> technology : directions : computopiautopian scenarios provide examples of technology value systems; visions for the best uses of our machines, while often impossible, can shed light on the choices that we make, or don't make, about technology responsibility."man ain't meant to work
also embedded in these discussions is weighty consideration of the fate of humanity with regards to its machines. wooh - scary!
c'mon build a machine!
so we can sleep and make love deeper
later we can dance and we can drink
man ain't meant to work
c'mon build a machine!
so we can live for our own pleasure"
- "So What!," lyrics by Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction
this scenario has been explored within the confines of science fiction/fantasy writing: in his "Elric of Melniborne" and "Chronicles of Corum" serieses, Michael Moorcock illustrates the post-technological dilemna - having refined progress to the point of complete human independence of sustenance activities, the human race is only around to make art and love. (of course we refine our brainpower to such a degree we become passive psychics, actually amused to allow the eventual takeover by less evolved beings, jealous of our enhanced lifestyle and frustrated by our aloofness.)"Percolating through [some parodies of AT&T "You Will" ads] is a simmering resentment at the tacit assumption that the future will be - is being, even as you read this - hardwired by multinational corporations rather than collectively imagined by everyone who will one day inhabit it."
in 1995, i projected out the web economic/productivity model to envision a society of artists. computers would eventually manufacture computers, and run the food distribution system, so we could give tools to everyone and exchange ideas.
it was a utopian vision appropriate for the early days of the web. since then more insidious activities have emerged as the driving force of web technology development, besides personal pages and academic research: hit tracking subscription model sports and Jerry Springer get the big ratings.
but when they are not presented as the only viable vision, and perhaps begrudgingly acknowledged as relative, flawed and at best unlikely, these utopias serve as an inspiration, and contribute to a dialog on priorities. indeed if computers and technologies are meant to primarily facilitate art, than we find the busi-ness of keeping up with efficiency has not accelerated our time to devote to creation per se, unless one counts memos and emails and academic treatises as creation. the oiling of that machine we've built is our primary creativity, and the machine is not self supporting yet. until then, we'll occupy our spare chances for creativity with concocting doomsday scenarios for when that complete machine autonomy emerges.
if, however, we find convenience to be the ultimate dreamscape - doing all the things we do today, but easier and faster, then we find our tools should be individually crafted to afford ease of motion. and this is often the case today - personal efficacy being a primary force behind consumer electronics and medicine.
after watching ephemeral films (1950s era "envision your future in this beautiful new Plymouth!" as a lady wearing bubbles on her clothes floats into a seat and drives across a truly cyber if low budget looking landscape with the man of her dreams, who probably had the new 3COM PalmIII personal digital assistant in his pocket *and* was happy to see her) in Tim Burke's Social History of Consumption class, and watching AT&T celebrate their future vision with the "You Will" campaign, the utopian ideal takes on a new and dangerous undertone. far from when Terrance McKenna and Justin Hall project their personal habits (psychedelic mushrooms and web publishing, respectively) into the future and across the race, companies who publish their notions of the future should be tangibly closer to making them real. most utopian citizens manufacture hot air and maybe a little citizen motivation, but companies manufacture tools and markets for actual future stuff!
- Mark Dery, Escape Velocity, page 13
when the utopiates provide a program for the use of machines, how we might get from here to neverneverland, then they serve an enlightening function. coming from companies the goals of the invention are suspect, and may indeed end up part of Bruce Sterling's "Dead Media Project" - a graveyard for failed innovation. if we consider necessity the mother of invention, something seems awry when a secondary necessity appears to fuel the development of new technologies. secondary needs would be something like "we need to position ourselves as the company with the best vision of the future" or "we should tie our products to the future and the convenience and comfort that represents for our consumers.""Placing our faith in an end-of-the-century deus ex machina that will obviate the need to confront the social, political, economic, and ecological problems clamoring for solutions is a risky endgame. The metaphysical glow that increasingly haloes the high-tech tomorrows of cyberdelic philosophers, corporate futurologists, pop science programs ... blinds us to the pressing concerns all around us."
(these would seem to be the attitudes driving the visions of the future in advertisments from AT&T - has there been great consumer demand or social necessity for business videoconferencing on the beach? "there will be.")
if people take these visions to be truth, and chase the latest products, they will find few substantive rewards. it seems most people know this to be true, still the society collectively trudges ever onwards upgrading all its physical systems; at this point some techno-utopianism is simply an optimistic look at where we might be headed with all this bunk.
accepting notions along the lines of "we're going there, so we might as well believe it's gonna deliver us" is dangerous, according to Mark Dery:
- Mark Dery, Escape Velocity, pages 10-11
positing technology as the solution to social or spiritual problems, as communication companies and web visionaries are wont to do, is not only false, but perhaps as dangerous as it is distracting. we continue to refine our personal spaces of production within an increasingly tightly framed grid of symbol-oriented activities; if we think we are improving our happiness with our lifespans and our technologies, we have not yet been proven correct. check the prisons if you don't believe me."Clearly, cyberculture is approaching escape velocity in the philosophical as well as the technological sense. it resounds with transcendentalist fantasies of breaking free from limits of any sort, metaphysical as well as physical."
so the question looms large, when stranded in our kitchens of distinction, what shall we do with ourselves? and most of the beyond-product utopias take up here, beyond the point where we have bodies that need to shit and eat, and brothers and sisters separated by no more than two to four degrees who lack access to or refuse our toolsystems.
in fact, my techno-utopian thinking grinds to a halt when i consider the manufacture of machines in their current form; the seamy grimy ugly underbelly of technology that requires an underclass in the developing world to provide excitement for the wired American vanguard.
to continue to dream in digital requires leaving the body then, leaving behind the realities of physical constraints, pollution, economics. human-machine imaginings facilitate this: there appears to be something exciting about our tools that inspires out of body, detached from sustenance fantasies:
- Mark Dery, Escape Velocity, page 8
it is this detachment that enables folks to run wild. perhaps this is the legacy of technology - that it provides the means, or the illusion of means, of ordering and escaping the universe. but these visions are not solely the perview of cyberculture, corporate or otherwise. in this fantasy from 1968, "1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)" Jimi Hendrix describes a body-modified trip to Atlantis afforded by a machine:So my love, Catherina and me,
decide to take our last walk through the noise to the sea
Not to die but to be reborn,
away from lands so battered and torn
The machine, that we built,
would never save us', that's what they say
(That's why they ain't coming with us today)
And they also said it's impossible for a man to live and breathe under water, forever,
was their main complaint
Our machine, it has done its work, played its part well
Without a scratch on our bodies and we bid it farewell
- Jimi Hendrix, "1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)," Electric Ladyland, 1968
the machine is an escape from the world torn up by "giant pencil and lipstick tube shaped things" - other machines. so there are good, and bad machines (stasis). the machine affords the dream denied by their friends. the machine makes their bodies better, and they head off into the ocean, waving goodbye to the box and not their buddies.
this kind of psychedelic embracing of the machine for human potential is the far reach of technology visions, and here it preceeds the personal computer and the establishment of a clear and present "cyberculture." Hendrix applies his far out poetic imaginings to medical technology/body modification, and as a result the ancient realm of Atlantis, home to magicians and scientists, is accessible after we use the machine as it wasn't intended.
a more recent articulation of a similar vision is expressed here in this Dilbert cartoon (here larger, more readable perhaps):
- Scott Adams, Dilbert, February 11, 1996.
the notion that communications technologies will hardwire the psychic energies of the human race, and allow finally for the arrival of some kind of spiritual force is certainly a far cry from the stated intent of the founders of the internet. while they had better communication in mind, i doubt they envisioned "the global brain" - or "'God' ... the consciousness that will be created when enough of us are connected by the Internet." describing the internet in these terms handedly ignores the 95% of the world that has never checked its email, but perhaps allows for a more creative and ultimately humane understanding of the best use of our machines. the alternative vision is "you will.""...if repression were overcome and man could enjoy the life proper to his species, the regressive fixation to the past would dissolve; the resless quest for novelty would be reabsorbed into the desire for pleasurable repetition; the desire to Become would be reabsorbed into the desire to Be."
besides the intriguing techno-spew of psychedelicists (Hendrix, McKenna), science fiction writers have asked many of the most pressing and difficult questions about machines. Philip K. Dick stands out for addressing identity and technology in his stories about systemic determinism (Man in the High Castle), virtual memory ("We'll Remember it for you Wholesale") and arbitrating human-ness (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). Often what he acknowledges with his characters is the messiness of the whole thing; in spite of our magical machines, we are still beasts underneath, with irreconcilable desires.
according to Norman O. Brown, it's these unacknowledged, omnipresent human desires, or neuroses that drive the dangers aspects of progress:
- Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death, page 93
certainly much of high technology is the restless quest for novelty, and many of the arguments about appropriate use dwell in aged notions (electronic babysitting). recognizing this situation and transforming oneself if Brown's key to unified post-Freudian mind-body consciouness. this is where technology theory (building to Become) meets religion at large (just Be happy/enlightened, etc): creation of a heaven on earth? forget it; it's all in our minds, paradise is here now, let's get loose and enjoy ourselves."As soon as you took silicon sand off the beach and turned it into a chip, you did something horrible to the cycle and rhythm of nature. Because the rhythm of nature was waves washing over that silicon sand, ok? That's action and repose. Which is like this, a series of cycles of action and repose. The wave, the peak, the troth, back and forth, the flow and ebb of tides, natural time and cycles and rhythms. Digital time is reversed in so far as it is a no wait state of progressive chip speed increases waiting for the warm-blooded primate to escape natural rhythm and cycles and get into some giddy, frantic, digital squirrel wheel with an ironic plastic object that has no feelings."
where Brown considers progress and the sense of self, Robert Markison considers progress and the sense of time. natural time (he describes it here as a cycle) is broken by the relentless persuit of progress (augmented by computers):
- Robert Markison, interview, March 12, 1997
the computer is a human means of enslaving resources that has in turn enslaved us. the vision inferred by Markison's remarks (and elaborated on in his interview) is one where humans are more responsible for their position in time and space, and exercise that through creation and education.
both of these are visions engaging the future of human-technology interaction., techno-less utopian visions, . here the best human outcome is happiness, dependent on abandoning the pace of technology and leading a life grounded in a more biologial sense of appropriate "natural rhthym." for Brown and Markison, considering the human animal in the utopia is most important, a higher priority than concocting efficiency scenarios involving greater human-machine compatibility.
the more ordered minds responsible for efficiency fantasies too often ignore the human side of the future: unintended uses and consequences. technologically enabled futurists see the world unfolding from their conveniences and use-patterns extended worldwide. their scenarios require a narrow vision, since the ordering of resources and establishing of technology priorities in a stable fashion requires a unified architecture. but perhaps the machines themselves demand singularity of focus; witness the arguments around vaccines: everyone needs to be on board, or it creates problems for the whole healthy system. proponents of diet pills lead us to believe that the cutting edge will evolve quickly to address swelling side effects. this kind of thinking is deterministic, and insultingly unrealistic.
my best hopes for my computer-utopian scenarios concocted around the web were for a future of collective art making, and for a present of extending resources beyond their still concentrated class locations. this was primarily a culture based fantasy i think, and not a machine based fantasy. existing resources and technologies were used in my scenario, perhaps in greater quantities, definitely different distributions, but i was not hinging my vision on to-be-developed-global-satellite-positioning-equipped-cellular-personal-digital dynapads.
the vision, utopian as it may be called here, of collective reflection and storytelling online has indeed come to some fruition, but it manifests itself in typically unavoidable human ways - everyone has access to my email address and they hourly send me their ten page business pitches and extremist religious theories. is that utopia? it ain't mine - it's ours.
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