The Barcode Moment, part 2

metrolandYou are currently interacting with a machine. On the other side of another machine, miles away from you, connected by wires and satellite signals in a way that, probably, neither of us understands or can control, is me, currently sitting on my bed in my dressing gown, typing these words into a laptop computer which, in a few short years, will seem primitive and old fashioned. As I write these words, and you read them, we are both playing our part in the rolling ecocide which is currently enfolding the Earth. The thought is a depressing one, but it is also a slightly unreal one. Most of us can’t see any ‘ecocide’ going on; we hear of it, ‘know’ of it, see it as an abstraction, real but unexperienced. And so we go on, enjoying what these machines bring us even as we worry, sometimes, about where they might be taking us or what is at the other end of the wires.

You have probably never met me, and I have no idea who you are. We think we are ‘interacting’ with each other, but we are not. I am interacting with a machine, and you are doing the same. You can read my words, and if you like you can respond to them with your own words, but – as Dougald pointed out here some time ago – this is far from being a genuine human interaction. We are not responding to each others’ body language, or smiles or frowns. There is no chit-chat, no animal relationship at work, no drawing on the ancient intuitions of our species which allow us to converse person-to-person, with all that this entails. There is just a monologue, cast in pixels. We may stimulate each others’ brains, as we sit hunched over these glowing machines, but the rest of us sits inert, gazing in on an abstraction.

How quickly did we get used to this? For most of my life, it has not been possible. I remember when I was at school, in the sixth form, and one of my upwardly-mobile mates got himself an early mobile phone, the size of a brick, and everyone laughed at him for being a wannabe yuppie. Twenty years on, many people seem unable to live without virtual mobile communications, which have changed our relationship with each other and our environments in short order. Downloading the web into your head via your Google Goggles might seem absurd or frightening now but soon, very soon, it will seem workaday.

Have a look at this fascinating report, from last week’s Observer, from the new ‘Singularity University’ in California, set up and bankrolled by the Silicon Valley dweebs I talked about in my last post. Absurd, some of it, and terrifying – especially the future of warfare, which is where much of this comes from. And look at what drives it – that old, Western terror of ego-death. Look, too, at that vision of the future stripped of anything but humanity: our raging ape-narcissim projected onto the world through our robotic and computerised alter egos.

And yet this – the self-driving cars, the search for immortality, the meteor-mining, the silly space fantasies, the silicon transcendence that all of it represents – this is where we’re going, and though we are going there frighteningly fast, we are doing so in stages, each of which we seem to absorb and welcome with no worries. Cars that drive themselves? Bring it on! Don’t ask questions – questions are for Luddites! Each stage causes a tremor but not a full earthquake. At the end of the process, if there ever is one, you are no longer human and Earth is no longer Earth. We – a species that has lived through abstractions sicne we first drew pictures on the walls of caves – will have reached the inevitable endpoint of this process of living internally rather than extrenally: we will have remade the world in our own image. But there may never be, for most of us, a barcode moment; there may never be a line-crossing, doubt-quashing step that makes everything clear. Instead, there will be a climb down an endless series of small but manageable steps into another world.

As the great Bruce Springsteen once put it, ‘you get used to anything / sooner or later it just becomes your life.’ This, I think, is what is walking us rapidly towards that Singularity. We are a hugely adaptable species and also, paradoxically, a conservative one. If you grow up in Bladerunner world, Bladerunner world seems to be Just The Way Things Are.

Luckily, I didn’t grow up in Bladerunner world. I grew up in Middlesex; or rather, that part of greater London which was once Middlesex. My Middlesex was an endless suburb. The local park and the drain under the tube line we played in, the always-closed cricket pavilion, the junior school with the asphalt playground and the blackberries in the hedges. The old toyshop on the bridge, the garages behind the council estate, the thin strips of back garden, the fake-beamed Ind Coope pub from which emanated the exciting and glamorous smell of stale bitter. This was the Middlesex of my childhood. These are my blue remembered hills.

But there was once another Middlesex, one that I am much too young to have seen. This place had been, before the arrival of the Romans, a great forest of oak, elm and beech, inhabited by elk, wolf and deer. Later, the home of the Middle-Saxons became the second-smallest county in England, a retreat for merchants from the noise and grime of London. It developed into an agricultural ‘home county’ with a distinct character – small, hidden, human-scale – which made its loss the harder to take for those who knew it. These days, Middlesex barely exists. It has all been swallowed up by London, and even those who live there don’t use the county’s name anymore. There is only a memory where a place used to be.

I discovered John Betjeman, the chronicler of the death of Middlesex, in my early twenties. I discovered old-fashioned poems about places I knew – Harrow, Greenford, Rayner’s Lane, Ruislip – in guises that meant nothing to me. It was like seeing a picture of your mother at 18, young and free and with no idea you will ever be born. Here was a county of whispering pines, enormous hayfields, elm trees, meadowlands, low, laburnum leaned-on railings. The evocation of its loss was strong and clean and managed to raise a nostalgia in me for something I had never been part of.

For it wasn’t the world I knew. I knew pavements and park railings and cul-de-sacs and council estates and concrete street lamps and white dog shit and the remains of old air raid sirens. Compared to its past richness, my Middlesex was a drab monoculture. It was, in Betjeman’s words, ‘silent under soot and stone’. But I liked it, because it was where I came from.

And I wonder now whether we could Middlesex the whole world. I wonder if we could replace the rainforests with plantations, fish out the seas until only a couple of commercial species are left, carpet the moors in turbines and dam all the rivers and build endless suburbs over what remains of the haymeadows which are now used to grow maize for silage. I wonder if we could busy ourselves with our microchips and machines, turning the world into a planetary farm to support our digital appetites and sinking deeper into our machine narcissism as we do. I wonder if we could deplete the diversity and richness of this wild world by eighty or ninety percent – and within a few generations see it all forgotten, even by those who noticed its going. I wonder if, raised in this culture, with all the new toys to play with, wearing our Google Goggles, sitting in our self-driving cars, we would even notice, or care?

Our current plunge into ecological overshoot could lead to global economic collapse. Our pushing up against ecological limits could lead to the unplanned scaling-back of the human machine. It could push Gaia into what James Lovelock calls ‘ a fever’, in which all bets are off, the planet’s ecosystems shift wildly into new states and it’s game over for human hubris, if not for humanity itself. That’s the fear – or the hope, depending on your point of view.

But what if the fear is wrong? What if we somehow manage to get ourselves out of this fix? What if the Silicon Valley cornutopians are right, and technology or ingenuity or blind luck save us? Or what if Earth reacts differently: what if it can, after all, tolerate the elimination of 80% of terrestrial life? What if a planet of rats, cockroaches, pigeons, GM crops, synthetic livestock and post-human immortals is possible after all?

In other words, what if all our talk of ‘collapse’ is a narrative designed to quell a worse fear: that things might not collapse, but continue like this? That the Earth’s final wild frontiers may be tamed and diluted, ravaged and destroyed, and that we would not care much because we were too busy following the logic of our narrative to its endpoint, becoming our machines – our little creations, made in our own image, sent out to rule the world with our culture’s poison in their silicon veins.

In the next and final post in this series I’m going to try and address this stuff at a far more local, human level. If this rush towards the virtual can’t be escaped from – if nothing will rescue us but collapse – what might be the best way to live through it, on a practical, day-to-day level? All thoughts on that question are very welcome.

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