The Only Existential Threat Is Marketing / by Bryce Hidysmith

While traveling through the outer stretches of the Los Angeles region, my friend Colleen and I stopped in a town to purchase caffeine and gasoline. Upon purchasing units of caffeine and gasoline, we sat in the car in the parking lot of the convenience store attached to the gas station, and looked out at the town. There were a few mass produced restaurants, one of them with a conjoined playspace for young, streets with no apparent destination, and a whole lot of nothing. 

The town had a rather extreme smell.  strange combination perhaps of cattle abattoirs and of sewage. The tone of the light was defined by the dirt on the plastic shells of the electric signs, mixed with an unsettling winter dusk. The men around us wore the leather jackets of the impotent and fronting, and the women wore the sort of shoes that disabled them a little bit but not too much. Nothing grew. The earth was paved instead of salted, and still, these odd humans lived there on life support from the outside, retreating to their homes likely miles away. It was extremely noisy, and more space belonged to automobiles than to pedestrians, and of what little space belonged to pedestrians, the majority of it was commercial. The whole affair was hostile. All the food within reach was poisonous at variable rates of toxicity. As night fell and the sunbeams weakened we looked through an increasingly opaque and vaguely orange haze. On top of the smell, there was friction in my breath. 

It brought to mind a remark my friend Michael had made to me a few days previous:“The only existential threat is marketing.” More broadly, we might simply suggest that the only existential threat is deception, or that which makes things that are insane appear to be sane—the classic upsell, the manufacturing of desire. This practice is able to counter—but not replace—the traits of both intelligence and sanity. Should we integrate these deceptions into ourselves, we will slowly become the thrall of the insanity, lacking any meaningful relation to the world. 

Everything I saw was typical for a Californian town of low to middling prosperity lacking tourism as a major industry, thus lacking a paying judgmental observer to keep it in check. The violence of it was cloaked under a level of manufactured normalcy—the only way to get around that is to take a perspective akin to an archaeologist from the future, asking well, how did the Californians fall?, and even with that the majority of the people who read this will assume that I’m just overreacting. In a sense I am; I am overshooting the personal and seeing where it takes me. 

There’s an old parable by G. K. Chesterton about a fence. Imagine that you find a fence in a field. To be a conservative, in Chesterton’s view, is to not tear down the fence because someone must have built it for a reason, and you don’t know why, but they probably did. The problem is that somewhere like Southern California is fences on top of fences, on top of fences, the lot of them precariously balanced so that it’s increasingly unclear as to what sort of behavior they were meant to direct on the ground. In short, the reason that California, and indeed America will fall is that we lost track of what we were doing, and why we were doing it, because we let outside forces vandalize our instinctive sense of cause and effect. In other words, the only existential threats are threats that neutralize our ability to have agency, either by forcing us to pretend fake complexity exists, or forcing us to ignore real complexity that is relevant to our lives. 

We can understand the first order effect of that town: a refueling shop for city slickers like me, and a warehousing for people in the LA region, but we confuse what something is doing for why it is doing it. There is an assumption that we should provide services for pay so that we may survive, but unfortunately this typically incentivizes behavior at a micro-scale that is awful at a macro-scale. There is simply not enough of a coordination apparatus to allow the micro and macroeconomic components of the system to be integrated, and, indeed, they cannot be integrated unless there is an intelligence to understand them. Indeed, most, if not all, market driven economic thought is considerations of the ways that unintelligent non-coordinated action can mimic and improve upon hubristic, poorly coordinated intelligent action. The trouble is generally that the monetary pricing systems have to actually contain information, and I’m fairly skeptical that they do right now, though if they do free market systems work just fine. 

Such components that are not understood by intelligences inside of economies, and thus the economic apparatus lacks agency over. Our term for this is, of course, externalities, but it seems as though the only way to remedy this is for them to no longer be externalities, for everything to be accounted for inside the economic system. There is an assumption, generally, that we must create these hellholes for “the economy,” but in general this is a bizarro inverse of a deferred gratification strategy at a societal scale. While it is reasonably logical for us to, as a society, ration in times of scarcity, it does not make sense for us to feast without eating, consuming massive quantities of resources that do not feed us with the assumption that it will improve our prosperity in the long run, without directly improving our experiential or tactical situation in the present. 

In a bizarre way, a system that contains externalities is one in which the typical adage the ends justify the means is turned on its head. The means justify the ends, the goal is unimportant—only the perpetuation of the system is necessary. As long as the means of securing momentary wealth are justified by the economy, any judgement of their validity from an outside source is rendered irrelevant, even if that judgment might be more accurate from a materialist or experiential perspective. The current economy is an unintellignet, non-entity, engaging in limited emulation of the genius of intention through the wisdom of crowds, producing stability through whim and accident. There’s a point when you just have to look back at the SlimJims in the gas station and the heat wafting up from the pavement, your legs cramped from a long drive and ask yourself how different this is from a superintelligence slowly edging humanity into suicide like boiling frogs alive, perhaps to avoid weight on its conscience by not technically killing us. 

The next day, we went to the Salton Sea. It’s beautiful in the way that its still waters meet the sky, but its beaches are made of bones, and it smells like death. After the Army Corps of Engineers created it by bungling the redirection of the Colorado River, and then sold land around it for vacation speculation. There were birds there, gamboling in the shallows, going after some of the cannibal tilapia that still survive in a strange, narrowing ecological niche. It’s peaceful, and it could never be my home.