff writer job at a community newspaper that pays less than an entry level job at Home Depot. Neither of us is cranking out 10+ “stories” a day for a clickbait site just to make rent. Neither one of us just got laid off from a major urban daily after 20 years. We’re part of the lucky few that get paid a living wage, or better, to produce journalism.

But it’s not just journalism. The entire economy is now geared towards turning humans into fungible commodities. And it’s hard to build a career in an environment where there’s no point in asking for a raise because there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who would do your job for even less than you do.

This is nothing new to billions of manual laborers who are used to being treated like cogs in a machine. But once upon a time unions were able to help workers actually band together to demand things like predictable hours and livable working conditions. That has changed. but the do what you love mantra managed to turn those few jobs that robots can’t yet do into sub-minimum wage gigs that require graduate degrees.

You might think you can escape this fate by becoming a programmer. But code bootcamps are cranking out hundreds of people who can crank out CRUD apps all day. And when you start to go grey, the tech industry will toss you out like an 8-track tape.

I don’t mean to imply that all precariat — from the middle class white guy with a PhD to Rwandan woman who came to the U.S. with nothing — are equally affected by this mechanization of humanity. But we are all affected.

The answer isn’t in picking the right career for the machine age. It’s changing the system.

Chronic Fatigue Century

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a blanket term for a number of debilitating medical conditions that leave people exhausted all the time for no apparent reason. It’s not tied to any particular exertion. Rest doesn’t make it better. Patients are just left crushingly tired, often unable to get out of bed, and we don’t really know why.

Science is finally making some progress towards diagnosing and understanding at least some forms of the syndrome as an immune system disorder. But because it has historically been so hard to properly diagnose — and because people are dicks — it’s been dismissed as a purely psychological issue, as if that would make it any less serious. According to Wikipedia “many patients and advocacy groups, as well as some experts, believe the name trivializes the medical condition and they promote a name change.”

A new name would be clarifying. Then perhaps we can repurpose the term, because “chronic fatigue” seems to perfectly describe our epoch.

Unlike medical chronic fatigue syndrome, our societal fatigue does stem from exertion. But we can’t get the rest that we need. About 73 percent of Americans sleep less than eight hours a night. Not only do we take fewer vacations than the rest of the industrialized world, but we are taking fewer and fewer as the years grind on. It’s not much better if you’re un or underemployed. Poverty is exhausting. We’re willing to work but too tired to hustle.

To compensate, we’ve gone from coffee to Red Bull to Five Hour Energy to modafinil. As soon as DARPA perfects its sleepless serum we’ll move on to that.

We’ve got Kickstarter fatigue, social media stream fatigue, outrage fatigue, crisis fatigue, donor fatigue, future fatigue… fuck, I think I’ve probably got fatigue fatigue at this point.

Maybe it started with 9/11. Maybe it was the financial crisis. Or maybe it was earlier, with Y2K. All I know is that I’m bone tired, and I don’t see any rest on the horizon and that just about everyone I know feels the same way.

But maybe that’s how we start to get better. First we admit that we have a problem. Then maybe we can find a way to collectively pull the plug on this treadmill.

Should legalizing weed be young people’s top priority?

One thing that’s bugging me about Vice‘s interview with Obama is that how dismissive the president is is about the importance of marijuana legalization.

“I understand this is important to you, but you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace,” he said. “Maybe way at the bottom you should be thinking about marijuana.”

He goes on to give an answer that’s surprisingly supportive of the idea of decriminalizing pot, and that’s been grabbing headlines all day. But is it fair to say that marijuana should be at the bottom of people’s list of political priorities?

Well, first of all, I don’t think it actually is young people’s top priority, it was just the question that got asked the most online in advance of the interview. People are interested to hear what the president has to say on the matter because he talks about it a lot less than he talks about the economy and ISIS. But even if it were their top priority, would they be wrong?

Drug policy touches almost every major issue of our time, from social justice to education to, most obviously, the economy. The benefits of legalization have been discussed to death, but we’re starting to see evidence of the effectiveness in Colorado, where tax revenues are strong and unemployment is low. I wasn’t able to easily find comparable information for Washington, but if you’re interested in creating jobs and improving tax revenues, you could sure do a lot worse than legalizing weed. Then there are the social justice benefits. As the president said in the interview, drug policies disproportionately affect people of color. Legalization could improve educational opportunities, since students who with marijuana convictions can lose their financial aid. The list goes on and on.

But most importantly, it’s a concrete and achievable policy idea. It’s low hanging fruit. If I had to pick one thing to make the world a more prosperous and just place, marijuana legalization would definitely be near the top of my list of ideas, not the bottom.

Shocked, But Not Surprised

That’s how I felt when I read about the the Chicago PD’s “black sites” last week. In fact, that seems to my perpetual state these days. From drone strikes and assassinations to the Snowden documents to the Zimmerman acquittal to the ongoing, relentless of women in the public sphere.

The shocks just keep mounting. A man sentenced to life in prison for delivering $20 worth of weed. Seven police officers and prosecutors lie and say a man assaulted a prosecutor. Junk science sends man to prison for life.

The truly disturbing thing about all of these things, I think, is that the perpetrators fully expected to get away with the things they did. I mean, the NSA has had whistle blower problems for 30 years. The Chicago PD knew the people they detained in their black sites wouldn’t stay there forever. Those police and prosecutors had to have known it was possible that the incident they lied about could have been filmed. But they all did — do — these things anyway. Because they know that they won’t face any serious repercussions for it. That’s the shock that just keeps reverberating.

Writing Batteries

I’ve long hoped that writing worked like a muscle, and that by writing long and hard enough, I could develop that muscle. That much like a runner can run both faster and longer after training, I would be able to sit at the computer and pound out intelligible prose faster and for longer stretches of time.

I don’t think that’s the case, though. I now think writing is more like a battery than a muscle. You can draw on the writing battery, but eventually it runs out and needs to be recharged. If you don’t use it enough it will become corroded and stop working.

But the thing about batteries is that they don’t hold more of a charge the more times you run them down. Nor do they acquire a higher voltage the more you use them. If anything, they become weaker and shorter lived over time. And that’s fine, I suppose, so long as you get good use out of the battery while it lasts.

Why I Drifted Away from the Atheist Movement

I don’t believe in god. And though I meditate and seek sublime experiences, I don’t think of myself as “spiritual.”

I am, in short, an atheist.

But for the past few years I’ve been hesitant to call myself one. It’s not because I’m worried about being shunned by my friends or in my community. I live in a very secular city and work in a very secular industry. Few of my friends are religious, and those that are have been exceedingly tolerant of my beliefs — or lack thereof.

No, I’m loath to use the A word because the most vocal and visible proponents of atheism have strayed far away from promoting reason, tolerance and secular values and into promoting misogyny, xenophobia and far-right politics.

But for at least a couple years, from sometime in 2006 until sometime in 2009, I was a militant atheist, dashing off dozens of blog posts condemning religious thought for promoting murder and mutilation. I thought we, the atheists of the world, were railing against injustice and speaking truth to power.

Atheism felt just and true and important. But no longer. What happened?

Atheism as Justification for Xenophobia

Over time I sensed that for far too many people in the movement, atheism was if not a front then at least a rationalization for xenophobia or racism or both. As a long-time advocate of permissive immigration policies, that didn’t sit well for me.

I thought, and still do think, that one of the best ways a secular society can help those living under extremist religious regimes is to welcome them into our own countries. What I saw instead were atheists aligning themselves with bigots and Christian fundamentalists to promote xenophobic propaganda and reactionary immigration policies. I joined in with many other atheist bloggers in posting Fitna when it came out, but ended up feeling like a tool for doing so. That was probably the beginning of the end.

A Changing View of Religion

I was eventually swayed by anthropologist Scott Atran’s critique of Movement Atheism, and his argument that it would be better to try to curb terrorism by providing role models through media such as comic books than trying to eradicate religion.

Over time I also began to realize that I, like many other Movement Atheists, had been equating Islam as a whole with a relatively small fringe. Although I often included the caveat that most Muslims were peaceful, I wrote about “Islam” as if it were one big thing as opposed to a moniker for a great many different strains of belief. That realization was driven home as I met more Muslims personally and saw how little they shared in common with the likes of the Taliban.

Although I bristled at first at the term “Islamaphobia” since I think it’s entirely reasonable to critique religion in general and Islam in particular, I’ve come to realize that it’s a perfectly fitting term for what it describes: an irrational fear and hatred of all people who practice any form of that religion.

When you spend a lot time reading about fatwas against Salman Rushdie, it can be easy to get paranoid about a huge international network of Muslim assassins out to kill anyone who criticizes the religion. But that doesn’t exist, and the fear-mongering Islamaphobia does no one any good.

Meanwhile, I was developing a more nuanced view of what organized religion as a whole actually is, which I suppose I should save for another essay. Suffice it to say, I simply became less worried about religion as an institution.

The Monomania of Atheists

Then there was the monomaniacal focus on religion to the exclusion of all other social issues. I was particularly frustrated with what I saw as a lack of interest on the part of Movement Atheists in the root causes of extreme religiosity, such as poverty and lack of access to education. Given the broad overlap between atheism and libertarianism, I started to notice a tendency of atheists to blame poverty on religion, rather than vice versa. The end of religion was being promoted as a panacea that could solve all the world’s troubles.

I also developed a sense that Movement Atheists wouldn’t be happy with any other movement until they dropped all other causes and joined the crusade against Islam. Gay marriage in the U.S. was to take a backseat to the treatment of gays in predominantly Muslim nations. No feminist issues were to be discussed ever — not as long honor killing was still happening anywhere in the world.

Honor killing became a particular sticking point for me as I started to look into and think more deeply about “crimes of passion” (as they’re called when a non-Muslim man commits them) and lethal domestic violence in the U.S., and came to the conclusion that it had more to do with toxic masculinity than religion. That led me to fully embrace feminist thought, putting me further at odds with the atheist movement.

Shark Jump

By 2011, when Dawkins published his “Dear Muslima” comment — suggesting that women who complained about sexual harassment in the workplace should shut the fuck up because at least they weren’t having their genitals mutilated — I’d already drifted away, but it’s the nice illustration of just about everything that’s wrong with Movement Atheism.

Consider, for example, Dawkins’s hypocrisy in writing that comment. He suggested that the incident that Rebecca Watson described — and the subsequent harassment she received as a result of daring to mention it — was so minor in comparison to the myriad ways that women suffer in other parts of the world that she shouldn’t even talk about it at all. But if people should only mention the worst of all abuses, then why is Dawkins even writing about a woman writing about her experiences? Shouldn’t he be writing about something more important?

The inescapable conclusion is that Dawkins was merely using atheism as a bludgeon to silence women who dared to speak out against abuse in the West because the topic made him uncomfortable. He felt threatened by women, and did what he could to push the conversation away from the ways men abuse women in the West.

And we’ve seen that again and again in the atheist community in recent years, from the barbaric treatment of women like Jennifer McCreight within the atheist community to Dawkins’s rape victim blaming.

If there was a single shark jumping moment, though, it had to have been the controversy surrounding Park51, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” a planned community center that was to include — in addition to a performing arts center, swimming pool and gym, among other things — a large prayer room.

Movement Atheists thought the idea of Muslims praying inside a building two blocks away from the WTC site was so offensive that it should be illegal. Yes, the very same people who gleefully publish drawings of Mohammad to intentionally offend Muslims were offended at the very thought of someone praying in a room behind closed doors. Liberal values like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and property rights went right out the window. That was especially rich coming from the libertarians.

That whole ordeal, along with the movement’s vocal support of France’s burqa ban, laid bare the hypocrisy and irrationality of atheist movement. It was then clear that this movement wasn’t about fighting theocracy, giving voice to those oppressed by religion, or advancing the ideals of an open society. It was about imposing their own beliefs on other people. And I wanted nothing to do with it.

Bloodied Hands

I started writing this about a week ago, while thinking about the role of atheism in the overlapping reactionary, pick-up artist, GamerGate, and Men’s Rights Advocacy communities — recently dubbed the “Redpill Right.” It made me think about what I’d once had in common with those men, and what had changed.

And then today, three Muslim people were murdered in Chapel Hill by a militant atheist. Someone who wrote things on Facebook that sound not entirely unlike things I used to write on this very blog.

Of course there are those, like Dawkins, who will argue that actually, it’s about ethics in parking violations. But by Dawkins’s own logic, all atheists — myself included — now have blood on our hands, by making the world safe for extremists like Craig Stephen Hicks. And there’s probably some truth to that.

Which leaves me wondering where to go from here. There’s a case to be made that I, and all other non-believers who don’t share a reactionary, misogynistic view of the world should become active in Movement Atheism, to turn it around and make it safe for the marginalized. Maybe we could even change the minds of some of the worst offenders in the scene.

But I think changing those minds will be subject to the same sorts of backlash effects that I we see when trying to convert the religious to atheism. Those of us who don’t fit in with this brand of atheism are simply best moving on. We can promote reason and secular values without the tunnel vision of Movement Atheism.

Better then to wander away and leave these sad, frightened men to shout into the darkness alone, with nary a god to hear them.

On Race and Sexual Violence in the Works of Alan Moore

Let’s get something out of the way upfront: I don’t think Alan Moore is a racist, homophobe or misogynist. But some of his works — particularly League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Neonomicon — have issues. Although it might seem silly to go after Moore when there are much worse offenders both in comics and other media (not to mention actual rapists), Moore’s work is a good case study of how even the most well intentioned, progressive writers can screw-up matters of race, gender and sexuality. And because he is perhaps the most highly regarded writer in comics, there’s a trickle down effect from his work. Moore refuses to listen to his critics, but maybe other writers can learn from his mistakes.

Last week Pádraig Ó Méalóid published an interview with Alan Moore in which he asked a few questions about sexual assault in his comics in general and specifically about his inclusion of Golliwog in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier.

Moore’s response is long and vitriolic, and misses the point entirely.

I can understand why Moore is so bothered by accusations of racism and sexism. He’s an old hippie who has put more consideration to identity politics and representation into his work than most comic writers of his or any other generation. He’s taken other creators to task for their sexism and homophobia. But even though he’s written some strong women and minority characters, he can and does get it wrong sometimes, and his reaction here is disappointing — not least of all because of the rhetorical style he employs.

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Prada Revolutionaries: Confessions of a Recovering Solutionist


This essay is part of 5 Viridian Years, a series of reflections on the Viridian Design movement.

Revolution is depressing.

The U.S. turned deep red after the 2002 mid-term elections. Any hope of a Democratic rebound after George W. Bush’s contentious inauguration vanished. Not that the Democrats were any better. Only one senator had voted against the Patriot Act, and in 2003 congress approved the invasion of Iraq despite worldwide protest — some of the biggest in history. Meanwhile, poverty was on the rise and the Kyoto Protocol was going nowhere.

On a personal level, the a local homeless shelter was on the verge of being pushed out of downtown Olympia, WA out to the outskirts of town. The campaign to save it, which I had volunteered for, was going badly.

It was hard to take the idea of meaningful political change seriously. Things were fucked up at every level of government. Nor could I take seriously the right-wing punk, “fuck-up the system from the inside” idea. Writer Grant Morrison put it this way: “For every McDonald’s you blow up, ‘they’ will build two. Instead of slapping a wad of Semtex between the Happy Meals and the plastic tray, work your way up through the ranks, take over the board of Directors and turn the company into an international laughing stock.”

Sounds nice in theory. But I knew corporations were more resilient than that. Sabotaging the system from inside was as much a pipe dream as changing it through politics and protest.

Outnumbered and out-gunned, armed insurrection seemed pointless. The only viable solution seemed to be outsmarting the enemy.

In early 2003, not long after the start of the Iraq War, I read The Headmap Manifesto, a document written by Ben Russell and first published in 1999. Russell described a future filled with location aware mobile internet devices, augmented reality, reputation systems and digital payment systems. He anticipated nearly every major mobile and geolocative innovation of the following decade, but the heart of the text was a vision of a new society that these technologies could bring about. He called the social economic system that would emerge from these technologies “augmented capitalism.” Today we might call it the “sharing economy.”

I started reading more blogs about mobile technology, social software and design. Back then we talked about designers like they were rock stars — sort of the way we talk about developers and startup people today. Celebrities like Brad Pitt and Lenny Kravitz dabbled in design. Bruce Sterling declared that design magazine Metropolis was the new Wired. It was the thing at the time, so I started reading lots of design blogs, and started following people like Dan Hill, Matt Jones, Adam Greenfield, Josh Ellis and Abe Burmeister. All smart people who continue to do good work.

Most importantly, I discovered Margin Walker, a now defunct web community founded by Adam and Josh and featured contributions by many of the designers I was already following. Metafilter heralded its launch with the headline “The revolutionaries will wear Prada,” because of the community’s peculiar obsession with that brand. Topics ranged from dead malls to micropayments to nomadism.

A few months later the green tech and social enterprise blog WorldChanging launched with the mission of spreading the message of the “bright green” movement, a design movement closely aligned with Sterling’s Viridian Design concept. “The world needs a new, unnatural, seductive, mediated, glamorous Green,” Sterling announced in the movement’s manifesto. “A Viridian Green, if you will. The best chance for progress is to convince the twenty-first century that the twentieth century’s industrial base was crass, gauche, and filthy.”

In other words, maybe we instead of protesting McDonalds, or joining the board, we could convince people that it was just really uncool to eat there.

Discovering Headmap, Margin Walker and WorldChanging was for me what discovering The Whole Earth Catalog or Mondo 2000 must have been like for previous generations. These were the people I was looking for, and the vision I was seeking. An alternative to both the hopeless outsiderdom of left-wing activism and the nihilism of yuppiedom. A glimmer of hope that I could spend my post-college career making money and making a difference.

Looking back it all seems hopelessly naive.

Last year I saw Twitter co-founder and Square CEO Jack Dorsey give a talk at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference. Dorsey, who got his start in tech by writing taxi dispatch software just for fun and still name drops Hakim Bey, is the most “Headmap” tech executive out there. I don’t know if he lurked on Margin Walker or the Geowankers mailing list, but he would have fit right in. He was “one of us.” And there he was at this major tech conference, dressed in a Prada suit, talking about “revolution” while homeless people slept under the bridge right across the street. I guess it could have been either a dream come true or a disillusionment had those particular dreams not already rotted in my heart.

Today we have garbage continents and ocean acidification. The latest ICC report tells us that even if we do manage to gouge our emissions, we’re still in for some rough climate change. And cutting emissions still looks as unlikely as it did to me in 2003 and as it did to Sterling in 1998.

Any sane person would look at the evidence and say the Virdian/Bright Green movement failed miserably. But here’s the thing: The Viridian Design movement may have failed in its goals, but accomplished its objectives.

Green is hip. Green is sexy. And the more affluent you are the greener — and therefore hipper — you can afford to be. “The task of this avant-garde is to design a stable and sustainable physical economy in which the wealthy and powerful will prefer to live,” Sterling wrote.

Virdians eschewed politics. “CO2 emission is not centrally a political or economic problem,” Sterling wrote. “It is a design and engineering problem. It is a cultural problem and a problem of artistic sensibility.”

In other words, it was a “solutionist” movement, meaning that it tried to “route around” politics and provide purely technical solutions to hard problems. The term has been popularized by Evgeny Morozov in the context of tech pundits who, but its origins are, appropriately enough, in architecture.

But in a capitalist society, an aesthetic movement is ultimately a consumerist movement. That’s why punk ended up as a lifestyle you can buy at the mall. It’s why the sharing economy is anything but. And just as the personal computer business became just another consumer electronics industry and the internet became an ad network with an NSA backdoor, Bright Green became just another way to move product. Worse, it became an excuse to use consumption as an alternative to politics and self-discipline. It’s the forfeiture of environmentalism to the market.

This bastardized version of Virdian was best stated by Arnold Vinick, told the world the fictional presidential candidate on The West Wing: “In L.A. now, the coolest thing you can drive is a hybrid. Well, if that’s what the free market can do in the most car-crazed culture on Earth, then I trust the free market to solve our energy problems.”

But as it turns out, 15 years on, that the environment is political problem after all. We need global emissions treaties. We need federal funding for research. We need to adjust our lifestyles and expectations, but we don’t want to. Down shifting is for “hair shirts.” Bright Green has become the left’s version of right-wing transhumanism: an excuse to not solve today’s problems, because tomorrow’s technology will fix them for us.

That’s not to say many of the people involved in those communities didn’t end up doing important work. And to be fair, Margin Walker was always more political and more skeptical than certain other “social responsible design” communities (if that’s even what Margin Walker was). And of course this green washed consumerism isn’t what Sterling, Alex Steffan and company had in mind in the early days. But even the political strains of that era — the so-called “emergent democracy” movement — have been co-opted by commercial forces.

Hopefully there’s a lesson in there somewhere for the next generation of activists, designers and social entrepreneurs. Don’t give up on the political, and don’t be so smug as to think you can route around it.

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