Why did Zola Jesus claim Grimes to be the voice of Silicon Fascist Privilege?
Disclaimer: This essay was originally published at Tab UOL, in Portuguese.
Two week ago, a new controversy stroke on Twitter, this time it was a feud between singers Zola Jesus and Grimes. It all started with a statement that Grimes gave during an episode of the podcast Mindscape, in which she addressed the topics of the future of music and the use of artificial intelligence in the industry. For Grimes, who is alternatively working on her own artificially intelligent avatar to replace her on social media, human art will soon become “obsolete.” In fact, the Canadian musician doesn’t even think that human art will still exist in the future, because, according to her, art made by AI is much more perfect than whatever we can create as humans.
Zola Jesus didn’t like that. Besides questioning Grimes’ view on the future of music, the singer mentioned on her Twitter the fact that the Canadian musician was using in her bio the expression “fairy futurism.” Jesus was annoyed with the use of the term Futurism, so she published a text explaining that Futurism was rather an artistic movement of the 20th century, one that had as its most prominent artists the poet Filippo Marinetti. Although Futurism was a bigger movement with several manifestos published during the first two decades of the past century, collective memory still regards it to the fact that Marinetti became an ally of Benito Mussolini for a while. By that time, the Italian artist thought that the politician shared some of the same ideas and precepts of Futurism.
Still, according to Vanessa Bortulucce, art historian specialized in Italian futurism, this identification occurred because both Marinetti and Mussolini argued that values such as bravery, audacity, a passion for danger, boldness and self-confidence were the most important features to be found on an individual. However, this convergence of values had occurred for different reasons. “In the case of the Italian vanguard, they had a purposefully aggressive poetics, since the artists were strongly engaged in the goal of making Italy a prominent country in the international context of modernity. It was thus necessary to unlink the country from its classic, antiquate past that, according to them, was even an archaic, old and retrograde past,” explains Bortulucce.
When we read the “Futurist Manifesto” published by Marinetti in 1909, we see a description of a traffict accident that the poet suffered by the beginning of the century. In his words:
As soon as I had said these words, I turned sharply back on my tracks with the mad intoxication of puppies biting their tails, and suddenly there were two cyclists disapproving of me and tottering in front of me like two persuasive but contradictory reasons. Their stupid swaying got in my way. What a bore! Pouah! I stopped short, and in disgust hurled myself — vlan! — head over heels in a ditch. Oh, maternal ditch, half full of muddy water! A factory gutter! I savored a mouthful of strengthening muck which recalled the black teat of my Sudanese nurse! As I raised my body, mud-spattered and smelly, I felt the red hot poker of joy deliciously pierce my heart. A crowd of fishermen and gouty naturalists crowded terrified around this marvel.
And right after this part, we are presented to the eleven “commandments” of Futurism, in which velocity, the passion for danger, rebellion and even the glorification of war, “the only hygiene of the world” according to Marinetti, are exalted. In the ninth commandment, the Futurist Manifesto indicates that “militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman” should be stressed. It is no coincidence, therefore, that futurists saw their ideals reflected in Mussolini’s discourse when he argued for Italy to take part of World War I or when he elevated men who were provocative and daring.
However, as stated by Bortulucce, some of Mussolini’s ideals were also contradictory: at the same time that he longed for a modernized Italy, he also argued for the refoundation of an empire inspired by the past example of the Caesers, a perspective that has no connection with the futurist desire to break with the past and enjoy the future. With time, Marinetti and Mussolini realized that they weren’t talking about the same things after all. “I believe that futurism and fascism were never this close to the point that people think they are the same,” argues Bortulucce.
Futurism or futurology?
It is because of this confusion that Rose Eveleth, from Wired magazine, writes an essay about the new, contemporary futurists who rarely mention the modernist vanguard right because of this historical issue between Marinetti and Italian fascism. The contemporary futurists, represented by people such as Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis or even Elon Musk are specialists in strategy, innovation consultants or, sometimes, science fiction writers. “Futurists focus largely on technology, and the field today is inextricably linked to technologists working on everything from artificial intelligence to Crispr,” writes Eveleth. Schools such as Aerolito offer free courses such as “Friends of Tomorrow” in Brazil, and they define futurism as a “discipline that studies, explores, translates and accelerates the possibilities of a post-emergent future. It seeks to analyze how science, technology and entrepreneurship/businesses can affect culture, new behaviors and new structures in society, therefore helping people to take better decisions in the present.”
Additionally, Futures Studies as a field has other disciplines such as coolhunting, forecasting, market research or even science fiction and futurology or futurism. Some authors don’t make difference between the term futurism or futurology, although futurology was a field of study created by the researcher Ossip K. Flechtheim around the 1940s. In his words, futurology “encompasses the destiny of man, the future of his society, and the tomorrow of his culture, it must deal not only with his prospective biological and psychological evolution, but also with the entire range of his future cultural activities.”
Futurology is thus an attempt to categorize and create methodologies that consolidate a natural behavior in human beings, which is this ability to think about the future, but in a more strategic and critical way. After all, as argued by historian Yuval Noah Harari, human beings are creatures that tell stories and, different from any other species, we are the only ones capable of thinking about the future in abstract and fictitious ways as we do with the help of the narratives we create, being them represented by art, philosophy or religion. One of the goals of futurology is therefore to elaborate a more scientific, objective or even strategic way to think about the future.
One of possible timeline of futurology could start right after Plato wrote “The Republic,” a book in which the philosopher imagined a perfect society which, much later, in 1516, serves as inspiration for Thomas More when writing “Utopia.” In 1845, the first magazine Scientific American was published and thus media started to speculate how scientific research could affect the future of society. In 1860, Jules Vernes publishes his first science fiction stories and so does H.G. Wells later in 1901. Curiously, Wells also published in the magazine “The Fortnightly Review” an essay titled “Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought,” in which he proposes the creation of a “science of the future.”
As scientific knowledge became more popularized and accessible to lay people through publications such as the magazine Popular Science (end of the 19th century), we also experienced the rise of the first two industrial revolutions, events that made life even more entrenched by technology. Thinking about a technological future was, therefore, a new demand for the modern times and the foundation of institutions such as the World Futures Studies Federation, in 1967, paved the way for further releases such as the book “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler.
With that in mind, it is thus possible to say that contemporary futurism has some similarities with the artistic vanguard when we consider that both movements are interested in topics such as technological innovation and disruption. However, there are other controversial values that appear in both cases, as flagged by Eveleth: some notable figures of the Silicon Valley also detest the past and want to ignore it to build a future in which they believe.
Eveleth mentions a quote by Anthony Levandowski, Waymo co-founder, that says: “The only thing that matters is the future. I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess — the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that history to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.” The journalist thus recovers another fragment of the Futurist Manifesto in which Marinetti asks the same question: “Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible?”. According to her, while Marinetti declared that “We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!”, contemporary technologists say “the future is now.”
Where the Italian Futurists were hypnotized by cars and planes, today’s technologists are drooling over rocket ships and space travel. Where Marinetti believed that women were too effeminate to bring about the kind of speedy progress he desired, former Google employee James Damore writes about how the gender gap in tech exists because men and women “biologically differ”.
This is the same reasoning proposed by Zola Jesus in a more elaborate text published in her Patreon profile. While she was exchanging tweets with Grimes, Jesus accused the fellow singer of being the voice of the “silicon fascist privilege.” As described by Jesus,
Tech jobs are growing exponentially every year. They’re often high-paying, fast-paced, ambitious environments that foreground innovation, evolution, growth, and tireless work. Many of the jobs are contributing to technology that isn’t even implementable yet. Truly ground floor stuff. This breeds a certain climate in the industry. People who work in Silicon Valley, or who are immersed in the tech world, are often well paid, and silo’d together in a way that shelters them from different classes. They’re idealistic by nature about the promises and future of tech. There is an emphasis on visionary idealism by glorifying current and future tech as a groundbreaking and life-changing. Everyone wants to be the next Apple or Facebook. They all want a place in history by contributing to a Better Tomorrow.
The fact that Grimes is in a relationship with Elon Musk only gives more support to Jesus’ criticism. Since 2017, the couple has been seen together in public, although they didn’t really officialize the relationship to the press. Since then, other controversies involving the singer Azealia Banks were raised, as well as Grimes’ participation as a hologram during the release of Tesla’s Cybertruck. She recently also released a new song featuring HANA, the one titled “We appreciate power.” The lyrics are an elegy to velocity, technology, to the transition of human beings to another condition, to post-humans, transhumans. But at what cost?, questions Zola Jesus:
This utopian excitement for the future makes me think of Italian Futurism. Futurism was a movement in 20th century Italy that very quickly became the face of Fascism. And today, it feels like a bit of a reprise as we emphasize innovation as an inevitability. We muse on how AI will take over our lives, whether we like it or not. We talk about how it will show us beauty and excellence heretofore unknown to man. It promises to blossom humanity into an enlightened, fusioned species; where our consciousness will merge into our machines, and together all knowledge will float and congeal into one blooming spiral of perfection. It is Awesome. When tomorrow comes, our lives will never be the same.
Grimes and HANA’s song has a same mood when they say “We appreciate power/Elevate the human race, putting makeup on my face (…) People like to say that we’re insane/But AI will reward us when it reigns/Pledge allegiance to the world’s most powerful computer/Simulation: it’s the future (…) And if you long to never die/Baby, plug in, upload your mind/Come on, you’re not even alive/If you’re not backed up, backed up on a drive (…) Neanderthal to human being/Evolution, kill the gene/Biology is superficial/Intelligence is artificial/Submit.”
Technofascism vs. Technoutopia
In the book “A Religião das Máquinas” (The Religion of Machines), researcher Erick Felinto described in 2005 a panorama of the cybercultural imaginary. He identified two possible profile for insiders: technophile or technophobe.
Felinto reminds us that machines and technology were always fascinating, but also terrifying objects for humanity. By the end of the 1950s, Gilbert Simondon identified technophobia as part of our culture (at least western culture). According to the philosopher, “our culture presents an ambivalent attitude towards technical objects: on one hand, we see them in a neutral way, as a simple reunion of inanimate matter with no meaning; on the other hand, we see them as intelligent beings filled with hostile intentions against the human species.”
After such reflection, it is easy to think about robots as an analogy and, likewise, we can also use them as a reference to think about a third profile. This one holds an attitude that is more often observed among people who have some technological knowledge and who are rather enthusiasts. Felinto thus presents two implications inspired by Simondon’s statement: there is, in our culture, a “religious impulse for transcendence” that is related to technology and the idea that machines will bring blessings upon us. In his words:
Between the technophile utopias, we find one that can be understood as the ultimate synthesis of them all. It is about the idea of a supreme machine that is capable of being everywhere, conjugating, automating processes and reuniting information. When we relegate this idea to the fantasy, as is the case of the robot, Simondon uses these same words: “Trespassing all that was empirically observed, they [the technophiles] suppose that through an enhancement and betterment of automation, we would be able to reunite and merge all machines, so we could build a machine of all machines.”
But more than using this in relation to the internet, the reflection posed by Simondon might take us to the concept of technological Singularity, the moment when machines processing power would surpass the human brain, so we, as a species, would become machines too. Curiously, this viewpoint holds both fascination and horror: it is similar to Marinetti’s romantic description of his own car accident which was able to deliver him the true experience of velocity and technology — or, maybe not necessarily, if we consider Hollywoodian views such as the “Terminator” franchise.
When Zola Jesus talks about technofascism, she invite us to think about the problems of a fascination for technology, but not necessarily arguing for a complete repudiation neither. This is why Jesus mentions negative examples of how technologies are used to arrest ethnical minoritie, or how algorithms are used to “win elections,” as it was the case of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Still, would it possible to use the term fascism in this contemporary sense?
Historian Vanessa Bortulucce explains that fascism is a term from the 1920s, and it emerged with the foundation of the National Fascist Party in 1919. “Literally, considering the history of the term, we are not living under fascism per se, but we are indeed experiencing some fascistic tendencies. The term became popular to describe any situation that signalizes a risk to collective or individual freedom,” she argues. In by one hand Zola Jesus mocks the fact that she indeed uses services and technologies created by Silicon Valley companies, Bortulucce stresses that this controversy and the use of the term fascism in this context is somewhat an exaggeration: “The term is anemic. People are using it without knowing the least about it.”
Bortulucce therefore believes that, while futurism as an artistic vanguard was focused on a poetics of modernity, it didn’t have any correlations with the contemporary debates and confusions originated from a complete lack of information on the history of Italian culture and ideas. “It is fundamentally important to make clear that the Italian vanguard was founded in 1909 by Marinetti and was originally a literary movement. This poet, lawyer, war correspondent and entrepreneur fascinated by machines, by cars, the urban frenzy and the courage of people. This Marinettian poetics made a contrast to an Italy that, by that time, was still seen as a cultural tomb defined by the Coliseum, by Mona Lisa, by the Roman ruins. This Italy was considered obsolete by Marinetti, while Paris was considered the greatest reference of modenity,” explains Bortulucce. “What we share with the Italian futurists is some kind of anguish that dates back to Antiquity and is intensified after the first Industrial Revolution. How are we supposed to live among the artifacts that we created ourselves? Can machines make our lives better? Are they our friends or fiends?”
The historian believes that it is important that we study the Italian vanguard to visualize a history of human-machine or human-technology relations. However, it is even more urgent to separate the artistic futurism from the contemporary assumptions of the term, so we won’t be using the word Futurism as a repository for generalities and common places.
What is artistic in the contemporary futurism
In fact, some contemporary ideals argued by authors such as Ray Kurzweil or even Nick Bostrom and Martine Rothblatt are ideas that were already seen in the artistic futurism, but not necessarily in Marinetti’s words. In “Simultaneous Futurist Life”, manifesto written by Fedele Azari in 1927 and translated by Vanessa Bortulucce in 2010, we are presented to the relation between speed, dynamism and simultaneity in the daily life of future men. In 1927, therefore, we see an updated version of Marinetti’s views upon cars as they become rather a matter of daily life. According to Bortulucce:
The identification between men and machine is growing closer, since he is his own master and the machine’s, he is already used to live among all other kinds of living beings; he embraces now a new species, the machine, one that he is the very creator and friend. The human species won’t suffer from a devaluation; they will coexist in peace with the machines, they will learn with it how to be more efficient, they will determine their mechanic destiny and will allow them to build societies better adapted to the demands of a new age. Men are, first of all, homo faber: they act and alter the configurations of his own existence, he imbues new life patterns.
When Azari describes machines as multiplying agents of human life, he is not only talking about a multitask life like the one we live today, but also the possibility that technology and machines be able to extend our lives. In Bortulucce’s words, Azari sees that, with the arrival of these machines, “time may be used in a more rational way, since we will be able to create machines that allow us to perform simultaneous activities: if the time we spend eating, sleeping and taking care of our hygiene is a waste of time, such mechanic beings — such as the case of the Feeding Machine that Chaplin becomes a subject of in the movie “Modern Times” — will make everything more efficient, allowing men to dedicate their time to what truly matters.”
As a matter of fact, what we see today is the rise of applications that automate tasks and substitute functions that are too costly for humans to perform, so we are free to do more creative and reflective work, which are abilities not yet available for artificial intelligence as of now. This way, what Azari proposed by the end of the 1920s was something very similar to what Elon Musk proposes today when he says that we will only stay relevant as a species if we merge with AI — and this is the reason why he is working on Neuralink.
Still, even before that, Zygmunt Bauman already talked about the arrival of the liquid modernity or post-modernity in a moment when we were breaking with past certanties in order to establish new paradigms. But the problem is that this didn’t set us free, it actually suffocated us by making us hostage of the chaos of having too many options to chosoe. According to Bauman or even Paul Virilio, technology and its speed doesn’t amplify us as a species, but rather shows a positive sum by making economy more productive and life (especially in terms of mental health) more precarious.
Because, at the same time that the artistic futurism and the contemporary technological modus operandi aeddress this same desire for productivity and innovation, what we see is rather that these technologies are increasing production and efficiency throughout industries, but they didn’t proportionally increase workers’ income, as seen in a research published by VOX (see figure above). With the perspective of development and market absorption of the so-called exponential technologies (AI, biotechnology, nanotechnology, blockchain, immersive technologies, internet of things, robotics etc), we also see the rise of a new Industrial Revolution, the fourth one according to the World Economic Forum. What we are experiencing today is therefore a moment in-between the end of an era and the beginning of another one — that’s why Bauman uses the term “interregnum” in a paper published in 2012, where the sociologist cites Gramsci:
Somewhere by the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s, Antonio Gramsci wrote in one of his several notebooks filled during his long time spent in Turi’s jail: “The crisis is precisely about the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
Similarly, what the Italian futurists experienced by the beginning of the 20th century was the consolidation of the second Industrial Revolution and an “interregnum” before the third one (also known as the Digital Revolution) happened. We are also living in this gap between what is being consolidated and what is coming next with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It thus become even more urgent the appeal made by Bortuluce that we study more about the artistic futurism and understand the ideas discussed there. If at some moment they ended up fascinated by fascism, we need to be sure to don’t repeat the same mistake nowadays. It is a great and real danger if we consider movements such as the acceleracionism and how anarchocapitalism also grows as a perspective on this technological present-future, with some really problematic ideas already analyzed by leftist critics.
In a more concrete sense, we already have Chinas as an example of country that escaped poverty and famine to become the second biggest economy in 40 years, and this happened (among other reasons) because they invested and keep investing on technological solutions. It is true that their creations do not go under a same ethical analysis as they would in Western countries, and this is why there is a conflict between mainland China and Hong Kong, for instance. Still, at the same time that these technologies allowed China to surpass an economic and even climate crisis in some cities, they also feed the creation of systems such as camps filled with prisoners picked after algorithimic calculations.
Finally, when Zola Jesus criticizes Grimes in her technoutopian euphoria, what the singer actually does is inviting people to think twice, be more rational about these issues. In response to the singer, Grimes agreed with the criticism and said that she has the same concerns, but as the artist persona blends with the individual itself, it is hard to see the boundaries of this discourse that promotes an elegy to technology without actually making space for criticism or irony. It is true that this kind of approach has much to do with a new movement called metamodernism, but this is something for another essay.
As a conclusion, in terms of nomenclature, maybe it is important that contemporary futurism becomes more conscious about its artistic homonym and stop ignoring it — as is the case of mentioning the case of Marinetti-Mussolini or to keep discussing the topics already kickstarted by the vanguard. Because, on the contrary, it would make much more sense to therefore leave the name futurism to the artistic movement and use the term futurology by acknowledging that “logy” comes after “logia” (study), while “ism” may fall into the tendency of a dogma or linguistic phenomena, political system, religion or even ideology, for instance.
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