The Barcode Moment, part 3

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There have been a lot of very interesting reactions, thoughts and questions bubbling up around this conversation about the virtual future. Originally I wrote two posts attempting to explore some of these issues, but a third installment begun to seem necessary as the conversation developed, and questions proliferated on all sides. So here it is. Like the other posts in this series, it is part of a developing conversation and an ever-shifting pattern of thought.

One of the interventions which came in as a response to all this, and which made me examine my background thinking, came from the thinker and artist Pat Kane. ‘Isn’t it deeply natural’, he asked, ‘for symbolic apes to overlay reality with abstractions/images?’ Isn’t this, he asked, what poetry does? It was a good point. It is easy to imagine that our current acceleration into narcissistic virtual reality is new. It looks new, after all: the shiny screens, the goggles, the apps. But these, really, are only an acceleration of the trend that has existed since humanity could write. What is writing, after all? It is an abstract representation of experienced reality. You look at these marks on the screen, and they communicate meaning to you. They are symbols. The word ‘tree’ represents an object in the external world which we can both relate to, but the word itself is a collection of lines on a page or screen.

I read recently – and I can’t remember where I read it, or even whether it was apocryphal or factual – of an encounter between Western culture and a man from a tribal society. Instead of being the usual story, in which Western culture comes crashing into his world, this was the other way round: it was the story of a man from an indigenous community who had come or been brought to the West. He walked into a room and was shocked to see a man standing stock still, staring down at something in his hand. This man was not responding in any way to his external environment; to the room or to the man who had just walked into it or to anything outside the window. He was motionless but for his eyes, which were moving rapidly. He seemed, to the newcomer, to be dead or comatose even though he was standing up. The object in his hand was a book.

‘Symbolic apes’, then, might be as good a general description of our species as any. When we talk about trans-humanism, or post-humanism, we need to understand that we are talking about a spectrum rather than an event. I think it is likely that in 500 years time there will be no human beings as we currently understand them in existence, for one of two possible reasons. The first possibility is that we will have destroyed the Earth, and with it ourselves. The second possibility is that we will have somehow avoided doing this and will instead have uploaded ourselves into something else: merged with our technology and become more – or less – than human. This is the ultimate progressive fantasy, and this progressive culture has been trying to access it for over a century.

But what would a hunter-gatherer from the Mesolithic think if she were somehow able to travel here and examine a 21st-century human ? If she were to look at me, with a plastic and steel contraption on my eyes to enhance my vision, and metal in my teeth and an old scar inside my throat where my tonsils were surgically removed and, who knows, in 25 years time a silicon artificial hip and a couple of new heart valves made out of parts of a pig? Would she not think that she had seen the post-human future? Jeppe Graugaard has pointed me towards an interview with futurist Steve Fuller, author of the predictably-titled ‘Humanity 2.0.’ Fuller, who is a fan of this direction of travel, says: ‘people are voting with their feet to enter Humanity 2.0 with the time they spend in front of computers, as opposed to having direct contact with physical human beings. In all this, it’s not so much that we’ve been losing our humanity but that it’s becoming projected or distributed across things that lack a human body. In any case, Humanity 2.0 is less about the power of new technologies than a state of mind in which we see our lives fulfilled in such things.’

I think he’s right, and I think that most people, given the opportunity, will want this to go further. But for those of us who don’t – those of us who think we can identify a point beyond which we are not personally prepared to plunge into this – what then? What do we do? How do we live?

This question is not new either. Samuel Butler’s novel Erewhon is about a future society which has chosen to destroy all technology created after a particular date precisely because they have realised that the endpoint of technological progress would be the end of humanity as they knew it. I’ve already mentioned Orwell, who speculates at length in the Road to Wigan Pier on ‘the tendency of the machine to make a fully human life impossible’, and how the inevitable endpoint of this vision of progress is the human being reduced to ‘a brain in a bottle.’ If and when we choose to revolt personally against this, we are revolting not against something new in itself, but simply to the next logical step on a very old journey away from wild Nature and towards an internal world in which we get to create our own version of reality. And, most likely, we will be in the minority. Like the old man outside the dome in Logan’s Run, we may end up entirely shut out, if not extinct: a possibility that both Rosie and Rade touch on underneath part one of this series.

But what if that is not the point? If you treat this not as a ‘global issue’ which requires some kind of organised political response but instead as a personal experience you have to live through, things start to look rather different. I usually find that the small picture is the most important one. You can think about ‘global issues’ until your head hurts and you want to die of despair: it is another form of abstraction. We live by the small things: the things we can control or experience personally. There are fewer and fewer things, in a consumer economy, that we are encouraged or permitted to control, as this fascinating essay explains. But if we want to, we are still free to make different lives for ourselves to whatever degree we can manage it. We are as free (for now) to say no to the Google goggles as we are to say no to credit cards or cars or supermarket shopping. That doesn’t mean escaping from the machine – that’s impossible – but it means negotiating a relationship with it which gives us as much autonomy as we need or can get or can cope with. In these times, this is probably the best we’re ever going to do.

Personally, I have always been with Orwell and with Lawrence: the machine dehumanises us, sucks out of us some animal essence which it is impossible perhaps to explain but can be clearly intuited by those who are paying attention. We can’t react to this by trying to globalise these feelings. We don’t have to be activists, campaigning to try and make our particular view of virtual technology the dominant one. This kind of approach is doomed to fail and will lead to despair, just as the attempt to prevent climate change and environmental crisis in this way is leading to despair. There are tides in the affairs of men, and standing on the beach ordering the waves back does not make you brave or forward-thinking.

This is a personal view, and one I have been developing for a long time, but it seems to me that retreat is both the best way to ensure personal sanity and to keep the flame of a particular, pre-machine vision of humanity alive. We all choose our own personal visions. I have talked about retreating and withdrawing before, and it often brings down upon my head accusations of ‘defeatism‘ and the like from the activist-minded. To this, I would borrow the retort of the Scottish poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, to a friend who criticised him for moving away from Edinburgh to a remote farm, where he spent much of his time creating a beautiful, and provocative, garden. Why was he running away from urban reality and from engagement with it, asked his friend. Finlay replied: ‘Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.’

Retreat-as-attack; tending a monastery through the coming dark ages; being a poppy in the face of the machine. What more is there? It feels like enough, to me. It feels like a lifetime’s work in itself.

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