Friday, March 01, 2013

Tom Chatfield - Cyborg Dreams

Tom Chatfield is the author of How to Thrive in the Digital Age (School of Life), among other books, and he is a regular contributor to Aeon, from where this article comes. Chatfield is a regular commentator on media and technology, and in this piece he questions whether we are using all of our screens or if they are using us.

In essence, the question is whether all of our digital gadgets are an integrated part of our extended minds, or if they are masters of our time and awareness.

Cyborg dreams

Digital gadgets are the first thing we touch in the morning, and the last thing we stroke at night. Are we slaves to their magic?

by Tom Chatfield

Screen dreams: 'we cannot afford to believe in magic, or to overlook the effortful divide between us as we actually are and ‘us’ as we appear on screen.' Photo by Allen Donikowski/Flickr/Getty

Today, depending on your favoured futurist prophet, a kind of digital Elysium awaits us all. Over millennia, we have managed to unshackle ourselves from the burdens of time and space — from heat, cold, hunger, thirst, physical distance, mechanical effort — along a trajectory seemingly aimed at abstraction. Humanity’s collective consciousness is to be uploaded into the super-Matrix of the near future — or augmented into cyborg immortality, or out-evolved by self-aware machine minds. Whatever happens, the very meat of our physical being is to be left behind.

Except, of course, so far we remain thorougly embodied. Flesh and blood. There is just us, slumped in our chairs, at our desks, inside our cars, stroking our smartphones and tablets. Peel back the layers of illusion, and what remains is not a brain in a jar — however much we might fear or hunger for this — but a brain within a body, as remorselessly obedient to that body’s urges and limitations as any paleolithic hunter-gatherer.

It’s a point that has been emphasised by much recent research into thought and behaviour. To quote from Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, ‘cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain’. Yet when it comes to culture's cutting edge, there remains an overwhelming tendency to treat embodiment not as a central condition of being human that our tools ought to serve, but rather as an inconvenience to be eliminated.

One of my favourite accounts of our genius for unreality is a passage from the David Foster Wallace essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction’ (1990), in which he describes, with escalating incredulity, the layers of illusion involved in watching television.

First comes the artifice of performance. ‘Illusion (1) is that we’re voyeurs here at all,’ he writes, ‘the “voyees” behind the screen’s glass are only pretending ignorance. They know perfectly well we’re out there.’ Then there’s the capturing of these performances, ‘the second layer of glass, the lenses and monitors via which technicians and arrangers apply ingenuity to hurl the visible images at us’. And then there are the nestled layers of artificiality involved in scripting, devising and selling the scenarios to be filmed, which aren’t ‘people in real situations that do or even could go on without consciousness of Audience’.

After this comes the actual screen that we’re looking at: not what it appears to show, but its physical reality in ‘analog waves and ionised streams and rear-screen chemical reactions throwing off phosphenes in grids of dots not much more lifelike than Seurat’s own impressionist “statements” on perceptual illusion’.

But even this is only the warm-up. Because — ‘Good lord’ he exclaims in climax — ‘the dots are coming out of our furniture, all we’re really spying on is our furniture; and our very own chairs and lamps and bookspines sit visible but unseen at our gaze’s frame...’

There’s a certain awe at our capacity for self-deception, here — if ‘deception’ is the right word for the chosen, crafted unrealities in play. But Foster Wallace’s ‘good lord’ is also a cry of awakening into uncomfortable truth.

It reminds me of the scene in the film The Matrix (1999) in which Neo has to decide between taking the blue pill that will preserve his illusions, and the red pill that will reveal what his world actually looks like. He swallows the red pill, gulps a glass of water, and is led into another room. Nothing happens, until he reaches out to touch a mirror. Its surface shivers, sticks to his hand, then begins to flow over his skin like liquid cement, rising along his arm and down his throat. Choking, he screams — and wakes up somewhere else, naked, bald, gasping for air inside a cocoon filled with fluid.

It’s the perfect contemporary depiction of an atavistic fear: that the world around us is a lie. However, The Matrix is also a suitably ambivalent fable for modern times — because its lies aren’t supernatural tricks, but the apotheosis of human ingenuity. And the problem isn’t so much illusion itself as who’s in charge. The baddies here are the evil machines. But so long as we’re the ones running the show, it’s sunglasses, guns, and anti-gravity kung fu all the way, which is an infinitely more enticing destiny than unenhanced actuality.

What the red pill promises isn’t actually the real world at all. It’s the Matrix as it ought to be, knowingly bent to serve our desires: a dream of omnipotence through disembodiment.
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~ Tom Chatfield is a writer and commentator on digital culture. His latest book, Netymology: from Apps to Zombies, a Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World, is published by Quercus in March.

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