Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Book Reviews

The House Always Wins

Holding and Folding in the Contemporary Age.

Malloy Owen

Vegas Vickie at Glitter Gulch; Gavin Hellier/Alamy Stock Photo.

Like Alexis de Tocqueville, Bruno Maçães is an aristocratic European traveler in search of the meaning of the New World. Having come over from Portugal to study political theory at Harvard, where he worked under the conservative lion Harvey Mansfield, Maçães returned to occupy an important post in his country’s foreign ministry and is now attached to a center-right Washington think tank. History Has Begun, his recent book about the future of American civilization, addresses its subject with an ambivalent awe that recalls the closing chapters of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Maçães sees in America the origin of a new mode of politics: the fantastical or virtual, pioneered in the age of mass media and now perhaps nearing its perfection with the advent of immersive digital simulations. He argues that virtual politics first arose as a distinctively American solution to one of the great problems of modernity: the horrors of the iron cage, the vast, faceless, and uniform system of administration constructed by the modern state and business corporation. Europeans, he says, responded to this problem by trying to build a more humane politics. Americans, by contrast, “despaired of the task—which seemed to them to sink the individual into deeper and deeper forms of social control—and opted to look for ways in which one might simply escape from reality rather than embark on the risky venture to change it.”

Maçães proceeds to examine how Americans go about escaping from reality, living lives that follow scripts: “the prom dance, retirement in Florida.” It was television that supplied these scripts for decades, permitting Americans to imagine themselves as characters living out great events rather than as rusting cogs in an indifferent machine. Now social media is taking its place, offering us far more immersive and convincing—but equally fictive—narrative experiences. Another source of unreality is the vast inequality of American society, which allows the professional classes to live out a utopian fantasy while ignoring desperate poverty a few blocks over. And late-modern American racism, as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison held, is not so much hatred as a dreamlike oblivion in which black people appear as phantoms, not entirely real.

American authorities, Maçães thinks, are just as averse to reality as the American public. Beyond our borders, military hegemony allows us to “create our own reality”—a memorable phrase he borrows from George W. Bush administration postmodernist Karl Rove. Even our intelligence agencies’ notorious Big Data surveillance systems generate not a true representation of the world but a “simplified and abstract model” in which individuals appear not as themselves but as virtual characters in a grand narrative about national security. “One could plausibly argue that the real individual is left alone,” Maçães suggests hopefully.

What does all this mean in practice? Maçães argues provocatively that virtuality solves the problem of liberal pluralism by allowing dissenting minorities to live the lives they want in the virtual world while conforming to neutral liberal ideals in reality. In his view, the Old Order Amish in Wisconsin, permitted to live and even raise their children as they wish but not to impose their views on others, inhabit a kind of illiberal simulation. They are allowed to immerse themselves in a world whose logic is quite different from that of liberal modernity, but only on the condition that they accept the basic principle of unrestricted exit rights. With the press of a button, the inhabitants of the simulation can switch over to a different world and perhaps even back to reality, assuming there is any reality left to return to. History Has Begun compares the plural lifestyles available under liberalism to the theme park in the 1973 Michael Crichton movie Westworld, where paying participants enjoy wild, dangerous-seeming adventures in the knowledge that they can leave whenever they like. This, we should note, is not the way the Amish have traditionally understood themselves. But Maçães is right in observing that the liberal principle of exit rights, and the embeddedness of Amish society in a larger liberal social architecture, lends a certain unreality to the Amish enterprise.

With that cultivated Tocquevillian ambivalence, Maçães leaves it to his readers to pass judgment on the Old Order Amish. As a result, History Has Begun passes over some of the colder realities of virtual politics without comment. Maçães rightly identifies Las Vegas, that fantasy world that sprang from the fevered brains of mobsters and eccentric billionaires, as one of the master symbols of the American unreality principle. But as we read his outwardly breezy endorsement of fantasy politics (“unreality…might in fact be a great political virtue”), we should not forget the most important of all Vegas maxims: The house always wins. Virtual worlds have to be built by someone, and whoever builds them tells the story, writes the rules, composes the laws of physics, inscribes the boundaries of the possible, exerts an imperceptible influence on every thought, act, and outcome. (In Vegas itself, the old saw has become even more inescapably true as a growing number of slot machines, which account for 70 percent of casino revenue, take the form of immersive computer games.) The simulation is by definition a space of control.

This was certainly true of the early narrative forms of simulation discussed in History Has Begun. In 1944, the Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer already saw that under mass culture, “freedom to choose an ideology…everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same.” Adorno and Horkheimer saw, too, the divine or demonic power that the ubiquity of images granted to the image makers: “Everything derives from consciousness: for [the early modern philosophers] Malebranche and Berkeley, from the consciousness of God; in mass art, from the consciousness of the production team.”

Maçães has doubtless read his Frankfurt School classics, and he sees more clearly than most how the expansion of virtuality serves the interests of power—contrary to the naive hopes of the Americans who, as he says, imagined that the escape from reality offered relief from “deeper and deeper forms of social control.” If there is a persistent fault in his account, however, it his view of virtuality primarily as a means of getting the restive masses out of the way so that the strong can do what they like. “The tech elite may dream of a future world but is not necessarily interested in finding a role for everyone else in those dreams,” he writes. He underestimates power’s continuing interest in actively shaping each of us to its ends.

In fact, virtuality is already widely deployed as an instrument of political control. News reports from the past few years inform us that the Federal Bureau of Investigation now routinely entices lonely, discontented young Muslim men into joining terror plots. Text and phone transcripts introduced as evidence in their trials often show undercover agents positively cajoling reluctant targets into accepting the literary role of violent extremist. And as the public’s anxieties evolve, the FBI cinematic universe expands. The far-right group that plotted to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 included at least three federal informants, the most enthusiastic of whom provided his comrades with military-style training, paid for their car rentals and hotel rooms, and persuaded them to include a fellow militant whom several of them found disturbingly extreme. In short, the surveillance state does not merely collect data; it constructs villains for its own narrative, scapegoats who serve multidecade prison sentences to prove the Bureau’s indispensability to our national security.

Nor has the controlling power of virtuality been overlooked by more unabashedly authoritarian governments. As part of Beijing’s effort to assimilate Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, the government has largely demolished the Old City of Kashgar, which had been the finest example of traditional Central Asian mud-brick architecture in existence. In its place, the Chinese government has constructed a tourist-trap version of the Old City: Holy sites are recast as historical curiosities, and Han entrepreneurs are converting abandoned mosques into tea shops and bars. The image of Uyghur culture and religion remains, but the existential seriousness that motivated the construction of those beautiful and sacred places is gone.

These relatively unsubtle narrative constructions, however, only mark the beginning of the new political era. One of the best ideas in History Has Begun is Maçães’s characterization of digital virtuality as continuous with more primitive forms of virtual politics. What started with television sitcoms and value pluralism finds its consummation in social media and Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets. With respect to digital simulations even more than analog ones, however, Maçães’s confidence that virtuality will enable a flowering of pluralism seems misplaced. It is true, as he says, that Big Data surveillance constructs a “virtual avatar” of the person rather than discipline her directly. But the logic of social control requires a continual narrowing of the gap between object and representation. There are two ways to do this: make the avatar more like the individual and make the individual more like the avatar. Digital virtuality does both: More data generates a finer-grained image, while the controlled and interactive virtual environment nudges the individual into closer conformity with an appropriate narrative.

It did look for a while as if the new social networks might open up space for a wider diversity of lives, conversations, communities, and experiences than was possible in the offline world. As the years have passed, however, the networks have imposed their own architectural logics on virtual life and discourse. Users conform ever more closely to one or a few of the narratives on offer, driven by powerful mimetic dynamics to converge on common thoughts, words, and actions. That is the first step; the second is to reduce the number of narratives on offer through algorithmic surveillance and behavioral nudging.

The godlike power held by the creators of the new virtual environments was easy to miss in the early, utopian days of the Internet. Even William Gibson, whose wonderful 1984 novel Neuromancer named “cyberspace” and foresaw its supersession of “meatspace,” depicted virtuality as an anarchic “consensual hallucination” in which his virus-slinging protagonist could frustrate the feds with a series of daring dodges. It is true, of course, that digital resources are vulnerable to this kind of cowboy criminality. But the real-life hackers come from outside, probing for weaknesses in the walls of the virtual worlds, while the consensual hallucinations that most of us inhabit these days are designed, like Las Vegas gambling floors, to channel us into the places their builders want us to go. The consummation of digital virtuality is a world where the story is already written and you do not make any choices at all. As long as human behavior remains a valuable resource, as it is for casinos and governments alike, virtual environments will be designed to maximize control.

And as enlargements in technical capacity allow them to become more immersive and extensive, the grip will tighten. Lately Mark Zuckerberg has begun to talk about his hopes for building a digital “metaverse,” a term he derives from Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash. The metaverse, he explains, would be “an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content—you are in it.” As Zuckerberg stresses, the metaverse would make virtual interactions feel more like real life and bring people together in communities that span geographic boundaries. But because every move you make in a virtual environment is tracked and recorded, the metaverse would also make vast quantities of new data available to its administrators, and it would make available powerful new tools for influencing our behavior. The short but colorful history of social media shows that neither the data nor the tools will go unused.

It would be disturbing enough if, as Maçães predicts, the great lords of Silicon Valley left us to amuse ourselves in our virtual sandboxes while they went off to conquer the solar system. With an ever-expanding arsenal of digital tools at their disposal, however, they are unlikely to show such restraint. Their war against reality can never truly be won until they have triumphed over the most stubborn and deceitful of all things, the human heart.