Trump is making opposition media great (the platform becomes the bubble)

On November 5th, CNN interrupted a speech by President Trump because he was making unfounded claims about electoral fraud. Twitter and Facebook have also repeatedly labeled statements by Trump as misinformation. Moreover, Twitter has announced that it will not grant him anymore special treatment when he is no longer president and will delete his account if necessary. Supporters of Trump and his ideas have long sought alternative news sources and platforms where they can freely express their views.

When Trump began retweeting Newsmax, a conservative American news and opinion website that refuses to acknowledge Biden winner of the elections, it saw its visitor numbers soar (from an average 500,000 to 7.3 million a week). Conservative Twitter alternative Parler is currently even the most downloaded app in the U.S. Trump may start his own media outlet, but in any case, his departure from the White House will considerably boost these existing “opposition media”. Slowly but surely, completely separate universes will arise, even more so than now, with different groups each inhabiting their own platforms.

Who do we trust in the stack war?

Short Insight written by Arief Hühn
October 7, 2020

After threats from Trump to ban TikTok on security grounds, Oracle, Walmart and TikTok’s mother company Bytedance have proposed a deal in which the U.S. will have a 20% stake in TikTok Global. Furthermore, Oracle will host the service for the U.S. as a ‘trusted technology provider’, in order to guarantee the safety of U.S. citizens’ data. However, the deal will not involve the transfer of the service’s algorithms.

The fight over services and underlying algorithms and user data seems to be a progression of the tech war that mostly has been focusing on lower layers of the stack, whether it be rare-earth metals, hard infrastructure (Huawei) or soft infrastructure (new IP). Even though the deal still has to be approved by the U.S. and China, we can already expect that the dependency on trusted providers and tech could become a future template for popular services that aim to operate across adversarial national stacks. In fact, Apple and Amazon are already subjected to a similar treatment for their services in China.

Racial representation in Hollywood

Written by Joep Schot, september 25 2020

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently announced that, from 2024 onward, movies must meet newly imposed diversity criteria to be considered for Best Picture, the final and most prestigious Oscar of the world-famous award ceremony. To be precise, at least 30% of cast members, production and distribution teams must be part of underrepresented groups based on race, gender, sexuality and disability status to evade ineligibility.

The announcement coincided with the premiere of Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, which stars Chinese-American actress Yifei Liu. Many celebrated the casting of Liu, mindful of the successful anti-whitewashing petition and #OscarsSoWhite activism that preceded it. Mulan does, however, cover another chapter of racial supremacy, namely China’s oppression of its northern, Mongolic peoples, to which many historians believe Hua Mulan belonged. Liu, conversely, belongs to the hegemonic Han people. The financial advantages of appeasing the Chinese government impede the ethnic representation the very same industry is trying to foster at home. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be no easy fix in this complicated world of race politics.

Is the meme culture causing an increase in widespread stereotypes?

Written by Jessica van der Schalk, september 9 2020

Some think it’s funny, others deem it yet another example of the stigmatization of women. In any case, the internet meme “Karen” has become world-famous. It’s the stereotype of an entitled white woman who feels aggrieved and expresses this in a slightly hysterical way by invoking her rights. The deployment of a proper name to signify a stereotype is not new: consider the widespread use of “Scrooge” to refer to an avaricious person. But the possibilities of the digital meme culture might lead to a rapid surge in the forming of such stereotypes.

Our observations

  • The term internet meme generally refers to an image, short video or audio recording in which an idea (e.g. that denying climate change is idiotic), certain type of behavior (e.g. when a “boomer” expresses views considered outdated) or style trend (e.g. that of the hipster) is humorously depicted and subsequently shared so often that the message quickly spreads among a large group of people.
  • It’s become difficult to imagine our daily digital communication without the use of internet memes. This can partly be explained by the visual culture in which we communicate less with language and more with images, and by the fact that our attention span has shortened. A meme is a way to bring across ideas that befitting our time: they’re easy to “consume”, require little to no effort to read and can easily be opened on any smartphone.
  • Because memes provide an effective way to spread ideas, they’re increasingly used in political debate. They allow for a political message to be quickly communicated and spread. President Donald Trump, for example, is known for using memes to send a specific message.
  • As we wrote before, the “Karen” meme is currently one of the most widespread and widely discussed internet memes. The American literary-cultural magazine The Atlantic, for instance, wrote a critical piece about this meme, because in a sexist way, it ascribes certain universal behaviors exclusively to middle-aged white women. The stereotype arising from this is more negative than funny, in contrast to many other memes which are more funny than negative.

Connecting the dots

The use of a proper name to invoke a certain stereotype is not new. “Scrooge” is one of the most well-known examples of this. Ebenezer Scrooge is a character from Charles Dickens’ famous A Christmas Carol, who is guilty of greed, selfishness and believes the poor get what they deserve. Likewise, “Don Juan” is known to signify a man only interested in seducing as many women as he can. There are also less widely known examples used more locally, such as the Dutch “Sjonnie and Anita”, referring to a vulgar boy and girl from lower social strata who often drive around on a moped or motor scooter. A stereotype is generally negative, if only because it reduces a person to a limited set of qualities. But in internet meme culture, the point is to also highlight a funny aspect.

Although most memes don’t cause any controversy because of their humorous approach, the general criticism is that they can contribute to the polarization of public debate both on and off social media. A stereotype generally effectively puts a stop to any conversation; when someone is dismissed as being a Scrooge, it becomes very difficult for that person to credibly explain why he is careful with his money other than out of sheer selfishness. One of the most recent and widespread memes is the Karen meme, which invokes a negative stereotype about middle-aged white women. This is one of the few memes that was subject to much reflection in renowned newspapers and magazines. Karen symbolizes a white middle-aged woman who unpleasantly attempts to exercise her rights, is racist, doesn’t believe in vaccinations and resists coronavirus measures. The reason this meme has come under such scrutiny is not merely its popularity, but also the sexist way it dismisses women.

And yet there are more memes like this, such as “Kyle”, an angry and aggressive white teenager who drinks Monster energy drinks and uses Axe body spray.

In the past, it was more difficult for a stereotype to become as widespread as they are now. First, one had to understand the content of the stereotype, which was only possible through clarification. Scrooge, for example, is well-known because A Christmas Carol is a worldwide childhood classic, but the Lolita stereotype isn’t as prominent, as this derives from the similarly titled novel by Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, which isn’t nearly as widely read as A Christmas Carol. Contrary to the stereotypes with proper names that predate the digital era, internet memes are much more easily distributed across the world. Moreover, and importantly, internet memes are far easier to understand as they are comprised of images, creating a recognizable type within seconds, as opposed to an entire book or essay one has to read first. In addition, the humoristic aspect of memes makes them fun to look at, which also contributes to their popularity. And, in conclusion, more people have access to memes than to written text in a book or newspaper, as they are easy to open on any smartphone. The popularity of internet memes may therefore result in a rapid increase in such use of proper names worldwide.

Implications

  • With the accumulation of internet memes like “Karen”, “OK Boomer” and “Kyle”, negative stereotypes about specific groups will become more common. The humorous nature of internet memes and their potential ubiquity on social media make it difficult to shed a certain stereotype once it’s been expressed.

  • As a communication tool, the use of a meme like “Karen” or “Kyle” is very similar to a fallacy. In general, a fallacy refers to an argument that is incorrect, but seems plausible. There are different types of fallacies, of which “ad hominem” (attacking the person making an argument, rather than the argument itself) and “slippery slope” (the argument that a small step will or must lead to a certain chain of events, with each link in the chain erroneously accepted as a given) are arguably the most well-known types. Deploying the stereotype of “Karen”, for example, is similar to the use of ad hominem: the argument made by the woman in question is immediately disqualified because she is a Karen, regardless of whether her argument is sound. If the internet meme culture does lead to an increase of this type of communication tool, this could hamper and stall public debate, as there will be more tolerance for unsound but seemingly plausible reasoning.

Blurring boundaries with mixed reality toys

Written by Arief Hühn, september 9 2020

What happened?

In the past few months we have seen the launch of a range of toys that aim to introduce digital elements in the physical realm and vice versa. After the introduction of Nintendo Labo, which allowed gamers to build their own card box interfaces with which they can play digital minigames, the company has launched Mario Kart Live, which combines virtual racing with a remote-controlled physical toy car. Additionally, the car records video, which is blended into the virtual gaming world on the console screen. Nintendo and Lego have also launched Lego Mario, which integrates screens, sensors and connectivity to physical Mario-themed Lego pieces, allowing the player to reenact the platform game physically. Previously, Lego also introduced its Hidden Side series, in which its Lego sets are enriched with AR content through a mobile app. Soon, the company will also launch the next generation of programmable Lego Mindstorms with improved sensors and actuators. It is noteworthy that Nintendo and Lego, who have a track-record in innovating gameplay, once again seem to be the main drivers in this mixed reality toy market.

What does this mean?

Although the combination of physical toys and digital elements is not necessarily new, it seems that toymakers and game developers are exploring the possibilities of this new generation of mixed reality toys in a more creative way. Whether it be by revaluing physical properties (e.g. tactility, scarcity, friction) within a virtual context (i.e. augmented virtuality) or by further experimenting with how the virtual can augment the physical (e.g. augmenting storytelling, expressions, social sharing, programmability, etc.). On the other hand, mixed reality toys also open the door to hacks, surveillance and data misuse.

What’s next?

Toy makers will increasingly experiment with the boundaries between the digital and the physical. Currently, the playful interaction between the virtual and physical seems to be limited to small-scale objects. However, as mentioned earlier, these interactions, with the right enabling technology in place, could also involve everyday objects in our homes and cities. On a more fundamental level, these playful experiments could implicitly nurture a different understanding and experience of the digital world among younger generations, in which the distinction between the digital and the physical might be replaced by a more integrated hybrid worldview.  

The resistance to the hegemony of the App Store

Written by Sebastiaan Crul, august 26 2020

The gloves are off between tech companies Epic and Apple. Epic recently tried to avoid paying the App Store’s commission in the game Fortnite and Apple responded by, among other things, banning Fortnite from the App Store. This battle of the tech titans is exemplary of the growing resistance to the platform hegemony of app stores. Epic is among an illustrious list of powerful tech companies (Netflix, Spotify, Matchgroup, etc.) that increasingly oppose the tech superpowers. These aren’t innovative start-ups challenging the incumbents, but powerful tech companies acting as a strong counterforce to Big Tech. This trend points to a possible turnabout in the economic relations between large tech companies and the alternative digital platforms that are emerging in the gaming world.

Our observations

  • To use their Platforms and operating software, Apple and Google require that apps pay 30% fee for app downloads and most virtual in-app purchases. They claim that the 30% commission is necessary to keep the app store up and running and ensure users’ safety. Furthermore, Apple refuses to offer flexible rates for valuable customers. In their opinion this leads to unfair competition. But this argument lost a lot of credibility when it became known during the Congress hearing that other companies such as Amazon pay vastly lower rates (15%).
  • Apple is facing the most pressure. Spotify was one of the first companies to openly defy Apple. The streaming service filed a complaint and launched a campaign to inform users of Apple’s unfair policy. Spotify’s complaint mainly pertains to unfair competition; not only does the streaming service depend on the platform to reach users, it also has to compete with Apple’s own music service.
  • In the past, Netflix has also attempted to lure customers directly to its website to avoid paying commission. Direct payment through the Netflix website could save hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
  • The App Store is also criticized for the arbitrary difference between physical and virtual goods sold through apps. When, for example, a hamburger is purchased from a delivery service, no commission is paid, whereas Apple does demand its share with every virtual item sold. Because of corona, many physical services were forced to enter the virtual domain, and much to their dismay, companies such as Airbnb and ClassPass suddenly had to pay 30% commission for their virtual services.

Connecting the dots

The dispute between app stores and app suppliers has been underway for ten years already, but now seems to be undergoing reconfiguration. There’s growing resistance among tech companies that, although they are largely dependent on the mobile platform of Apple or Google, have a strong market position, a gargantuan customer base and are worth billions moreover (e.g. Netflix, Spotify, Epic and Matchgroup). These days, an Iphone without access to Netflix, Spotiy or Tinder would be hard to imagine. Consequently, it’s a battle of powers against superpowers. Epic is currently leading the latest attack from this front but belongs to a larger group of companies that became strong through the services and media platform they operate on top off the operating software of Apple and Google and now have the courage to undertake steps. These are companies that have grown considerably in the past decade, partly by virtue of big tech, and are now looking for ways to reshape power relations.

Epic’s timing seems a cunning strategy: the desire of governments and overseers to break up big tech appears to be reaching a new high, fully in line with American tradition. But the challengers are also turning to the customer directly with a bona fide charm offensive, a logical choice for parties that excel at customer relations and together reach billions of users each day. The campaign consists of clear websites with explainers, satirical videos and hashtags on social media. Especially Apple is under fire, once itself champion of ideals such as freedom and creativity, now portrayed as a totalitarian monopolist.

What’s remarkable is Epic’s frontal attack on Apple, while Google is mainly spared criticism, and gaming computer platforms are getting off scot-free. The latter (i.e. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo), for instance, charge the same rate for microtransactions as Apple does, but have not faced the same disapproval. A simple explanation for this could be that Epic deems the console makers’ commission legitimate, as this hardware is sold below cost and pushing it requires expensive marketing campaigns. But matters are probably a bit more complicated; for a player base for its cash cow Fortnite, Epic is still mainly dependent on game consoles (71%) rather than mobile devices (12%), besides which it needs partners in its battle against the hegemony of the mobile platform. It’s been at odds with Microsoft, but they seem to have buried the hatchet and intensified their cooperation on Hololens 2. Epic has managed to get Sony to support cross-play and the latter recently became an investor in Epic. The novel cooperation with Sony’s music branch is one of the pillars of this renewed alliance. Finally, Epic has made clear that its game engine Unreal, one of the company’s most important assets, will mainly be geared towards next-generation game consoles.

There are ideological motives at play as well. These alliances not only strengthen the economic front against the mobile platforms of Google and Apple, they also allow for an alternative digital ecosystem that doesn’t run on iOS or Android and embodies different values. With standards such as cross-play, lower commissions for creators and developers, sustainable revenue models and interoperable platforms and hardware, Epic and its partners are anticipating an alternative future for the digital world. This is the infrastructure on which Epic CEO Tim Sweeney would gladly realize his ideal of the Metaverse: connected virtual worlds where we play games with a virtual replica of ourselves, but also attend concerts, hang out with friends and purchase items of virtual clothing. In his blueprint of the future, the infrastructure is facilitated by different platforms, but our avatar won’t notice this when he “walks” frictionlessly from world to world and from service to service. This alternative ecosystem has its roots in the gaming world and in the coming years, monetization of games will be the focal point for providers on the platform, but other industries are gradually becoming interested. The music industry, clothing industry, film industry and advertising industry are all watching the rise of these alternative digital platforms with great interest. In this regard, Epic’s successful game Fortnite can be situated as a facet of a much broader movement of alternative digital ecosystems becoming fierce competitors to tech giants of the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook.

The resistance seems to form a powerful front, but some nuance is appropriate here concerning the first American company to reach the $2 trillion market cap last week. What Apple is under attack for – a closed ecosystem with unfair conditions for providers and developers – also encompasses the roots of its core competence and the winning formula to its growth of the past two decades. The vertical integration of hardware and control software, the foundation of the App Store, facilitated an unprecedented degree of security and trust in the digital world. Moreover, it brought order and simplicity to the digital economy and Apple reached new levels of customer friendliness and ease of use. Then there’s also large economic potential in the bundling and integration of digital services and Apple’s current strategy is to double down on this bundling to generate constant revenue, since competition on the smartphone market has become fierce.

That’s why Apple won’t simply give way to the resistance and has plenty of reasons to continue to believe in its own competencies and philosophy. But the time of tacit acceptance and some grumbling from the sidelines appears to have come to a definite end, now that anti-monopoly sentiment is becoming more widespread and users are presented with viable alternatives.

Implications

  • With its cooperation with Microsoft on the Hololens 2, Epic might have set sights on the next dominant platform after mobile. The combination of game engines and controllers from the gaming world with Microsoft’s AR technology is a powerful combination of assets. It’s a hybrid medium that appears to be able to unbundle the smartphone and its touchscreen while retaining the visual lavishness and user-friendly tactile aspect of the touchscreen.

Today’s class of uncontrollable technology

How can we understand the rising complexity and uncontrollability of technologies? Here, we explore and compare the cases of synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, two disruptive technologies that produce outcomes that are not fully controllable or predictable and whose impact on society will only grow in the following decades. These disruptive technologies will furthermore challenge basic aspects of human self-understanding, including our notion of autonomy.

Our observations

  • “The world is getting more and more complex.” Although it is rather a non-starter, the expression is widely used in different contexts today. As we are trying to get a grip on everyday changes that we witness, the expression needs more specification. In our research, we explore uncertainties in the geopolitical, socio-cultural and technological realm and how they are influencing and reinforcing each other. For instance, how the internet is influencing global power dynamics.
  • When looking at the rising complexity in new technologies in particular, the challenges and fears concerning their complexity are often related to the feeling of losing control over our own technological inventions and the consequences this would have for our society. Science fiction often tells us stories of technological innovations getting out of hand (Frankenstein), computers that are controlling us (The Matrix), or human-made viruses that threaten the entire world population (The Walking Dead). The rising complexity of technology, and more specifically, the uncontrollability and unpredictability of today’s technology is explored here by introducing philosopher Jan Schmidt’s concept of “late-modern technology”. Instead of trying to explain the uncontrollability and unpredictability of individual technologies, the concept helps us to see them in a wider class of technologies showing the same characteristics, such as the seemingly different innovations in AI and in synthetic biology (the scientific domain that involves redesigning organisms for specific uses by engineering them to have new abilities, such as cell factories).
  • According to the classic-modern view of technology, uncontrollable and unpredictable outcomes of technology are undesirable. Man gains control over his environment by making use of technology. Constructability and controllability, including a clear input-output relation, are key in this regard and technology was traditionally equated with and defined by stability. Think of cars that are made in a production line.
  • By contrast, late-modern technologies are a class of technology in which this idea of stability is abandoned. Late-modern technologies confront us with our ideas about autonomy and control over our own inventions. Autonomy can be regarded as the most celebrated outcome of the Enlightenment and makes up the foundation of moral philosophy that is still dominant in today’s moral theory.
  • An entire class of “autonomous” technologies is in the making or has already been deployed, from autonomous vehicles to autonomous weapons. These increasingly guide our behavior at a time when human human autonomy is challenged by the distraction and information overload in our digital age. As we described before, technological decisionism confronts us with the fact that our decisions will increasingly be supported, if not steered, by artificial intelligence. As non-living or non-human things are increasingly actively participating in and shaping our environment, we cannot ascribe autonomy to humans only anymore, as is acknowledged in the theory of new materialism.

Connecting the dots

When thinking or talking about technology, we often use words that describe the mechanical characteristics of technology. Not seldom is technology in books or movies depicted as machines or robots. Indeed, in our language this machine image is also widely present. The machine metonym is closely connected to an ontological assumption: a machine is assembled by humans, built up from parts to a whole, it has controllable and predictable characteristics. This is a classic-modern view of technology.

However, when turning to present cases of technological advances such as synthetic biology, this becomes problematic. Even if the goal was to create synthetic organisms as controllable and predictable entities, a living organism, whether “natural” or a product of human intervention, by definition evolves and interacts with other organisms and the environment in multiple ways. These characteristics do not fit the part-whole view and make organisms less controllable and predictable than machines. This complex interaction of technology with other technological or living systems creates complexity. In addition, organisms reproduce and grow, something that the machine metonym does not imply either. As a result, using machine metonyms might blind us from the implications of creating new life forms, such as synthetic organisms, as happens in synthetic biology. In the case of Artificial Intelligence, similar problems arise when using the machine metonym. AI, and more specifically machine learning, is confronting us with a case of technology that shows more autonomy than the machine metonym suggests. So, what are these cases of technological innovation showing us? How are they different from technologies that better suit our more mechanistic and predictable view of technology?

Already in 1985, philosopher Hans Jonas envisioned a historically new technoscientific era when technologies would show different characteristics than the previous class of technologies, such as a certain degree of autonomy and limited predictability. In current philosophy of technology debates, scholars differentiate between modern technology, or classic-modern technology, and late-modern technology. We can understand synthetic biology and AI as cases of the latter. Late-modern technologies differ from classic-modern technologies in two fundamental ways.

First, they show self-organization, autonomous behavior or agency properties. In the case of AI, an autonomous system goes beyond the behavior programmed in the initial algorithm, as it can learn by itself from data and environment, its behavior transgresses the initial objectives and conditions set by its creators (i.e. human engineers, computer scientists) and therefore gain a lower degree of predictability. Similarly, an organism created by means of synthetic biology, starts to interact with and “learn” from its environment in a way that makes it hard to predict its behavior. In both cases, the technology autonomously interacts with an open-ended and uncertain context, the real-world environment, and is thus less predictable than technological systems that merely react to human input and are otherwise passive. In that sense, technologies are sometimes regarded as “black boxes”, as insight into their input and output processes is difficult to acquire.

Second, in the case of late-modern technology, the technology no longer appears in its modern way, rather, technological traces are disappearing. Culturally established borders and modern dichotomies such as “natural” vs “artificial” are becoming blurred. For instance, a synthetic cell has an artificial pathway, but shows no traces of technology: it cannot easily be distinguished from “natural” cells. Similarly, the thinking of AI can sometimes hardly be separated from human thinking or decision-making. In 2018, Google gave a demo of its voice assistant calling a hairdresser to make an appointment and shocked the audience when the hairdresser did not notice that she was not talking to a human. Indeed, this novel kind of technology appears human or natural to us. This is what is called the naturalization of technology. However, moral debates about these sorts of technology, such as the debate about acceptance of GMOs, are often still framed in modern terms, with a strict distinction between us humans, the technology we use, and the natural environment.

Late-modern technology is thus difficult to predict and control, difficult to separate from the context and environment of its application, it can be said to “have a life of its own”. The fact that human beings are surrounding themselves with more and more technologies that are less controllable and show autonomous features, inevitably gives us the sense that we are facing greater technological complexity, losing control over our technology and that our notion of autonomy, which we regard as a fundamental human trait, is being challenged. Late-modern technologies such as AI could even undermine our autonomy, as its ubiquitous deployment could steer us implicitly and explicitly in our behavior. As is often the case with new technological developments, late-modern technologies force us to define and reframe values and views that used to be implicit and unchallenged.

Implications

  • Seeing advances in AI and synthetic biology in a wider class of technologies is also helpful in discussing the challenges for both. For instance, in both areas, a centralization of knowledge can lead to negative consequences for society, e.g. that not everyone can benefit from or even be involved in their creation. In AI and synthetic biology, there are efforts to organize knowledge and IP in open-source governance structures, such as the OpenAI initiative and open source seed initiatives for (GMO) seeds.

  • The rise of artificial intelligence or technological decisionism might teach us something about our human thinking. Similarly, synthetically created organisms might tell us something about living organisms. In a sense, late-modern technology can give us insights into fundamental concepts.

Humor in the 21st century

The ability to laugh and joke is a human feature that helps us to view issues from a different angle and put things in perspective, making it an important biological-psychological skill. The combination of humor and comedy, as a broader societal phenomenon, reflects underlying societal and cultural values and has corresponding qualities and effects on society and groups. Analyzing the new form of humor that has arisen will give us a better understanding of underlying social, political and cultural developments.

Our observations

  • In the past years, Netflix has invested heavily in stand-up comedy. Besides being a relatively cheap segment compared to pricey drama series and films, comedy is one of the three pillars of the content strategy. The other two are original content and acquiring film licenses.
  • The past years have seen a relatively large number of comedians going into politics. In April 2019, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won the Ukrainian presidential elections, in 2009, Beppe Grilo began the Five Star Movement currently governing in Italy, Jimmy Morales won the 2015 presidential elections of Guatemala, Marjan Sarec the Slovenian elections and Jon Gnarr was mayor of Reykjavik from 2010 to 2014. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have both frequently appeared in comedy shows and are ascribed a “clownesque” attitude by many.
  • Last week, we wrote that internet memes are a digital medium that allows for a message to be spread rapidly among large groups of people, and that for that reason, they’re actively used as a campaigning tool. Pepe the Frog is an internet meme that, since the American presidential elections of 2016, is associated with far-right movements and online forums (e.g. 4chan), and is worshipped in the Cult of Kek. This Cult of Kek is an internet religion with its own theology, artefacts and rituals (memes are honored in the official prayers of the Cult of Kek). The use of this meme is of a largely ironic and satirical nature, it’s a vessel for jokes about sensitive topics, that wouldn’t generally be permissible in the current climate of “political correctness”.
  • In 2017, we wrote that, as a consequence of postmodernism, our culture has become saturated with parody, satire, sarcasm and cynicism in the past decades. The naive and optimistic search for a collective truth and progress has given way to the view that everything can and should be ridiculed. This nihilistic and postmodern “structure of feeling” is expressed in popular comedy series such as Seinfeld, South Park, Family Guy, Married with Children, Viva La Bam, Jackass, Arrested Development, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Besides their ironic streak, there is little “redemption” in these shows, in the sense that developments and events don’t contribute to the personal development of the characters and the world around them, nor do they have any constructive effect on the viewer. Vulnerability, sincerity, doubt, uncertainty or spirituality thus have little to no place in these shows.
  • In response to this “parataxis” and deconstruction of postmodernism, which ultimately leaves us empty-handed, metamodernism is attempting to establish a synthesis between postmodernism and modernism by continuously oscillating between the modern, sincere, naive and positive search for truth, beauty, goodness and meaning and the postmodern skepticism and perspectivism. This is also expressed in “metamodern” comedy series in which – despite the presence of irony and sarcasm – sincere feelings and the development of characters are the main focal point, such as in the search for friendship and community (Community, Scrubs), the search for balance and meaning in modern everyday life (Modern Family, The Office), the exploration of existential questions (Master of None, Louie). Viewers are actively drawn into the emotional development of characters as well as being shown their flaws, e.g. their doubts, fears, prejudices.

Connecting the dots

In the classical age, the tragedy was a play with a fated and dramatic ending. According to Aristotle, the tragedy was concerned with how superior people relate to their fate and misfortune, and served to inspire pity and fear in the audience, in order to elicit “catharsis”: emotional purification. In contrast, there was the comedy, in which inferior and weak people commit blunders and make mistakes, but which ends well nonetheless, leading the audience to catharsis through laughter, humor and enjoyment. Since then, comedy and humor have seen a long path of development and the emergence of many new forms, but catharsis remains at the core. In fact, comedy in a wider sense is still invaluable in our time of political polarization, “culture wars”, growing uncertainty, doubt, fear, fake news and post-truth, which requires new ways to reach or maintain consensus, dialogue, intersubjective truth and commonality.

Humor, joking and laughing, serve an evolutionary purpose. Many important skills and lessons are learned by children and young animals through “play”; acquiring knowledge and learning how to comport ourselves and deal with our bodies, others and unforeseen circumstances. Think of the wrestling, playfighting and chasing of children and young primates. Sounds of laughter are important signs that this is harmless and pleasurable play rather than serious aggression or conflict. In a similar way, a smile shows that we don’t have bad intentions: when we smile, our jaws are slack and our breathing is uninhibited, signs of restfulness and relaxation (e.g. we’re not using our jaws to bite). This uninhibited breathing and the slack jaw and mouth muscles transformed into human laughter through primate sounds: from the “ah, ah, ah” of primates to the “ha ha ha” of humans. Evolutionary psychology has also shown that joking and laughing are signs of intelligence and adaptability to new situations.

From this evolutionary basis, humor and joking are important templates for more complex social and cultural norms: they help to alleviate tension when we meet strangers or find ourselves in unfamiliar situations. A well-chosen and well-timed joke can, for example, break the ice on a blind date, while a stranger’s failure to laugh will create a tense situation during a first meeting. Phenomenologically, humor plays with our mental patterns and categories. A situation is perceived as funny when we have a certain expectation but something else happens instead. In his third Critique of Judgment, rationalist Kant posits that humor and jokes are a kind of “mental gymnastics”, with reason being misled and sensations having an immediate effect on our state of mind. This approach resembles the strategy of “stand-up comedy”, as the set-up is the first part of a joke, meant to create expectations and the “punchline” conjures up a different image that defies those expectations. Eventually, this leads the audience to experience catharsis.

These elements of humor and comedy also give them an important social and even political duty: through comedy and humor, we can come to new views, see things in a different light and learn to put them in perspective by laughing about them. “Every joke is a tiny revolution”, George Orwell wrote, showing the disruptive element of humor and comedy. It’s no wonder then, that comedians and humor are often prohibited in repressive regimes, e.g. among many orthodox and puritanical religious groups, humor and laughter are to be avoided at all costs. In China, the meme of Winnie the Pooh supposedly resembling President Xi was banned. On far-right forums, memes are deployed to counter the left, as it is believed that “political correctness” has taken away all the fun and made many topics impossible to discuss in a breezy way. This shows that humor and comedy don’t merely have social and political aspects but are also morally charged, as the line between a joke and an insult, laughter and offense, is thin and fragile. And this brings us to the “dark side” of humor and comedy: as a political force, they necessarily entail a dynamic of inclusion and exclusion. Where there’s laughter, there’s always something or someone the butt of the joke, and this could take the form of “laughing at” people. Laughing at others is an important source of social recognition of groups and individuals (i.e. thymos): the group pointing and laughing is united around the object of laughter and in this light, it’s easy to see why so many comedians are successful in politics: in our postmodern condition which lacks objective truth and widespread social and political consensus, joint laughter is one of the last forms of collectivity and consensus. Online culture and far-right forums show that humor and certain types of jokes can be the epicenter around which broad social and cultural structures are organized. At the same time, the criticism that someone who doesn’t join in on the laughter lacks a sense of humor and is not funny, is one of the last universal insults: a human being without a sense of humor is not a real human being. The only rebuttal against this is to reject the joke in itself but from a different value than its funniness or humoristic quality (e.g. from a political, religious or moral perspective). That’s why many populist leaders who laugh and joke about women (e.g. Bolsonaro) or minorities (e.g. Trump about minorities), dismiss criticism as humorless or “sour” winging and whining. The irony, parody and satire they employ thus make them immune to any criticism directed at them. At the same time, we’re witnessing a movement from which a new structure of feeling and appreciation of comedy and humor is arising, an antidote to cynicism, satire and irony that actively seeks the catharsis that belongs to the genre of comedy. Humor in metamodernism has a high degree of self-referentiality; there is joking and laughter but also a self-conscious search for meaning in humor. And in contrast to the modern inclination to see perspective as absolute or the postmodern reflex of deconstruction and criticism, within metamodernity, reality and perspective coincide.

That’s why humor is so important; new perspectives can be achieved through joking and laughing, and it can take the edge off tense political discussion and debate on divisive themes that involve groups that begrudge each other a smile. But to the metamodern comedian, not every joke is acceptable, rather the intent and the ability to occupy both the position of joker as well as that of the butt of the joke, determine the social quality of humor and comedy.

In this light, internet memes are also part of metamodern humor: there is a high degree of self-referentialiy in the sharing and modification of the original post, they often broach emotional (e.g. depression, loneliness) and political themes, have a high degree of intertextuality and perspectivism with an image and caption, frequently relay a hopeful message with a nihilistic streak, and make abstract ideas relevant to the reader by way of concrete and relatable images. By uniting these apparent contradictions, internet memes embody the metamodern oscillation between sincerity and irony and between perspectives and interpretations. In this way, they tie in with the positive energy of metamodernism, which seeks communion, meaning and catharsis in our times of uncertainty, fear and irony.

Implications

  • We may expect for “humorous” and “comical” archetypes to gain relevance in societal roles and debates. Think, for example, of the jester ridiculing political powers without legal or political consequences, the clown making a fool of himself or the harlequin making fun of local and common ideals, values and ideas. The most modern archetype might be that of the joker: the mysterious character that symbolizes both the diabolical and the genial in humans and represents a wide range of emotional and spiritual qualities. The playing card “joker” corresponds to the number 0 because he can be either all or nothing and can be played for “good” or for “evil”. The recent film Joker displays the title character’s destructive search for meaning and community, and illustrates how thin the line is between right and wrong when there is no social order to which the individual belongs.

  • Comedy comprises a template of cathartic themes that aren’t humorous or funny per se, and has a rich history. In Dante’s The Divine Comedy, for instance, comical-though-not-humorous elements are reconciliation and redemption, the hero’s spiritual development of a broader social and emotional consciousness, from selfishness and conceitedness to social obligations. These kinds of themes are important in metamodernism as effective value memes: templates in which metamodern values become relevant in economic, social, political, societal and cultural systems.

  • Internet memes are a relatively young information medium and form of comedy and befit our modern image culture. This category knows many subgenres, such as Dank Memes, Deep-Fried Memes, Wholesome Memes, Normie Memes and BoneHurtingJuice Memes, which shows that new cultural forms and templates for language, meaning and communication are continuously developed here as well.

Trump’s 2020 strategy

What happened?

The Asia Times recently interviewed Steve Bannon, an important advisor of President Trump. Bannon explained how he helped Trump to power in 2016, and what form the campaign in 2020 will probably take. He introduces a contrary perspective on the elections in November, one that’s more alive to the less measurable elements of the electoral cycle.

What does this mean?

The essence of Bannon’s argument is his contention that the 2020 elections will revolve around China. According to Bannon, Trump’s success in 2016 could be explained by nationalist (anti-establishment) sentiment directed against the American political elite. But in 2020, this nationalist sentiment could be redirected towards China (and “Beijing Biden” instead of “Crooked Hillary”).  An important point Bannon makes is that Trump’s campaign (both 2016 and 2020) begins about 150 days before the elections, while his smear campaign of the Democratic candidate doesn’t start until about 90 days before the elections.

What’s next?

Bannon sheds new light on the 2020 elections. Although Biden is far ahead in the polls, he’s less suited to our Zeitgeist of distrust, he hasn’t had any momentum, and the Trump campaign is not underway yet. These are less measurable elements of the electoral cycle (compared to polls and “betting odds”), but they may become increasingly important as the elections draw near.

Cell factories

Will our use of microbes enable a bio-based future? It is increasingly possible to use and tweak living organisms to produce food, fuel, drugs and materials. Here, we explore cell factories, or engineered microorganisms, to illustrate the ontological and ethical challenges that we will face in light of the rising numbers of hybrids created by advances in biotechnology.

Our observations

  • Cell factories are single-celled microorganisms, or microbes, whose metabolism is synthetically optimized to produce more energy or different substances. In other words, microbes are viewed as production facilities that are engineered with biotechnology to produce for human usage. Examples include chemicals, food ingredients, biofuels, drugs, detergents, paper and textiles. Whereas modern industries manufacture products on the basis of fossil fuels, these cell factories are the building blocks of a bio-based industry.
  • The advances in biotechnology to engineer microbes and create cell factories are in full speed. The question is whether and when these cell factories will be able to produce at industrial scale and economics, so as to accelerate a bio-based industry.
  • One of the major promises of cell factories is the production of food ingredients, such as lab-grown protein (meat, fish, milk, eggs), lauric acid (to replace palm oil), carbohydrates (to replace flour). In the report ‘Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030’, the authors argue that microorganisms programmed to produce food, or cellular agriculture, are about to disrupt agriculture as we know it for the next ten years. The reason they believe this is that they have calculated that proteins produced in cellular agriculture will be five times cheaper than existing animal proteins by 2030 and ten times cheaper by 2035. Furthermore, these proteins, they believe, will also be more nutritious and healthier.
  • The driver behind this is the rapid advance of precision fermentation. Fermentation farms, the vessels that facilitate the production of these programmed microorganisms, are production systems that are potentially more energy- and resource-efficient, more stable and sustainable than industrial animal agriculture. Industrial animal agriculture as a matter of fact has reached its limits in terms of scale and efficiency, while the worldwide demand for protein is only rising. This technological development will make the plant- versus meat-based diets distinction irrelevant, as food will neither come from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life.
  • Among the parties working in this field, Solar Foods, whose first commercial factory will be running this year, is an example. But Big Food and chemical giants are also heavily investing (e.g. Dupont) in this area.
  • In the past, advances in biotechnology have often raised fears over unforeseeable risks: are we creating little Frankenstein monsters when engineering cells, living organisms that we won’t be able to fully control? We cannot entirely oversee the consequences of industrial biotechnology using cells as factories.

Connecting the dots

Animals and plants play a major role in our society by providing us with food and materials. For a long time, we have held animals to produce meat, milk, eggs, leather and wool, have grown plants to produce grains, vegetables, fruits and fibers. We have become incredibly adept at optimizing these animals and plants, by breeding them in such a way that they comply with our wishes. Indeed, all animals and plants we see at farms today are the result of a long chain of human interventions. The beginning of domesticating these life forms is considered a revolution in the history of humankind. Thousands of years ago, when we started to keep and breed animals and plants to optimize them according to our demands, the way we co-existed with them also drastically influenced our own lives. It meant that humans were able to quit their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyles and settle in places. The agricultural revolution allowed humans to collect more food per unit area and thus the overall population multiplied exponentially.
With the advances in synthetic biology, we might witness what we could call the second domestication of life forms in history. This might again radically alter how we interact with other life forms. This time, however, the focus will not be on visible life forms, such as cows, pigs, sheep, chickens or plants, but on invisible ones: microorganisms, or microbes. Through strides made in the field of synthetic biology and the insights gained in molecular biology, microbes can now be engineered and optimized to fulfill certain tasks, such as producing certain substances. By reading and writing the genome in microbes, or cells, it is now possible to create so-called cell factories. They are a promising way to replace conventional ways of production, as they can be tweaked to produce the specific type of chemicals, food ingredients, biofuels, drugs, detergents, paper, textiles and other materials we need, considering this can be done on a large scale and with a minimum amount of input. Because there are good reasons to believe this will be possible within the next ten years, the question is: will this domestication of microbes change our relation to other life forms?

First of all, it will raise the question how we should view and treat these new life forms. In industrial livestock farming, animals have not exactly been treated as life forms of intrinsic value, raising animal welfare problems. On huge farms, animals often live and die on a production line, in a sense bred to be production units. This industrial handling of living organisms has been questioned for long. It has alienated us from our living world. The current corona pandemic has been labeled a “One Health issue”, which means it is seen as an integral health problem for humans, animals and ecosystems. We are increasingly aware that fixed categories of “human” and “animal” do not always make sense and that we are not an individual species, but that our wellbeing is determined by our relationships with and dependencies on other species. We look more holistically at our living world rather than as existing of separate categories. But if we want to treat other life forms rightfully, where do we draw the line? The claim can be made that microbes have less intrinsic value than macrobes, but since all macrobes are built on microbes (or individual cells), there is no clear line to be drawn. Indeed, the fact that we are more focused on life forms that are visible to us has led us to the macrobist bias in the philosophy of biology. But if we take microbes to have the same value as macrobes, should we grant them microbial rights? Already in 1977, this scenario was explored in a sci-fi story by Joe Patrouch, showing the consequences of full microbial rights, such as a ban on household bleaches as they kill microbes. But today, legislation for microbial life is not sci-fi anymore. The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology has declared that all living beings, including microbes, have minimal value in themselves, implying that all life forms, however small, will have “rights” to some extent.
The fact that we are intentionally interfering in microbial life forms with synthetic biology more often leads us to the second challenge. How do we see these altered life forms or hybrids? These are times when one can find ever-increasing numbers of hybrids that blur the lines between natural and artificial. Cell factories show the characteristics of life forms, such as metabolism, but are artificially engineered. Indeed, cell factories can be seen within a broader category of late modern technology that is increasingly showing signs of autonomy and agency, like AI. These technologies seem to have a “life of their own”. Yet, there is no clear moral framework for these hybrids to come.
The rapid advances in cell factories lay bare the challenges that we’ll have to respond to in the coming years, in order to decide what a bio-based future will look like.

Implications

  • The rapid advance of the commercialization of cell factories will stir up debate on the moral status of smaller life forms and hybrids. This will again create fears about biotechnologies similar to those surrounding genetically modified crops.

  • Cell factories might have important second-order effects on society. First, cell factories would decentralize production facilities, as they can be produced in vessels anywhere. For instance, fermentation farms can be located in or close to towns and cities. And second, cell factories might help to reduce the focus on chemicals we have in our daily practices – fertilizers, synthetic textiles, carbon-intensive materials and substances – and incite the turn to more microbe-based products.