Acceleration: The Modern World’s Double-Edged Sword
Science fiction is most often the stuff of prediction: a common theme is the imaginative presentation of dystopian, post-apocalyptic futures, visions of what could be if technology grows beyond human control. The times we live in have mostly diverged but sometimes have satisfied a range of competing views of the fruition of the future. Either way, most people’s daily engagement with technology and ease of convenience would be alien to humans of earlier times. Realizing this, thought that smatters of science fiction is more present than most might imagine, especially in the realm of acceleration, its acceptance, and its implications.
What is acceleration?
Acceleration is the belief that the modern world is racing towards its own demise, that progress is a double-edged sword, at once making life more “convenient” and more perilous, and that the unbridled and dangerous growth should be encouraged in order to hasten the end and thus a new beginning. In the realm of political philosophy, there are acceleration enthusiasts on both the extreme-right and the extreme-left.
Before detailing the variations of accelerationist thought, I’d like to forward my own position briefly. I have to admit that despite so many life-saving elements of technology and convenience, I mostly think of modern life as a collision between a death wish and a mind fuck- 7 billion people in, but I’m not an anti-natalist, nor do I think it’s realism to accept acceleration (more on that later).
In theory, if technology knows all and sees all, it thus governs all as it races at speeds unnatural to the human creature, yet all the facets of the social geometry conform to this unhealthy, impractical, and wasteful trend in order to increase wealth, consumerism, entertainment, and the spread of information, whether it is true and meaningful or not. This isn’t the helpful, ascending, uplifting order of Apollonian civilization; it’s dubious if we can even see social acceleration as a twisting of the Apollonian since the graceful lines and proportions of that classic, foundational vision has been replaced with mismatched forms, a blurring of lines, a cacophony of growth, like some monstrous cancer on the face of the earth. Acceleration isn’t quite Dionysian either. While it relies on decadent consumer indulgence exercised upon chaotic whims, it lacks the emotional depth, spiritual frenzy, and artistic novelty. Perhaps acceleration can be seen as potentiality on psychotropics, for the accelerating race has no connection to any form of divine mind. The logos characteristic of the west is progressively swapped for instant information and a way of life that obscures the value of deep knowing. Instant connections complicate depth of relationship. Instant exposure to the infinite web of expression hastens the loss of innocence without providing the roots of mature wisdom. Short-term wish fulfillment is the big business, yet quickly ordering another cheaply made, impersonal object reduces its worth and the worth of everything else in the process; it all becomes so much trash. The item swiftly served its purpose, but so too does the interest rapidly wane. Buy now lest it all be gone tomorrow, but every day is tomorrow if you experience the moments rather than pass the time. Convenience dominates in a world where men and women both work outside the home, and there’s always something to do. There’s a rush to get to work because most people’s commutes are swamped torture mazes that suck hours out of their lives each week. People may be slowly crawling along in traffic, but that only inspires more haste in attempts to regain lost time. There’s a rush to eat and return to the cubicle or to whatever other corner of the rat race you have interwoven yourselves into in exchange for survival. The fast food satiates you for a while as your mind races over the many (perhaps meaningless) tasks expected of you and perhaps the things you’ll never do but wish you could. Knowing cultivated food is a thing foreign. The taste of time and earth and water can not seep into your skin if you never discover it. As you race down the highway, perhaps you shove your fast-food trash in a bag, or maybe you’re one of the self-absorbed dick heads who takes a momentary and shallow guilty glance around, if that, before you roll your window down and dispel with the evidence of your bodily abuse. Quick friends lead to a deficiency of the long game, but quick friends are everywhere to be had at the click of a button via an application on your 24/7 far-seeing machine. Out of sight and out of mind: quickly, urgently, we delude ourselves. Suppose you slowed down a moment and took a look around. I know not every place is trashed, but California is trashed to an extent, not in the dark and total way that we would see in a post-apocalyptic film, but the overflowing reminders of our consumption are there from city street to national forest. Maybe the norm of modern life is because of the over-crowding or the sickening pace; it’s not like there’s one answer, but as the screens that are the idols of our twilight flicker second by second to the next stimuli, our brains pulse in a race to keep up with the ever-increasing speed.
Does this account of modernism sound familiar to you? Yeah, me too, that’s why I subscribed to a random Instagram account about acceleration, not really knowing what it was all about but recognizing the gravity of its subject matter. I stuck around for a while when doom scrolling was still an option. I appreciated the content when a quality philosopher was in the mix, but the stream of apocalyptic imagery offended my senses and depressed my vision. The feed propelled me into the imagery of landfills as mountains of death with tanks rolling by, and bombs shattering the city scape while on some other part of the planet the alarms ring signaling the next high-speed chase as little to no fucks are given by the unaffected populace who feel powerless yet outraged or alternatively apathetic and numb. I had to unfollow the account because this reality is omni-present in my mind, and the daily reminders offered no inspiration to do better, which is what I am all about.
Despite the depressing nature of the accelerationist theme and regardless if anyone has crossed paths with an accelerationist account, most people can see the increase of speed in many different ways whether they acknowledge it or like it or not or whether they want to fight it or work with it. There are plenty of people who recognize these things and are working toward change whether on T.V. or social media or conversation. However, the odd thing about it is that some people use acceleration as an argument for even more. Some of them say “Be sensible. Be real. You can’t dodge the demands of the culture. To stay in the game, you must perform; you must compete; you too must accelerate or be left behind and dominated.” Those who favor slowing down and tending to the roots lest the world tree lose its strength are far and few between since the accelerationist tendency is everywhere from school to dating. Anyone wanting an easy, socially acceptable approach to the conundrum will most likely go with the slightly distorted and inaccurate “the faster the better. Why hold anyone back? Why wait when every second that passes brings us closer to death whether of the solitary or communal ilk?” The argument is meant to suggest that we should work with and accept the accelerated pace of human “progress,” and when considering the holding of borders and the safeguarding of treasures, it takes on compelling dimensions.
However, even still, there’s a core problem with accepting acceleration and working with it, which I see as ignoring the long-range implications, and by accepting acceleration as normal and expected, people unwittingly aid the accelerationist agenda.
Accelerationist philosophers and thinkers argue that as the world’s pace accelerates ever more, it is better to pitch in and push that acceleration forward faster. When societies discover they are unable to hold their own weight and when individuals realize they are unable to maintain health and sanity as part of an unrestrained industrial schema, then the inevitable collapse will happen, and civilization can start again. The interesting thing about this is that when the average person or institution argues for acceleration, they are contributing factors to that which is dismantling and destroying, and those same people may not understand or realize the role they are playing in a systemic tendency that they actually disdain. It’s always easier for people to imagine someone else as the bad guy. The wailing litanies of environmental dread is one example of this as some of the most aggressive environmentalists use the products and services that have created the causes and conditions necessary for the environmental problems they perceive. Everyone thinks they’re entitled to a cell phone. If you don’t have one, most people will think something’s wrong with you, and they might like you, but more likely, they won’t, and it will be easy for them to appear polite about it since you have no phone for them to (not) contact you. Without a phone, their communicative absence would pass relatively unnoticed, but most people don’t want to go even a day without the convenience of these phones and the rare earth minerals and projected high speed, electrically powered waves that make their functioning possible. They also don’t think there’s a problem with taking a plane for vacation or purchasing made in China plastics. Somehow, the rules of cause and effect don’t apply to them — it’s everyone else who is the problem, or because these toxic products and services are offered and make life more comfortable, it is the fault of the producer rather than the consumers whose money makes the production and purveyance of such goods possible. There’s always the possibility that many people are more ignorant than they realize about the balance between modern convenience, its toll, and how to change things, such as is seen in many mainstream media educated pseudo-environmentalists. Personally, I think we should be free to use the items that make life more bearable but at the same time, I believe that they are symptomatic of acceleration, and we, personally, have to make difficult decisions to reject convenience culture in favor of slow culture (id est, a more traditional culture, the one that we had for thousands of years but rejected and lost touch with). The reality of such changes is that they have a short-term cost, which will make life potentially more difficult for poorer peoples, especially in terms of initial investment or if they embrace a world view of more is better and find such changes limiting.
Extreme Right and Extreme Left Intersect
Another fun fact: I later discovered that the accelerationist world view is where the extreme left and extreme right intersect to a degree. Both extremities of the political bell curve mutually agree that acceleration is the modern trajectory and that its consequence is collapse, and every end is a beginning. The extreme left may view this ending as the opportunity for some new kind of eco-communism, one that supposedly doesn’t rely on the totalitarian method of control like those failed social experiments that they, on the one hand, brush off and, on the other, admire in a naïve never had to starve and die because of socialism kind of way. The extreme right, in juxtaposition, envisions the end as the beginning of the era of der Übermensch, man reaching for the heights under natural law, the only law that is real and sound, and in the rubble of the cybernetic modern age, some variation of (perphaps ethno)fascism takes the stage to bring order. While the two sides read the implications differently, those who do believe in the accelerationist philosophy are down to pitch in with their own brand of chaos in the here and now as they see destabilizing actions, such as violent protests, anarchist zones, or domestic terrorism, as tinder to the military-industrial-mass-consumerism fire.
I anticipate unvoiced questions: “Who the hell are these people? Accelerationists of both the extreme right and extreme left? How can that be? If it is true, how can anyone take small fringe groups like this seriously?” It all started in philosophy amidst intellectuals who were neck deep in the newly emerging cyber culture and listened to house-jungle music, but it seeped into western culture like some ubiquitous virus that no one could detect at the surface level. What was once fringe has been injected into the mainstream sort of like the fungus Ophiocordyceps that zombifies its hosts. Since those who have bought in part and parcel to the accelerationist way of life are the ones who do the programming, they are the authors of the algorithm and thus facilitate the hastening of our movements, thoughts, speech, and the changes with which we can barely keep pace, or perhaps not keep pace with at all, since so many people vouchsafe for new, untested ways that may have disastrous long-term effects all while living a somewhat miserable internal existence that is often masked for the sake of social acceptance or ease of living in the mauvaise foi fashion. With repeated exposure to representations of a crafted norm, the multitudes hastily shed away and demean thousands of years of culture for the new version of reality spun from the tech giants; the question of who is an accelerationist or not hangs in the air of anyone familiar with the philosophy and its aims. It’s safe to say that most people are not familiar with accelerationism as a philosophy, but accelerationist philosophers viewed themselves as observers of a slippery slope already in the middle of its action, and thus it became a matter of encouraging the phenomenon. Since many accelerationists began as professors at well-known institutions, they clearly had reach. With each student they taught, there is one more potential accelerationist out there in any number of given fields, including big tech and mass media. The strange thing about it is how many ignorant people are playing the part and accepting ever more acceleration, just as if they were in favor of the accelerationist agenda. I would say that they were pawns, but perhaps they are just sheep.
What’s the Hurry?
In the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau had a gripe with (news) post culture and the railroads. He viewed the newspapers as reckless gossip sellers recycling dead news and sensation while the railroads were built by sleeping men whose lives were devoted to going through the motions needed for survival at the cost of truly experiencing life. As they hastened their building of the rails, they hastened their own deaths while diminishing their own quality of life. If Thoreau were alive right now, he would be accelerating toward his death bed too as he observed the state of affairs we are in now, not even 200 years past his time, and the age’s own variety of acceleration. In Walden, Thoreau poses the question, “And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season?” He asks this with an instructive sort of sarcasm as trains are for terrestrial transport. At the same time, his question reveals the trajectory of acceleration through time: death. He perceives the absurdity in so much of society’s hurry. While it makes sense to hurry when it comes to urgent needs, so much of modern culture is about ease without immediate consequence, gratification without deep effort, and acceleration without sincere virtue.
Realists, what way will you go? Will you continue to be a slave to a mechanized culture, an algorithmic culture, unnaturally quick in pace and detrimental to almost every aspect of human life? Do you see any way out of it? Extremists aside, most non-fringe people feel trapped by acceleration, assuming its reality, not wanting to make waves, not wanting to fight a futile, uphill battle. Others feel gratified by it, their every whim satisfied. However, there are some, a growing number, who see that acceleration in whatever form is actually not what we must do, and they may see the virtue in slowing down despite the inconvenience.
I anticipate readers’ arguments about technology saving us all. Electric batteries, solar panels, and wind power will save the day, but such shifting is expensive for the average person, as well as for the impoverished, and public understanding about what seems to be environmentally friendly is subject to manipulation, especially considering the pace with which most people consider the elements of the life around them. The eco shift is also oversimplified; for example, the mainstream left wants to hasten toward electric vehicles but have no quality plan for battery disposal on a mass scale nor the grid capabilities to power millions of electric cars. The rule of the day is that it is better to look as if one has a solution and not have it than to appear to have no solution at all. The dichotomy is not the rule though. One question to ask when seeking solutions is: “Is this choice accelerating our society on the path we are on or will it help us slow down enough that we can take our heads out of our asses long enough to think thoughtfully and logically about our options in the light of what is best for the human creature as a natural creature?” Starting over fresh from the ruins of industrial and social collapse will cost immensely in the realms of human suffering, poverty, and death after all.
I myself am against accelerationism while still in favor of people in the west forming families and having normal birth rates. Experts believe that the earth won’t be at peak capacity until the population hits 9 billion and after that, there will inevitably be drastic population decreases[S1]. The extra 2 billion births open up the opportunity for 2 billion more people to work on solutions, and some of them may actually solve some of the dire problems we face rather than merely alleviate them.
I also see benefits in technology and mass industry. Both contribute to human health and safety in their own ways, but too much of a good thing can become a poison, and the toxic implications of a world moving too fast is writ upon the face of the earth. To say, let’s slam the breaks would be like calling for drastic crash. Instead, we can view the current state of affairs as a wake-up call to examine ourselves deeply and determine what it is we want to contribute to, what we truly want to see in the world. It means taking more difficult paths or slower paths in order to secure the safety and health of future generations. Although there are monetary and time costs to taking the high road, it will not only benefit us externally but also internally as we finally help create the causes and conditions most beneficial to the human psyche.
[S1]From Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know by Marion Tupy and Ronald Bailey