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Despair: The imagination terminator

A donkey with red, glowing eyes

If the resignation of despair is a delicious, ten dollar cheeseburger, we have just $2 in our pockets.

Despair is rational, of course. Sometimes shit is miserable. Sometimes life’s demands overdraw our resources. Circumstances push us into the red with callous indifference. Sometimes, legitimately, no one is coming to save us.

That’s a punch in the gut. No argument from me.

Indeed, my generation got it pretty hard. The propaganda was explicit: anything is possible, but the rule is that you have to go to college. The transaction was supposed to be straightforward. Power had built its legitimacy on a message of meritorious accessibility. The world, we were assured, was fundamentally just. Your value was objective to measure. See, it’s right there in your SAT score.

Go through the hoops, measure up, you’ll be rewarded. That was the line.

But economically speaking, we got to the buffet after most of the goods had already been put away. There’s a sense of swimming against an exhausting current that now pervades the lives of all generations. But the youngest among us have never known a life that worked any other way. A financial crisis smacked us in the face right as we finished college, and we never financially recovered compared to previous generations, as surging housing costs have eaten away at our self-determination and stability.

It’s dogshit.

It would be dogshit if that’s where the story ended. It’s not.

The future is not bright. Global stability and peace are not something we get to take for granted. Even if everyone keeps the munitions in their pants, we still have to pay the piper on climate change. Those invoices grow in magnitude steadily every year.

That’s a lot. But also there’s that ongoing pandemic. There’s an ongoing, global reactionary project sowing fear, hatred and social division by targeting the politically powerless, including trans people and refugees.

I’m not here to argue with you that this isn’t a terrible game to endure. This is hell on earth. Truly.

I’m saying we owe the kiddos better than this. We owe the kiddos better than we got. It seems rude not to at least acknowledge the responsibility to pick up a shovel and do our part.

Good lord, save the fucking children

Because the kids are a perfect constituency, right? They can’t actually pull a lever, so you don’t have to be accountable to them or to their outcomes at all, as a politician.

But you can claim their mandate. You can say you’re doing this or that for the children, and boy, if anyone opposes you, well, that’s acting against the children and what kind of monster would attempt that?

You can ban books for the children.

You can eliminate an honest account of certain historical events for the children.

You can create elaborate regulatory frameworks that entrench industry incumbents while ceding censorship power over electronic speech to attorneys general across these United States for the children.

Just about the only thing you don’t get to do for the children is relieve their hardships.

That one is just a bridge too far. We tried it once, and it actually worked pretty well. We proved it’s possible to decrease the crushing weight of child poverty, with its ricocheting generational effects.

American lawmakers decided this arrangement left parents not quite desperate enough to fulfill their holy duty under capitalism: creating returns for distant shareholders. No one wants to work anymore. So the US reintroduced child poverty as an incentive against non-compliance.

Meanwhile, school shootings are so much a part of life, they do school-wide drills on a regular basis to prepare.

What an unbearably cruel system. What a self-defeating, suicidal entanglement of incentives and factions.

Sometimes I think there ought to be a kid tax for lawmakers. If they want to do a little bill for the children, it needs to include some pork for the children. Just to prove they mean it.

School lunches, child poverty credits, education funding. If your bill for the kids skips past the question of whether the kids are safe from hunger, bad education and general immiseration, it’s easy to assume the bill has some other purpose.

But no one with power is out there actually putting it all on the line for the children. So that’s why we gotta do what we can from our side. If you look at the extremes, it’s getting rougher out there for kids.

Why can’t the teens just go get a job, anyway?

In my working class context, if you forced me to go all-in developing economically at 16, I’d have spent my formative career years learning how to run an electronics store. This is no disrespect to the hard working people making it happen in electronics stores, but my ambitions growing to something bigger turned out pretty well for me and I’m grateful I had the space for that. I want more people to have room to imagine a future for themselves outside of the predefined org charts of the most geographically local retail outposts.

Our society owes teens the space not to be fodder for low-wage employment. We owe them a chance to study, learn, develop social skills, and otherwise complete their development as citizens of a shared economic and political project. A straightforward way to guarantee that space for development is to ban corporate greed on claiming it.

Even so, Florida is experimenting with a more laissez faire approach to meet growing black market demand for young, compliant workers.

The AI-hating individuals need to be better winners

Let me tell you the real eeyore shit:

In terms of automating workers out of jobs, plutocrats have been holding a busted flush for the last decade. There aren’t any additional cards dropping that change the math: AI is a loom for reproducing existing information, not a source of novel plans or strategies, not a mechanism for collaborative, real-time problem solving. Self-driving vehicles remain a terrifying comedy of errors. While AI can nibble around the margins, replacing human effort for some straightforward tasks—a boom in automated transcription comes to mind, along with the automation of middle management—by and large, humans remain irreplaceable.

In other words, tech bros went for the labor theory of value and missed. That’s a win for every human.

So we don’t have an AI problem. We have an inequality problem.

The people who control those workers’ livelihoods have the power to run doomed experiments at labor replacement at worker expense. This precarity is the root of the issue. If we burn ourselves out psychically on the AI stuff, we’re going to run out of gas for the real crime: tolerating mass immiseration during a moment of historic abundance. We need juice in the tank for how absurd it is that AI should even be a factor in whether people lead a life of stability, self-determination and dignity.

Any concern over the use of AI to pollute the information sphere is also an inequality problem, not an AI problem. The fact that there’s so much money to speculate and waste on AI data pollution while basic human needs go unmet is yet another crime.

In other words, the more I look at it, the more it seems that all the gnashing of teeth about AI is a convenient distraction. A means of diverting energy while historic concentrations of wealth grow further out of control with no coherent response.

The problem is not AI, even as AI, as currently wielded, is problematic. The problem is unequal distribution of wealth making AI a tool of the wealthy for re-arranging industry and culture at their whim. But that phenomenon isn’t new! That’s how automation technologies have been applied at least since the first Dot Com Bubble.

Disclaimer: This passage shall not be construed as a recommendation to let AI or its purveyors off the hook.

Automation can’t save us from our responsibilities

We’re in trouble.

Over the summer, a historic flood fucked the downtown area in the town where I live. Recovery took months, and some local businesses are gone forever. It took most of a year just to restore some semblance of normal Post Office operations.

That’s to say nothing of the long term work demanded by these climate events: lots of stuff needs to be moved to higher ground. The river isn’t screwing around here.

This is a microcosm of everyone’s future. Infrastructure is stressed to the breaking point by unprecedented intensity and frequency of extreme weather. Adapting and hardening our communities is a project that will take a generation or longer. Climate displacement will echo even further, as migration becomes necessary to survival.

The point is, we need imagination

These are a lot of problems. They entangle and compound into an impossible stew.

Solutions and responses require imagination. Imagination for how we organize politically. Imagination for how we re-distribute power and resources. Imagination for how we constrain existing power and lower the ceiling of its negative impact.

Imagination for how we heal the wounds of division and inequality. Imagination-driven bravery for defeating hate and ignorance, making our communities the socially safe and supportive places we want to live in.

None of that imagination can be built on the quicksand nihilism of despair. Despair is a dead end. Despair is the siren song of futility, relieving of us of the burden to dream and work for a future that’s actually worth living in.

Maybe that’s fine for you. Maybe you’re ready to lay down and die. Who am I to dissuade you, under all these burdens?

But I do think we owe our inheritors something better than indifference and resignation. If you’re not willing to do the work for yourself, maybe you’re willing to do it for the kiddos who never asked for any of this.

I want something better for those coming up behind me. Despair is an indulgence none of us can really afford.

Despair: The imagination terminator Despair: The imagination terminator