Infinite Loop 7: “Future Noir.”

I am going to break the cast I have
set in this article. I want to address some larger
issues other than the Mac and the Mac Web. But
if you use a computer at all, if you have ever
surfed the net, what I have to say applies to
you. For there is danger in what you are doing
right now.

There have always been optimists
and pessimists in history. In times of technological
change they both rise up to pronounce their expectations
about the future. There just seems to be something
about human nature which motivates this. Change
gets us thinking and we begin to extrapolate.
“Things will be better,” one says. “Things
will be worse,” says the other. “Nothing will
ever changes,” says someone else. Optimistic and
pessimistic future visions are bandied about.
It has been this way since the Egyptians, Babylonians
and the Greeks.

Think of the difference between
the visions presented, say, in Star Trek and Blade
Runner. Both assume that technology is the motive
force behind the visions. Star Trek tells us nations
have collapsed for the “Federation.”
On the other hand, Blade Runner, the classic future
noir film, presents a vision in which what counts
as a person has been lost.

We ought to be careful here. We
must distinguish between “science” and “technology.”
I will use these terms as terms of art. Science,
at least on one view (there are many views of
what science is), is a particular view about the
nature of the cosmos. It is in fact a philosophy.
We call it “mechanism”: The cosmos is, if not
a machine in actuality, then very machine-like.
Since machines run according to strict laws, the
scientist’s task is to discover these laws. We
call them “laws of nature.” “Technology,” roughly
for our purposes, is the application of these
laws and philosophy to the human situation. Thus,
computer science has been applied to create the
Mac you are sitting in front of and the web you
are floating on right now. Both are technology.
The two are always entangled. It is no surprise
then that the rise of science in the West in fifth
century Greece also marks the birth of medicine,
the application of that scientific world view
to the human situation.

A recent article on the Mac
Web has caught our attention. In “The
Internet Millennium
” Del
Miller addresses the application of science to
the human situation. He says he is an optimist
about the future. His argument is as follows.
At this point in history several conditions have
come together which have not come together heretofore,
namely, global democracy, the death of the state,
and computer technology (the web). Miller assumes
that democracy brings out the best in humanity,
and that states are by nature repressive (assumptions
worth considering in themselves). With the best
expressed as much as it can be, we will for the
first time use technology, a very powerful technology,
the way it should it be–to improve the human
situation. He says, “There is no reason that
these new technologies must be turned to the business
of dealing death, for the underlying engine of
that process [imperialism and the state] no longer
exists.” In other words, borders and national
identities, he says, will collapse and true human
goodness will flourish. The Star Trek vision is
alive and well. Blade Runner got it wrong in other
words. But it is not my intention to disagree
with him on details.

Now it would be logically questionable
to attribute what happens to the parts (individuals),
to the whole (communities, nations); after all,
just because a brick house is made of bricks it
does not follow that it is a brick too! Del steers
away from this. Nonetheless, he uses a telescope,
and I will use a microscope, to look at technology’s
impact on our possible future. There are many
assumptions he makes which could be discussed;
and there appears to be a Eurocentric bent to
the piece. But one assumption stands out to us
as philosophers which has interesting implications:
He assumes that there is such thing as human nature
in the first place. For Del makes the assumption
that he is optimistic about something (or, that
the thing he is optimistic about exists at all),
and this seems to be human nature’s capacity for
the good, once its chains have been cut. Yet,
there are many views of human nature, and one
says there is no such thing. I put the point as
I do for the following reason: Technology impacts
individuals first and groups only secondarily,
if at all. That is what I wish to explore here.
In other words, I wish to examine technology’s
impact from the bottom up not the top down.

I have spent many hours on the
web. That’s where I have been, as if it is a place
to be at all. It certainly seems real enough sometimes.
I have absorbed its language and metaphors. I
see the world in much different ways because of
my exposure to it. I no longer see towns made
up simply of buildings and locations; I no longer
see communities constituted by proximate and contiguous
beings. Existence itself is more loosely connected
to space-time. Existence has become spread out
and thin. Space-time itself has become a lesser
foe in my attempts to control the world. To put
in terms of my craft: The world has become more
“Platonic.” I think more in terms of universals
and to a lesser degree particulars.

What was viewed as real is no longer
viewed as the really real. On a common sense level
real things are things which occupy a space-time
point in the causal framework. But with the web
I can, as it were, be in two places at once if
I wish. I am at my class pages, my Mac pages,
pages I write for, all at the same time, even
when I am not “there” at all, and never have been.
(I am assuming some degree of identity between
me and my web creations, which I will address
in a later article.) Thus, not only has existence
itself become spread out and thin, so have
. The I, the ego, is no longer bounded by
brute physicality and mathematical points on a
spatial-temporal continuum. This ego, through
the computer, has become metaphysically elastic.

Sherry Turkle, in her book “Life
on the Screen
,” says the internet can “serve
as a place for the construction and reconstruction
of identity.” Turkle’s example is a “MUD“:
A multi-user domain. They are places on the net
where people engage in role playing. The
Twilight MUD
is an example. They are basically
relational databases with multi-user interfaces.
They are also “places,” virtual communities,
in which one constructs a digital self and interacts
with other digital selves. The interaction has
repercussions and effects, as if cause and effect
are real in the virtual community. One can create
a multitude of personalities in a MUD. Intense
users describe personal fragmentation. They speak
in terms of “my life as . . .” and name their
virtual counterpart or counterparts. Too intense
an activity on a MUD, argues Turkle, causes a
confusion about who we are ande a fragmentation
of our identity. Virtual selves get confused with
real selves.

But we need not look to MUDs for
such personality splits. I, for example, have
many user names, aliases if you will. With enough
thought and effort I can create a complete picture
of who I am in your mind. I control all the information
you have about me. I have in effect created a
digital reflection of my “real” self. To you it
me. That is who you relate to, for you
have never touched me.

I can also, with the click of a
mouse, cause things to happen far away from my
present location; I can produce cause-effect relations
which circle the globe. My Mac, my computer, is
a remote control device wherein I click and it
happens anywhere on Earth. It’s “spooky action
at a distance” perhaps. While my ego has become
elastic, the world has become Silly Putty ready
for my manipulation. I can manipulate it with
greater ease than before. Or, at least it seems
so. For I am most of the time manipulating a virtual

If in fact we can, to a degree,
equate the ego with its creations, including web
creations, such as user names, MUDs, and web pages,
then I have been at a lot places without traveling.
I have been many places without leaving my chair.
All this happens without changing the physical
place I am at. It’s the paradox of the internet.
I can in a sense be everywhere, which is just
as good as saying I am nowhere, for something
that is everywhere is not localized and being
localized is being some place. My ego reaches
it’s vanishing point. There is then, at that point,
no human in “human nature.”

Del, in his article, surmises that
the internet will collapse national boundaries.
I have my doubts about this; I see no historical,
inductive evidence as Del seems to, for future
optimism. History shows human nature shunning
the good, the true and the beautiful too often.
But that’s not my point. The possible future is
not just the collapse of political borders,
as Del suggests, if that occurs at all. The possible
future, the danger to our humanity, is the collapse
of ego borders not national borders.The
vanishing of personal identity not national
is our possible future. The threat
is a thinning out and fuzziness of what it means
to be, and to be human in the first place. If
while I am, I am no where in virtue of the possibility
of being everywhere, there is no ego which is
anywhere. This is not a deconstruction of the
person, for the fear is that there was no person
to be deconstructed in the first place.

Yet, I am a realist in the fullest
sense of the word. I think the good, the true
and the beautiful would exist even if no minds
existed at all. The previous paragraphs thus point
to the possibility of confusing the issue of personhood
rather than changing it. If we have a human nature,
it will be what it will be regardless of our best
efforts. Perhaps it is our nature to create human
nature. I cannot say. But when concepts of that
nature become confused as they can in the web
experience, then humanity’s ground is lost. At
this point, it does not matter whether nations
exist or not (or whether they have ever existed).
It is still a confusion, and if it happens it
can lead to the evaporation of the person in the
whole. It’s a possible future where we
lose ourselves, misplace ourselves and forget
ourselves. Looking to the possible future I see
a Blade Runner vision rather than a Star Trek
vision. But then again, it is up to us.


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