“If there is to be a liveable and shared future on our planet it will be a future offline, uncoupled from the world-destroying systems and operations of 24/7 capitalism” (Crary 2022, p.2)
Jonathan Crary’s ‘Scorched Earth’ presents a bleak but persuasive prognosis of where the world might be headed when the current era of hyper-capitalism has blown-up and blown-over. Crucially, Crary offers a set of robust reflections on the part that digital technologies might have in this future – thereby giving critical scholars of technology plenty of food for thought.
Thinking against Big Tech and the ‘internet complex’
First, Crary presents a scathing portrayal of the current state of digital technology – a bloated ‘internet complex’ predicated upon a vast array of digital platforms, protocols, and physical infrastructure. Crucially, this digital eco-system is intrinsically implicated in “the immense, incalculable scope of 24/7 capitalism”.
As such, Crary reasons that the forms of digital technology that have recently come to dominate our societies are not intended to benefit, help or empower the populations and communities that come into contact with them. Rather, the digital technology in our lives remains firmly in lockstep with the interests of contemporary capitalism, and its destructive industrial practices of extraction, exploitation and oppression that are ultimately ‘world-vanquishing’ in their logics (p.28).
In this sense, we should not be fooled into thinking that the design and development of digital technologies is motivated by a desire to enable people to be more agentic, or perhaps even lead flourishing lives. Neither is this technology that is sympathetic to planetary and environmental needs. Instead, current forms of digital technology are perhaps best seen as direct extensions of what Crary describes as the ‘techno-modernist dream’ of a planet that exists as an expendable resource to fuel human innovation and material progress.
The digital is simply not sustainable
Seen in this light, then, a near-future of “intensifying social and environmental breakdown” renders any presumption of a continuing ‘digital age’ (and the very existence of the internet complex) utterly untenable. As Crary contends, “there is a growing realisation that daily life overshadowed on every level by the internet complex has crossed a threshold of irreparability and toxicity” (p.1). In this sense, global capitalism has already entered its ‘disastrous terminal stage’, and all facets of the global capitalist project (including the digital) need to be rejected out of hand.
Yet, the past few decades of computational excess and digital dependency is not something that our societies will easily move on from. Moreover, as Crary points out, the imminent end-game phase of global capitalism is not concerned with providing for future post-capitalist generations. This bleak prognosis is reflected in the analogy of ‘scorched earth’ – a military tactic of destroying life-essential resources so they are no longer accessible to an advancing enemy and/or defeated civilian population.
As such, Crary anticipates a global capitalism that is well prepared to continue to destroy resources that might otherwise be used later by “groups and communities to pursue modes of self-sufficient subsistence, of self-governance or of mutual support” (p.35). In this sense, we cannot simply presume that the internet complex will fade away benignly of its own accord. The continued environmentally-devastating use of digital technology will destroy us, before it destroys itself.
Digital ecocide: a blind spot in current climate concerns
In one sense, Crary’s thesis regarding the un-sustainability of global capitalism and its ecocidal tendencies is likely to find a receptive audience amongst progressively-minded folk who are concerned about climate politics, mindful of the need to carbon-offset, and well-aware of the horrors of fossil fuels, meat-based diets and air travel.
As such, growing numbers of people now concur that the hyper-globalised forms of capitalism that has endured over the past few decades are already responsible for catastrophic devastation to the planet and its populations, and will only continue this devastation. Yet, amidst this consensus, Crary calls out the curious unwillingness amongst the climate-concerned middle classes to implicate digital technology in this process:
“many of those who understand the urgency of transitioning to some form of eco-socialism or no-growth post-capitalism carelessly presume the internet and its current applications and services will somehow persist and function as usual in the future, alongside efforts for a habitable planet and for more egalitarian social arrangements” (p.4)
‘we may abstractly deplore the millions of lives and species rendered disposable by capitalism or the devastation of ecosystems on which we depend, but we cling to our disembodied routines and to the illusion that the internet complex is somehow not a primary agent of this catastrophe’ (126).
Despite the growing ‘tech-lash’ in Western news media, political commentary and public debate, there remains a clear reluctance to call out the environmental damage associated with the digital age. While we may be vocal in denouncing the climate-related malpractices of Exxon, Shell and their ilk, we seem unable to call out the environmental destruction carried out on behalf of Apple, Google and Meta (tech companies that we are happy to criticise and critique for all manner of other societal crimes and misdemeanours).
In this sense, even the most critical commentators on the topic of digital technology could be seen as fitting neatly into the role of ‘useful idiot’ – appearing to chastise the internet complex (and its actions) while not agitating for the total cessation of the tech industry. In other words, it fully suits the likes of Google for critical commentators to rail against issues such as digital inequalities, platform capitalism and the like to their heart’s content, just as long as their conclusions support the continued use of technology in some form. As Crary observes, it has become ‘permissible’ to indulge in digital critique, “… however, anything deleterious must be presented as remediable within the continuing operation of global systems” (p.83).
The digital cannot be saved … the digital is irredeemable
In sharp contrast to such acquiescence, Crary pushes for the radical reassessment of what it means to think critically about ‘digital futures’ and the like. For example, speaking up against the tentative hopes now being expressed by some tech critics for the possibility of re-engineering more humane, caring, progressive forms of digital living, Crary instead concludes that no such alternatives are feasible. In short, there cannot be a ‘better’ internet, a digital commons, or any other progressive take-over (or take-back) of digital technology.
Similarly, Crary is dismissive of ambitions to instigate ‘cleaner’ and ‘greener’ forms of carbon-neutral digital technology and renewable energy – what he dismisses as desperate attempts to prolong the profitability of fundamentally ‘devastating’ products and practices. In short, Crary reasons that tech critics need to lose any illusions they might have about different forms of digital technology proving to be instrumental to radical change. Instead, we need to accept that all current forms of digital technology “are intrinsically incompatible with a habitable earth, or egalitarian post-capitalist forms of life”.
Learning to live without the digital?
Instead, then, Crary challenges us to begin to work out ways to ‘change everything’ when it comes to our relationships with digital technology. Indeed, Crary anticipates that climate change and ecocide will soon ensure that the global digital infrastructure becomes increasingly fractured, shattered and dysfunctional. In this sense, facing up to a future after the digital is not a choice, but simply a matter of getting prepared in advance.
This is not to say that there will be no communication, information sharing or knowledge creation – rather that these practices will have to take place in radically different ways. The prospect of an increasingly atrophying global communications infrastructure does not necessarily imply the complete end of computer technologies – rather that any remaining semblance of digital technology will be offline, low-tech and much more analogue in form. As such Crary anticipates an era when new communities and interhuman projects might rise from the ruins of the internet complex, based around “a hybrid material culture based on both old and new ways of living and subsisting cooperatively” (p.1).
Of course, these are difficult futures to anticipate for anyone currently invested in thinking and acting ‘digitally’. The whole notion of ‘digital age’ is predicated upon presumptions of permanency and perpetual progress. All our talk of digital technology (whether hypercritical or utopian) is driven by a shared understanding that ‘being digital’ is an ongoing condition – sustained by an endless expansion of ever more powerful digitized incursions into the far reaches of our lives. As Crary puts it, at no point in our societies’ discussions around digital technology do we ever doubt the fact that “it will all somehow persist” (p.47).
Yet, Crary reminds us that there is no reason to presume the permanency of the digital condition, any more than there previously was for any other epoch in our planetary history. The digital age is no more permanent than the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Ice age or the Cambrian period before it. As Crary puts it, “Now, with ever upward revisions of climate warming rates, it becomes difficult to assume that anything is ‘here to stay’” (p.51).
Conclusion: engaging with impossible thoughts
At this point, one might well be tempted to stop engaging with Crary’s line of thought. Understandably, it feels difficult to know where to begin to countenance what Crary is asking us to face up to. How can we possibly begin to act on these arguments? How can we possibly begin to push back against the internet complex in meaningful ways … especially in ways that do not involve drawing on digital resources and practices that underpin all of our work? As with most aspects of global hyper-capitalism, we are now conditioned to think that ‘there is no alternative’. Seen in this light, then, Crary’s hypotheses might easily be dismissed as too far-fetched to be worth pursuing. 
Yet, here Crary evokes Alain Badiou’s argument that reaching a point of apparent impossibility should be seen as a trigger for insurgency and the creation of an emancipatory politics. Only those who stand to benefit from the continuation of business as usual should be declaring the impossibility of thinking beyond the current digital predicament – i.e. “anyone with a professional, financial, or narcissistic stake in the ascendancy and expansion of the internet complex” (p.3).
Crary challenges the rest of us to do better than this – to think beyond any passive resignation to the idea of the digital age as a permeant condition. He also challenges us to engage with matters of environmental politics as a matter of social justice, class struggle and immediate social problems. In contrast to the traditional mistrust of environmental politics from within the Left during the latter half of the twentieth century, Crary argues that engaging with the post-capitalist phase of human existence is a now an imperative for anyone with a progressive/socialist mindset.
Indeed, left to its own devices, there is a danger that post-capitalist scarcity will quickly descend into a savage free-for-all. As such, Crary challenges us to set about establishing ways in which our post-digital age might be rethought and rearranged in a fair and equitable manner:
“the threshold of a post-capitalist work is not far off, a few decades at most. But, unless there is an active prefiguration of new communities and formations capable of egalitarian self-governance, shared ownership, and caring for their weakest members, post-capitalism will be a new field of barbarism, regional despotisms, and worse, where scarcity will take on unimaginably savage forms” (p.124)
 Martin Savransky (2022) makes a similar argument when pushing for a more radical political imagination that anticipates to need to think beyond living with the ideal of civilisation, and instead set about imagining future forms of ‘ecological uncivilization’. He argues that such thinking requires ‘learning to die’ before we can learn to live again. Within Western cultures that are traditionally adverse to engaging with the prospect of death, this can seem an unpalatable stretch of imagination. So too, within the same Western cultures, the idea of living without the digital might be seen as equally as unnerving and too much to countenance.
Crary, J. (2022). Scorched earth: beyond the digital age to a post-capitalist world. Verso
Savransky, M. (2022). Ecological uncivilization: Precarious world-making after progress. The Sociological Review, 00380261221084782.