THE NEW SPEED

By Benjamin Roberts · 23 May 2024

Note from the Editors: This essay is contained in our fifth print edition, Futurism Reloaded.

American Futurism in the Digital Era

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…”
— F. Scott Fitzgrald, ‘The Great Gatsby’

On a constant drip of stimulants you can peer into the future, speed becomes tangible and malleable in your hands. And stimulants and stimulation come in many forms. Today, we engage with speed through pharmacological means, through situational arousal, and the cacophonous portal to everything called the Internet. The petrolic ruthlessness of the historical Futurists, which Marinetti shot into frame in 1909, has become commonplace and banal. Airfoils no longer scythe through the firmament: flight today is dull, slow, and heavy. The automobile now is leashed, walked down interstates and boulevards by an invisible commissar, mouth constantly open to issue tickets and harangues. A driver white-knuckles the wheel not to hold on for dear life, but because doddering fools inching closer have turned his ugly pleather seat into a straitjacket.

To regurgitate Marinetti’s valorization of sociophysical combustion, in this era, at this time, would be making a parody of Futurism. As new American Futurists, we must acknowledge a new speed, one which is as yet in its infancy: the speed of the Internet, the digital world, where information and imagery are transmitted, uploaded, internalized, and discarded at the speed of light. The new speed of data is as transformative, if not more so, than the engine and the smokestack. It has thrown open the door to new freedoms, new chaos, new art, new literature, and new sensations. Like the past Futurists, we will use this force to explode the social order, to make mischief and spread misinformation, to create novel forms of expression, to capture the pulse of our time. Digital speed is both isolating and connecting: this fact is often attacked, but it must be affirmed. It is real life, and our task is to unite the digital speed of thought and image with our material reality and action. 

America, stultifying and stumbling, beset by nostalgia and moralizing, needs an explosion of individualism and atomization. Digital speed is probably too fast for many. But this is not a concern for new American Futurists. Slowing down, for those who cannot keep up, is antithetical to what it means to be American. Some have already lost their minds and left society: the riptide of content has torn them away from calm waters and into a vortex of data delivered at blistering refresh rates. Many can’t stand this new speed – the total and instant availability of everything. But every social and technological innovation has casualties. If we were to grind to a halt for these people, we would be unable to advance or affirm any developments at all. Casualties are unfortunate. But those who are harnessing this new force are creating the future, and maintaining our eternal American manner of being.

***

“Make it new.” 
— Ezra Pound

Pound’s commandment is our lodestar. Our youth must not be spent retreading the grooves of old farmhands, pressing palms against neoclassical architecture. That world is gone. It is not coming back — and we must also abandon the notion that we would want to go back. If our forefathers had been possessed by nostalgia, they would never have sailed for America to create a new country, in a new land, for a new people. For us to honor what is American in us, and in Futurism, we must celebrate novelty, experimentation, and all things ‘modern’. The Founding Fathers modeled themselves after the Romans, but they had no illusions of returning to Rome. Even Jefferson, a great admirer of our Anglo-Saxon parentage, did not seek to freeze himself in the time of Hengist and Horsa. Instead, he brought their colonizing, adventuring spirit to the New World. We are beset by a hatred of the present and an anesthetizing nostalgia that rejects America as such. Those who still live in the past are refusing to live. Ultimately, Americans are a forward-looking and nomadic people. Time and time again, we have chosen to leave the familiarity of our communities to seek adventure, opportunity, and glory. If we listened to traditionalists, we would reject our birthright and our future. Americans would become a settled rather than a settler people.

Atomization is moaned about across the political spectrum. It is one of the very few issues on which there is still broad agreement. The arguments look like this: “Social media and the internet have altered social incentive structures, the young are more likely to waste away in the dim glow of their fairy lights and the artificial suns of their phones and monitors… they are lonely, disconnected, addicted to pornography and the algorithm. We must return to selfless communitarianism, where multigenerational bowling can occur, and people truly feel like citizens.” NO! We must drive atomization deeper and further. Communitarian fantasies are ahistorical, un-American, and above all: slow. If we must maintain certain constants across the Futurism of past and present, it is that speed, haste, aggression, impulsivity, and the total annihilation of dying social orders via art actions that defy the restrictive mores of the ‘community’, the dour gag of ‘the common good’, and self-sabotage on account of those who cannot or will not keep up. 

America’s founding generations were fiercely factional, spurred on by private or royal investment, and by innumerable differences: the country succeeded in large part due to rampant individualism. The infighting between the Quakers, the Cavaliers, the royal charter companies, were as a giant coastal oyster from which we ripped a pearl. Neither the colonists nor the corporate agents ever desired that we would grow tired of our New World project and seek the easy life of villages, parochialism, and nostalgia. Of course, early America was homogenous in its Anglo-Saxon and European heritage. But in its art, politics, and faith, it was a nation riven with conflict — and better for it.

The politics that will emerge from the new American Futurism will not follow the same path as it did in continental Europe. We are not a people suited to statism. Our origins are in infighting, private endeavor, hardheaded individualism, and rebellion. America will never obey an authority that fails to cohere with our interior life. For America to leap out of the present and into the future, we must take a path based on private action, factionalism, and individualism.

***

“Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”
— Horace Greeley

Two centuries after settling on a new continent, Greeley and his contemporaries are antsy. They feel too settled, too stagnant, too slow. We aren’t the ones who remained in the Old World of Europe. We descend from the man who claimed lands west of the Mississippi, the man who fought the Indians and carved out space for himself, either cowboy or bandit, rifle glimmering as he passed silently under the mesas. We are those who, unsatisfied by what we had claimed and had made in the past, conquered Mexico. This is the American way, the unleashed individual, impatient both of triumph and adversity. 

Today we are ferociously pressing forward to a new precipice. Our bloodshot eyes scan text and images just as our forefathers scanned brush and brambles. For us, a campfire on the edge of civilization is imbibing the schizophrenic majesty of an edit, and telecommunicating with people across the country or earth. Americans are now capitalizing on a new freedom, one which may produce the artists that finally divorce us from Europe as a unique branch of the Anglo-Saxon line.

The birth of this new speed occurred just in time. Just as it became clear that a parasitic and cloying alien spirit had captured our government, Americans gained access to unprecedented amounts of information, raw data, and first-hand audiovisual documentation of propagandized events. Of course, many are still too dull to pierce the veil on their own. Nevertheless, online frenzy allows those who wish to see, to do so. This essay, its binding in glossy laminate, these words reverberating across the gray flatness of this page – this is only possible as a result of this digital revolution. Samizdat can now no longer be contained.

***

“Motion and light destroy the solidity of the material bodies…the futurists make their engines move, throb and create.”
— Frances Simon Stephens

Artificial motion and light began their ascendancy during the industrialism of the early 20th Century. Today they are omnipresent forces. Our phones and devices connect us almost constantly to a dopamine drip of color, motion, and sound. With these carnal and anarchic stimuli, we create an avant-garde, with ultramodern means of transmitting literature and thought, and novel ways of capturing attention.

Every day, truly modern art swims into the attention economy’s benthic abyss. An example is the medium of the edit, the skillful, semi-schizophrenic assembly of sound and image that can today be found cutting across the Internet’s crests and troughs. This aesthetic tachycardia is a significant contribution to the visual arts of our era. In full embrace of the speed and tools available to him, the often anonymous artist constructs a cacophony that threatens to drive us mad, which rips out and drags us by our veins to a violent, irrational energy. Many will dismiss this genre as pedestrian. And there are, of course, many poorly made attempts, but this is true of every artistic innovation.

British documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, a skillful nostalgist, has demonstrated the early potential of the edit. What Curtis has done with archival footage, clever splicing and haunting accompaniments is a proof of concept for the edit’s scalability. A ruthless, vital instinct is not present in his work (the closest thing to an ideal modern Curtis would be writer and visual artist Mike Ma), but the innovativeness of his cinematic collage art charts a path forward. The constellation is not yet complete, but there are stars flickering into light, twinkling glimpses into the future of digital culture and artistry. There is an entirely new sensation and energy available to us through this medium.

The Everett Shins and Kerouacs of today could be operating in the digital world, tacking their work into the constantly recycled news boards of social media. They are posting online, sometimes in vain and to no one, using creative tools that have recently come into being. They cannot yet be found in a gallery, and only rarely in a project space. But by voluntarily composting their furiously paced creations, they embody the ceaseless rush and daunting temporariness of our age. What is buried under a thousand, no, a million screeds, has more value and poses more threat to the current aesthetic order than anything now emerging from conventional means.

How can we unite this digital, avant-garde art and literature with the physical world? How can the rush and conviction these new mediums give us translate into consequences on a material level? Some argue that the new speed has been throttled and the moment has passed. It is true that many of the forums and websites which used to carpet the internet have been consolidated, and evaporated. However, the consolidation of social media has only served to magnify new art, ideas, and literature. No longer consigned to niche ghettos almost impossible to find for those not in the know, the aesthetic virility of the future is increasingly wedged into the mainstream. We need only look to the television generations to understand the vast gulf in insight and knowledge here. A fundamental suspicion of approved narratives is endemic among those young enough to be digital natives and wilful enough to have even become individuals.

It is true that compared to the earlier iterations of the internet, our current iteration is more hostile to anonymity than in the past. But compared to what is possible through traditional means of ‘activism’, cyberspace still enjoys a strong advantage. Contemporary distributors of forbidden materials and shunned aesthetics do not need to transport these things physically. Meanwhile, there is an active asymmetric war being waged against the enemies of privacy, with encrypted messaging apps, VPNs, and so on. This war has not been lost. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, we press forward into a liberty of our own design. 

Americans have always been a people in a hurry. From the weaving of railroads which staple together our landmass, to the telegraph, the telephone, the chthonic subterranean cables that sustain them, flight, automobiles… we have increased, at every opportunity, the rate at which people, ideas, and materials are transmitted. The United States is unique, even among the Anglo-Saxon peoples, for turning a conquered continent into a superpower. Accordingly, and with this vision in the minds of many from our inception, we have desired speed.

***

Look at us! We are not out of breath, our hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed! Does this surprise you? it is because you do not even remember being alive! Standing on the world’s summit, we launch once more our challenge to the stars!
— Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

From tobacco in the early colonial era, to coffee and cigarettes, to vapes and snus, America was built on stimulants. Today we are constantly interfacing with the stimulants of the Internet, the smartphone, social media, and so on. We are all constantly altering our dopamine, our energy levels, our restor lack thereof. More than any other compound or chemical, the Internet is now the means by which we fix a bit and bridle onto our central nervous system, spurring it past its breaking point. But acknowledging this does not entail a rejection of this new digital world. We must instead embrace this reality which hurdles into our brain and spirit at all times, and instrumentalize it to expand our knowledge, to alter our own tastes as well as others, to create a great cataclysm in this age. The bruise-black bags buttressing our eyes are proof of our scorn for sleep, evidence of our hunger for more, always more, until our mind and memory threaten to burst and empty. We allow only briefly for our eyes to flitter beneath the thin curtains of rest, because there is always more to consume and create in the night’s forbidden hours.

If the iron horse at speed threatened to flay the cheeks of its intrepid operator, the Internet seduces, eking dopamine out with every fluorescent splash of color, pressing its users to the very limits of their attention spans, inculcating a mania and impatience that has scarcely been seen before. All of us are connected, at nearly all times, to the Library of Babel, stoking our desire for knowledge, for endorphins, keeping us awake at night, and fostering whatever feelings that it pleases. It falls to the few to tame and harness this force, to point it outward without falling headlong into it. 

We are only at the beginning of this age; like infants, we have now begun to grasp and climb up the digital and informational speed. The unification of the digital and physical has only just begun, in the laminate of magazine covers and in whispered tones of secret meetings. As the titanic forces of ideology leaped from the book and mind into architecture, attire, and the state, so will this new force begin to radically alter the face of the earth. It must not be sterile, it has to be mad, as mad as Roanoke and the Mayflower and the march to Mexico City, as possessed as the atom bomb, and as vain as Art Deco. We will not look over our shoulders toward home, toward the isles and hills which hold our past. Instead, taking the reins of this terrible speed, we will drive it into decrepitude, steering into mischief and artistry. For the American, the frontier is eternal. It is not a matter of miles, rivers, canyons, or forests, but a spirit that presses ever forward into the future, “running faster, stretching our arms further.”

Our fifth print edition “Futurism Reloaded”, is now available.

Benjamin Roberts is an American writer and an Associate Editor at IM—1776. He can be followed @radicalbenjamin.

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