Lately, I have found it hard to fall and stay asleep without Alexa's soothing ocean sounds. It's one of my virtual assistant's skills. Its waves lap on a shore that's near, I imagine, a window in a wood-warm house that's close to a sea. The moon illuminates the beach and the logs, bits of wood, and ancient animal bones that drift and knock against each as the cold-sounding water rises, spreads, and retreats. At first, Alexa ran the Ocean Sounds for one hour, but I found I'd wake up at a time of the night when Seattle is too quiet. I now make the virtual assistant loop the ocean. It never stops. I close my eyes (which is usually around 10:30 pm) and, after an undisturbed slumber through the night, wake up (around 4:45 am). I then, as the bedroom windows brighten with morning light, read a book to the ambient sounds of Tokyo recorded by Detroit's techno producer Deepchord (Rod Modell).
Now, not too long ago, I went with my family to a three-story house on the Oregon Coast. Here, in Pacific City, the ocean was real. Here, I thought, there was no need for Alexa, because the real thing was going to be better—also, I didn't need to loop it. Here, however, I made a disturbing discovery. It turned out that the actual ocean was not better than the virtual one. In fact, it was considerably worse. What became clear moments after I settled in bed is that real oceans have the impertinence of doing their own thing: sometimes the waves crash too hard; other times, there is a boom whose source can't be identified or visualized, and always there's this deep almost terrifying sound of the Pacific's massiveness. You can hear and feel the unimaginable size of the largest body of water in the world.
I slept badly that night because I could not turn the Pacific off. All I wanted was my fake, calming, looped Ocean Sounds. My virtual assistant generates waves with just enough variation—sometimes a little loud, sometimes a little soft, sometimes lots of little trickles, but always without that huge and haunting presence of a sea's immemorial size. The water in Alexa has no body. Beyond the waves, there's nothing. The machine only provides sleep-inducing beach sounds that my mind can visualize with almost no effort.
And now, for the point of this post. A revolution for the liberation of humans from capitalism will never succeed if it believes it is liberating just humans. But one that believes it's liberating automatized humans has a chance.
Now, how did I reach this conclusion? My answer begins with the kind of consciousness (the way I experience—or mentally go through—the world) I have. It's one that was forged, from day one, by industrial processes. It did not come out of nowhere, or out of the forest. It was born near a massive plant in Redcliff, Rhodesia (now Redcliff, Zimbabwe—the plant back then was called Risco Steel, it's now Zisco Steel). But this factory isn't the whole story. No part of my African society, which was entirely transformed at the end of the 19th century by British capitalism, wasn't industrial. The landscape, the farms, the food, the schools, the jobs, the safaris, the modes of transportation—all were determined by the logic of the factory.
Growing up, I saw that my father's brother worked in a Philips factory in Bulawayo, my father was a civil servant in the Ministry of Industry and Technology. And the father of my best friend in high school, Robert Bertram, owned a factory that made the metal frames for beds. Every time I entered this mid-sized plant, I found myself in a kind of church. This was the house of my being. The machines, the mechanical movements of the men, the rising piles of bed springs that, with other manufactured parts, would be assembled into a single-size bed eventually used by a man working for a mining company in Shurugwi or a sprawling agribusiness in Mazoe.
There is no other world that I understand than that which is defined, from top to bottom, by industrial processes. Indeed, I know of no other kind of time than that dictated by machines. I have, in short, the mind (the being in the world) of an automaton (the supposed opposite of all that is human). And this must be true for everyone else whose life has been organized by the same, real abstractions of capitalism. The mind in industrial India, like the mind in industrial Indiana, is the same as the one I found myself in Redcliff. A universal machine consciousness that has as its spirit the culturally, and therefor historically, specific objective of increasing capital.
Now, think of the Situationist International's famous declaration during the political turbulence of May 1968: "Sous les paves, la plage!" ("Under the pavement, the beach!"). How misguided it was. There is no beach under the pavement for the kind of historically (and therefore culturally) determined human we are. Our robot sentimentality (what puts me to sleep at night, or the electric visions of happiness expressed by the robot that sings on Moby's "Whispering Wind") must not be confused with those of a kind of human that existed over 200 years ago.
There is no real liberation beneath a mind that has as its pavement the cement manufactured by a factory. My nature (and that of billions of others in the Capitalocene) is then that of a machine (clock is there when I sleep, when I wake, when I catch a train), and a revolutionary movement that fails to recognize this fact is bound to fail. If this is grasped, then we can fully appreciate the core meaning of Grace Jones' "Slave to the Rhythm":
Work all day, as men who know,
Wheels must turn to keep, to keep the flow,
Build on up, don't break the chain,
Sparks will fly, when the whistle blows,
Never stop the action,
Keep it up, keep it up,
Work to the rhythm,
Live to the rhythm,
Love to the rhythm,
Slave to the rhythm...
It is also the meaning found in a brilliant episode of the Amazon's Philip K. Dick TV series, Electric Dreams, "Autofac." In "Autofac," the robot that does not know it is a robot consuming products made by robots is bound to confuse robot liberation from capitalism with that of the human that the robot imagines itself to be. For critical theory that opens the way for this kind of thinking, read Christian Lotz's The Capitalist Schema. Time, Money, and the Culture of Abstraction. (Lotz will participate in this year's Red May festival.)
My point: The mistaken liberation (that of an machine mind, rather than an imagined human one) will confuse the real ocean for the one a machine can only long for, the ocean on Alexa.