Krapp’s Last Tweet: The Rise (and Fall?) of Privilege in the Digital Economy

Felix Baumgartner en chute, courtesy of Flickr user Benoit Duchatelet via Creative Commons
Felix Baumgartner en chute, courtesy of Flickr user Benoit Duchatelet via Creative Commons

This fall marked the third anniversary of a record-breaking event—and one that serves well as a metaphor for our emerging digital economy. In October 2012, stuntman Felix Baumgartner jumped from a 24 mile-high space capsule, becoming the first human in free fall to break the sound barrier. His jump broke previous records set by retired Air Force colonel Joe Kittinger, who provided guidance to Baumgartner during the mission. Like Kittinger before him, the daredevil faced an early crisis as he began to enter, but quickly recovered from, a dreaded tailspin. “At a certain R.P.M.,” he explained, “there’s only one way for blood to leave your body, and that’s through your eyeballs. That means you’re dead.” While the jump was “harder than I expected,” Fearless Felix landed safely in New Mexico four minutes and twenty seconds later.

The mission, dubbed Red Bull Stratos, was financed by the popular drink company and marked the culmination of a marketing relationship that began in 1988. It involved the assistance of 300 technical and medical experts, including former NASA employees. A project five years in the making, scientists observing Stratos collected data for the benefit of pilots and astronauts. Meanwhile, in line with its other co-branded initiatives like Infiniti Red Bull Racing, the namesake company commodified Stratos by offering merchandise including t-shirts, hats, and backpacks. The mission yielded “tens of millions of dollars in global exposure” for the brand in what was “perhaps the greatest marketing stunt of all time.” Forbes notes that “another winner came out of Sunday’s jump besides Red Bull: the Internet”—more specifically YouTube, which broke its own record for concurrent live video streams as eight million viewers tuned in.

Stratos symbolizes a broader trend, also traceable to the late 1980s and early 1990s, in which the twin themes of commercialism and technical bravado combine. Early Internet proponents explicitly rejected online commercialism, as evidenced by the backlash against the first commercial advertisement sent via e-mail in 1994. The tide of commercialism had been quietly rising since the 1980s, however, ushered in by corporate CEOs who imagined themselves as heroes in a libertarian novel by Ayn Rand. In the mid-1990s U.S. politicians caught the ideological wave, and a bipartisan array came to believe that digital technologies would render government oversight obsolete and usher in a new golden age.

Clinton and Gore hitched their ideological wagon to the techno-libertarian dream of Silicon Valley and, with the help of conservatives like Newt Gingrich, infused it with a Judeo-Christian sensibility. Their enchantment with cyberspace integrated the spirit of American exceptionalism, faith in free markets, and a view of computer networks as nature’s next evolutionary leap. Together they enacted the game-changing Telecommunications Act of 1996, which laid the foundations for the industry giants of subsequent decades.

On Tailspins and Technical Leaps of Faith

The celebratory entrance of technical and political elites into the so-called New Economy constituted a leap of faith not unlike the breathtaking feat of Fearless Felix. While Colonel Kittinger praised Baumgartner for his courage, we might ask whether the combination of technophilia and commercialism tends more toward an ethos of reckless bravado—one cultivated not simply through technical expertise but an apparatus of psychological and ideological coercion.

Indeed, Baumgartner suffered panic attacks while training in his claustrophobic space suit—at one point fleeing the country by plane to avoid an endurance test. Psychologists worked with him to mitigate fears that appear to have been well-founded, considering his near-death tailspin.

Of course, from a certain perspective, such fears are merely a bug in the system, best removed in the interest of mission efficiency. Such is the legacy of management science, whose history stretches at least as far back as Frederick Winslow Taylor’s 1911 tome The Principles of Scientific Management.

In recent years, management techniques have expanded with quasi-religious flair, with Google serving as an exemplary case study. In the walls of the Googleplex, affable corporate elites tout the stress-relief benefits of Buddhist mindfulness practices even as they downplay the socio-economic impacts of the digital economy. Just two months after Fearless Felix leapt from extraordinary heights, Ray Kurzweil enlisted as Google’s Director of Engineering, thus confirming the company’s acquiescence to the techno-utopian vision of the Singularity—the purported point at which human beings and computers will merge in immortal bliss.RDinboxRather than encouraging competition and market diversity, Silicon Valley’s techno-centric ideology has precipitated an economic tailspin of industry consolidation and a rapid diminution of public interest values. This development has important implications, since specific protocols, applications and platforms tend to become “locked in”—along with any unforeseen consequences.

In the digital era, the process of technological lock-in resembles Baumgartner’s tailspin both in terms of the difficulty of restoring balance and the danger posed by the potential loss of lifeblood. Acquiescence to techno-utopian ideology leads to a willingness to jump into new technical environments, but the consequences of such imprudence are not uniformly distributed. In the context of digital monopolies, users become locked into a limited range of commercial providers who, in turn, generate profit by extracting user data—the lifeblood of the digital economy—and packaging it for sale to marketers, government agencies, and banks. Such techniques entrench social stereotypes and exacerbate class inequality even as profits boom.

To be clear: my critique here is directed not at Felix Baumgartner, but at Fearless Felix as a metaphor for Silicon Valley’s excessive hubris and utopianism. That aspect of digital culture is only one side of the story, however. The networked economy is Janus-faced, and the counter-part to Fearless Felix is a much less celebratory character. Tellingly, the best symbol for the latter derives from the Theater of the Absurd.

Krapp’s Last Tweet

In Samuel Beckett’s one-act play Krapp’s Last Tape, a ragged old man named Krapp rummages obsessively through reels of recorded tapes from years past. On the tapes, his voice relates broken stories of romantic encounters and addiction—to bananas, alcohol, sex, and the very process of recording and listening to oneself. In one passage the voice from the tape paints a grim picture of lonely isolation: “Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.” As the tapes roll, he sits “staring vacuously before him” before breaking out a virgin reel on which he records his newfound hatred for “that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago.”

“[Memory] requires meaningful participation in decisions about what and how to remember, as well as what and how to forget.”

The scene reveals Beckett’s long preoccupation with what he called “that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation—Time—and its necessary corollary, Memory.” He regarded the latter with some suspicion, describing it as “a clinical laboratory stocked with poison and remedy, stimulant and sedative.” Penned in 1959, shortly after the arrival of the tape recorder, “Krapp’s Last Tape” highlights Beckett’s particular concern for the impact of electronic media on individual and cultural processes of memory.

Today, data processing and storage combine to produce tragic scenes not unlike Beckett’s. When Facebook’s 2014 Year in Review presented blogger Eric Meyer with images of his deceased six-year-old daughter, his complaints of algorithmic cruelty went viral. Other users related similar experiences. Indeed, researchers have begun to ask whether the vast storage capacity of networked technologies threaten to send us unsuspectingly into a tailspin of regret similar to that suffered by old man Krapp. Life-logging devices like Autographer, Memoto, and SixthSense aim to capture every waking moment. Google’s Eric Schmidt touts an intelligent future in which cloud systems will provide us with “infinite memory.”

One wonders whether the proliferation of unsorted images—on our smartphones and in proprietary clouds—might undermine our ability to let go of the past and construct more meaningful long-term memories. More than a mere problem of accuracy in storage and retrieval, memory requires the skillful exercise of selective judgment. It requires meaningful participation in decisions about what and how to remember, as well as what and how to forget.

This is the skill that Krapp sorely lacks. As the old man’s late-night reminiscence suggests, one’s ability to return at a later date to accurate and abundant images does not necessarily aid the process of one’s personal narrative. In the networked era, Krapp’s box of reels becomes a bottomless fount wherein he encounters others’ images of him as well as his own—with commercial entities, known and unknown, having access to the same.

Eric Schmidt’s optimism notwithstanding, we might do well to recall a prescient admonition from Paul Tillich: in an essay aptly titled “Frontiers,” the noted theologian warned that “in many Christian lands a superstition has developed inside and outside the churches which misinterprets eternal life as endless duration, and does not perceive that an infinity of the finite could be a symbol for hell.”

Indeed, the personal hell suffered by Beckett’s old man Krapp symbolizes a collective hell that activists and lawmakers rightly seek to avoid as the politics of memory unfolds in the digital era. Issues of personal memory construction are all the more complicated at the level of communities and nations. Cultural memory certainly involves different media forms and images, but it is ultimately a social and institutional process—not merely a technological one. Memory is a defining element of group identity, and as such it is entrusted to specialized professionals like teachers and journalists who, presumably, are equipped with the requisite tools of discernment and judgment. Like individual memory, though, cultural memory shifts over time—rightfully so, and not without struggle.

Consider, for example, recent efforts to revise marginalizing histories in American educational curriculums. As evidenced by debates over ethnic studies programs in Arizona and California public schools, such struggles are politically fraught. Given the nation’s shifting demographics, which portend a more diverse population in the coming decades, educational curricula are a significant site of struggle in the process of cultural memory formation. From the earliest days of the Tea Party to Donald Trump’s latest xenophobic hysteria, such debates are driven in great part by a growing sense of despair among whites quite similar to Krapp’s brooding resignation: “Perhaps my best years are gone.”

Digital media platforms can exacerbate such reactionary tendencies. When protests in Ferguson, Missouri erupted after the shooting of Mike Brown in August 2014, Twitter feeds lit up—but Facebook’s News Feed reportedly failed to prioritize coverage.

“…at the very moment when digital capitalism is exacerbating class inequality, social media is catalyzing attitudes of racism, sexism, and nativism among those who fear losing the socio-economic privilege they once enjoyed.”

That discrepancy is perhaps unsurprising, given Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous off-hand quip that “a squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” Moreover, despite Facebook’s arguments to the contrary the company’s own research suggests that its News Feed tends to modestly increase political polarization. And while Twitter may serve more effectively in broadcasting breaking news, it also tends toward polarization when it comes to politically charged issues. This is especially a problem on the right: research shows that conservatives are more likely to retreat into ideological echo-chambers—a dynamic that Donald Trump has exploited with great success.

In other words, at the very moment when digital capitalism is exacerbating class inequality, social media is catalyzing attitudes of racism, sexism, and nativism among those who fear losing the socio-economic privilege they once enjoyed. In Trump, it’s as if old man Krapp has found his political savior. But a nation of networked Krapps is one with a future unmoored.

Fortunately, social media has served as a platform for activists to demand some semblance of justice in the construction of cultural memory. While European privacy advocates have succeeded in their campaign for the “right to be forgotten,” U.S.-based activists have taken to Facebook and Twitter to insist that victims of police brutality have a right to be remembered. And despite the downward pressure that social media places on the quality of online content, a number of news articles did manage to connect the dots between Ferguson and the discriminatory housing policies put in place after World War II.

As I have argued before, new technologies tend to augment existing systems of privilege. Yet there is reason to hope that digital media may yet catalyze a more just future.

Dear Prudence

Before jumping from his capsule, with all eyes watching, Baumgartner remarked, “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are.” After recovering from a tailspin and landing safely, he later observed: “when you stand up there on top of the world, you become so humble. It’s not about breaking records any more. It’s not about getting scientific data. It’s all about coming home.”

“As commercial entities and government agencies stand poised to roll out new technologies unprecedented in their scope of impact… we find ourselves collectively on the small ledge where Baumgartner realized his own finitude.”

His remarks come as a welcome contrast to the hubris of so many technology elites. Yet in the Stratos mission, as is too often the case, such humility was an unforeseen byproduct of personal and technical bravado. Rather than an afterthought, such humility should be present in all stages of development. When it comes to questions of design, implementation, regulation, and use, prudence is the name of the game.

Fearless Felix is in many ways a mirror image of Beckett’s lonely anti-hero. As a metaphor for unbridled technological development, I suggest that Baumgartner’s initial anxiety was well-founded. While we should not take his early lead by fleeing in panic from whatever gadgets or platforms appear on the horizon, neither should we acquiesce to regimes of ideological coercion that allow us to jump with blind faith into the unknown.

As commercial entities and government agencies stand poised to roll out new technologies unprecedented in their scope of impact—whether automated drones, self-driving cars, or ubiquitous body cameras—we find ourselves collectively on the small ledge where Baumgartner realized his own finitude. Once there the question of balance is primary, since its lack portends a violent tailspin of grotesque consequence.

While Colonel Kittinger proudly applied the term to Baumgartner’s feat, courage is not simply a willingness to assume risk. It is a golden mean between the twin vices of rashness and cowardice. As it currently stands, our Janus-faced digital economy exemplifies both of these vices: as a young and mostly white-male tech elite rush headlong toward an imagined utopia, an older and mostly white-male population of voters amps up its fear-based rhetoric in a last-ditch effort to salvage the last bastions of its privilege.

But if a nation of networked Krapps is one with a future unmoored, so too is a nation whose fixation on Fearless Felix is so intense that it breaks YouTube. For Fearless Felix and old man Krapp alike, compulsive techno-philia undermines prudent judgment.

Far from a Luddite rejection of newfangled tools, the call to technical prudence recognizes digital technologies as public goods with a potential to rejuvenate democratic life. Yet this call insists that development, use and regulation should be subject to intensive scrutiny—particularly from the many reporters, whistleblowers, artists and activists who are far more deserving of Kittinger’s praise. Among others, that list includes the protesters who disrupted Silicon Valley’s elite conferences; the women who initiated the #BlackLivesMatter movement; the organizers who have pressed for union rights among Uber drivers; and the journalists who have steadfastly covered organizations from WikiLeaks to WeCopwatch.

Courage takes a peculiarly flesh-and-blood form in the digital age. Unlike Felix, its feet are solidly on the ground. Unlike Krapp, it does not brood in solitude but steps onto the streets. It is neither rash nor paralyzed by fear and despair. With camera in hand, it leads us beyond the Janus-faced present to a future in which our technologies augment justice for all rather than privilege for the few.

Let’s hope—or rather, insist—that tech leaders and legislators alike take heed. If they do, there is reason for patient optimism. As the Irish-Iranian poet Kareem Tayyar suggests, in a piece that cautions against both blind ambition and premature despair, “there is no reason to think that your best days are already behind you.”