Guy Debord’s (1931–1994) best-known work, La société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle) (1967), is a polemical and prescient indictment of our image-saturated consumer culture. The book examines the “Spectacle,” Debord’s term for the everyday manifestation of capitalist-driven phenomena; advertising, television, film, and celebrity.
Debord defines the spectacle as the “autocratic reign of the market economy.” Though the term “mass media” is often used to describe the spectacle’s form, Debord derides its neutrality. “Rather than talk of the spectacle, people often prefer to use the term ‘media,’” he writes, “and by this they mean to describe a mere instrument, a kind of public service.” Instead, Debord describes the spectacle as capitalism’s instrument for distracting and pacifying the masses. The spectacle takes on many more forms today than it did during Debord’s lifetime. It can be found on every screen that you look at. It is the advertisements plastered on the subway and the pop-up ads that appear in your browser. It is the listicle telling you “10 things you need to know about ‘x.’” The spectacle reduces reality to an endless supply of commodifiable fragments, while encouraging us to focus on appearances. For Debord, this constituted an unacceptable “degradation” of our lives.
Debord was a founding member of the Situationist International (1957–1972), a group of avant-garde artists and political theorists united by their opposition to advanced capitalism. At varying points the group’s members included the writers Raoul Vaneigem and Michèle Bernstein, the artist Asger Jorn, and the art historian T.J. Clark. Inspired primarily by Dadaism, Surrealism, and Marxist philosophy, the SI rose to public prominence during the May 1968 demonstrations during which members of the group participated in student-led occupations and protests. Though the extent of its influence is disputed, there is little doubt that the SI played an active intellectual role during the year’s events. Graffiti daubed around Paris paraphrased the SI’s ideas and in some cases directly quoted from texts such as The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967).
The first English translation of Debord’s text was published in 1970 by Black and Red Books. The book’s cover features J.R. Eyerman’s iconic photograph of the premiere of Bwana Devil (1952), the first 3D color film. Originally reproduced in LIFE magazine, the image captures the film’s audience gazing passively at the screen with the use of anaglyph glasses. In the foreground, a besuited, heavy-set gentleman watches the screen intently, his mouth agape. Eyerman’s photograph reduces the audience members to uniform rows of spectacled spectators. Although the image encapsulates Debord’s contempt for consumer culture, it reductively implies that his work was mediaphobic (Debord later adapted The Society of the Spectacle into his first feature-length film by utilizing footage from advertisements, newsreels, and other movies). If we were to judge The Society of the Spectacle by Black and Red’s cover, we might assume that the book is a straightforward critique of media-driven conformity. Debord’s insights however, were far more profound.
The Society of the Spectacle consists of 221 short theses divided across nine chapters. The first thesis reworks the opening line of Karl Marx’s Das Capital (1867):
Marx: The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.
Debord: In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.
By paraphrasing Marx, Debord immediately establishes a connection between the spectacle and the economy. The book essentially reworks the Marxist concepts of commodity fetishism and alienation for the film, advertising, and television age.Continue
When something was new and untested it was done in the field of artificial intelligence, because it was seen as something that requires intelligence in some way, a new way of modeling things. intelligence can be understood to a very large degree as the ability to model new systems, to model new problems.
And so it's natural that even narrow artificial intelligence is about making models of the world. For instance, our current generation of deep-learning systems are already modeling things. They're not modeling things quite in the same way with the same power as human minds can do it—they're mostly classifiers, not simulators of complete worlds. But they're slowly getting there, and by making these models we are, of course, digitizing things. We are making things accessible in data domains. We are making these models accesible to each other by computers and by artificial intelligence systems.
And artificial intelligence systems provide extensions to all our minds. Already now, Google is something like my exo-cortex. It's something that allows me to act as vast resources of information that get in the way I think and extend my abilities. If I forget how to use a certain command in a programming language, it's there at my fingertips, and I entirely rely on this like every other programmre on this planet. This is something that is incredibly powerful, and was not possible when we started out programming, when we had to store everything in our own brains.
I think consciousness is a very difficult concept to understand because we mostly know it by reference. We can point at it, but it's very hard for us to understand what it actually is. And I think at this point the best model that I've come up with—what we mean by consciousness—it is a model of a model of a model.
That is: our new cortex makes a model of our interactions with the environment. And part of our new cortex makes a model of that model, that is, it tries to find out how we interact with the environment so we can take this into account when we interact with the environment. And then you have a model of this model of our model which means we have something that represents the features of that model, and we call this the Self.
And the Self is integrated with something like an intentional protocol. So we have a model of the things that we attended to, the things that we became aware of: why we process things and why we interact with the environment. And this protocol, this memory of what we attended to is what we typically associate with consciousness. So in some sense we are not conscious in acutality in the here and now, because that's not really possible for a process that needs to do many things over time in order to retrieve items from memory and process them and do something with them.
Consicousness is actually a memory. It's a construct that is reinvented in our brain several times a minute. When we think about being conscious of something it means that we have a model of that thing that makes it operable, that we can use. You are not really aware of what the world is like. The world out there is some weird [viewed?] quantum graph. It's something that we cannot possibly really understand—first of all because we, as observers, cannot really measure it. We don't have access to the full vector of the universe.Continue
It probably wasn't a coincidence that, to the astonishment of listeners, Trump began his speech about the United States' military might. The USA will spend 700 billion dollars on the military; never before has it been stronger. UN General Secretary Guterres was probably quietly calculating with a sob how many lives, how much future, how much hope, how much happiness his United Nations could provide for the world with 700 billion dollars.
When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.
Here applies the French proverb plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose—the more it changes, the more it's the same thing. Change is in some sense an illusion, for we are always at the point where any future can take us! If the human race develops an electronic nervous system, outside the bodies of individual people, thus giving us all one mind and one global body, this is almost precisely what has happened in the organization of cells which compose our own bodies. We have already done it.
The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. … For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence–on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night instead of armies by day. It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations. Its preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried, not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed.
How has my perspective of humans changed? It's an interesting question, because you really have time to reflect when you're so far from home. You know, there are six of us on board and we are completely separate from the other six and a half billion of the rest of us. So you feel that physical separation. But—it may be surprising to you—but in fact I feel closer to everyone, I think, as a result. When you live in your house and your street, and your town and your province and your country, you tend to identify those things almost like layers of a fortress around yourself. You know, I'm from this place, and all those things are barriers between you and everybody else. And even travel tends to break that down. But to be in a position where you can go around the world in 92 minutes and see every place over and over and over again, those barriers fade. And of course I still see the strife and the stupid things we do, like what happened yesterday in Boston, and then the suffering we have to put through like the enormous earthquake in Iran today; things still happen, and some people still horribly misbehave. But the vast majority of people are good. And people are just trying to find joy and raise their children well and find grace in life. And for me up here, I found partway through the flight, I just feel like I just refer to everybody as just “us.” It's all of us together in this, and so I think it's a perspective that some people get naturally and that some people will never get, but I know it's a perspective, that having the chance to see the world the way that I've been trying to show it in the pictures I've been sending back, it's a perspective that you definitely get when you live on board a space station.
“Now, consciousness. That’s a fun thing, isn’t it? Product of an arms race between predators and prey. If you watch a cat creeping up on a mouse, you’ll be able to impute to the cat intentions that are most easily explained by the cat having a theory of mind concerning the mouse—an internal simulation of the mouse’s likely behavior when it notices the predator. Which way to run, for example. And the cat will use its theory of mind to optimize its attack strategy. Meanwhile, prey species that are complex enough to have a theory of mind are at a defensive advantage if they can anticipate a predator’s actions. Eventually this very mammalian arms race gave us a species of social ape that used its theory of mind to facilitate signaling—so the tribe could work collectively—and then reflexively, to simulate the individual’s own inner states. Put the two things together, signaling and introspective simulation, and you’ve got human-level consciousness, with language thrown in as a bonus—signaling that transmits information about internal states, not just crude signals such as ‘predator here’ or ‘food there.’”
The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn't very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind.
To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.