By Christiaan Fruneaux & Vincent Schipper
Instead of transforming the mass into energy, information produces even more mass. Instead of informing as it claim, instead of giving form and structure, information neutralizes even further the “social field”, more and more it creates an inert mass impermeable to the classical institutions of the social, and to the very contents of information.
— Baudrillard (In the Shadow of the Silent Majority)
These are extraordinary times. As a society we are moving fast – and, on appearance, we seem to be liquefying everything in our wake. But what to make of it, and where will it lead? Impossible to tell… We’re not prophets. But there are some signals in the Here in the Now that offer some clues. Technology has always been the most powerful engine of social change; it channels our social interaction and it delivers the instruments with which we formulate our understanding of ourselves, and of our surroundings. Remember the opposable thumb, consider the IOT, and then imagine something like Artificial Intelligence. Extraordinary times, thus – strange, sinister and foreboding, or lucid and promising? One thing’s for sure, though; we’re gaining speed, the safety belt’s stuck, and there’s no emergency stop to be found – we’re in it for the ride, or so it seems. There’s no one at the helm, because we all are – the captain has left the cockpit a long time ago. A conversation comes to mind.
“ Well, that doesn’t explain… why you’ve come all the way out here, all the way out here to hell.”
“ l, uh, have a job out in the town of Machine.”
“ Machine? That’s the end of the line.”
“ Is it?”
“ Well, I… received a letter… from the people at Dickinson’s Metal Works…”
“… assuring me of a job there.”
“ Is that so?”
“ Yes. I’m an accountant.”
“ I wouldn’t know, because, uh, I don’t read, but, uh, I’ll tell you one thing for sure: I wouldn’t trust no words written down on no piece of paper, especially from no “Dickinson” out in the town of Machine. You’re just as likely to find your own grave.”
The conversation is a fictional one; it’s an excerpt from the opening sequence of Dead Man, a film by Jim Jarmusch (1995), that is situated somewhere on the Northern Frontier, in the late nineteenth century. A story that somehow feels vaguely relevant.
The dialogue is between William Blake and a nameless railroad technician. William Blake, the man with the letter, is traveling by train from Cleveland to the town of Machine, where a job is waiting for him, or so he thinks. As his journey progresses, and the train moves west, the composition of his fellow travelers changes. At first William fits in, people have an urban feel and are smartly dressed, but as the train moves west, their place is taken by poor frontier families and at the end stages of the journey he is surrounded by smelly bearded gun bearing men dressed in leather and fur.
It becomes obvious that the ‘White Man’ needs civilization to keep him from falling into barbarism, but not before it hollowed him out in the first place.
As the movie continues it becomes clear that the town of Machine represents the uttermost outpost of civilization, it’s hardly a foothold. The men William Blake encounters are without exception depraved degenerates – treacherous fanatics, dumb killers, cruel rapists, twisted cross dressers and murderous cannibals. It becomes obvious that the ‘White Man’ needs civilization to keep him from falling into barbarism, but not before it hollowed him out in the first place. Civilization – e.g. industrialization, or modernization – as depicted by Jarmusch, creates it’s own indispensability.
The empty nature of ‘modern’ culture is contrasted with Blake’s personal journey. Within hours upon arrival Blake kills someone, is shot himself, is forced to flee, and is haunted upon. But, contrary to his countrymen, his journey from civilization is one of spiritual awakening. With the assistance of an Indian called Nobody, who mistakenly takes him for the English poet William Blake, Blake comes to terms with his upcoming death, turns his back on modernity, embraces nature, sheds his urban composure, and finds his true noble self – of course, not before killing many a degenerate in self defense.
“You William Blake?”
“Yes, I am. Do you know my poetry?” [Blake shoots a couple of quarrelsome Marshalls]
We’ve come a long way, and it’s been a nutty ride. After the poet William Blake witnessed, to his utter dismay, his London being transformed into a city of industrial mills and urban decay, we have seen the birth of new ideologies based solely on the realization that technological change and material accumulation have become the most important signifiers of who we are and what we do as a community. Communism, Capitalist doctrine, National Socialism, Fascism, Liberalism, and all there various incarnations, are all based on the premise that Technology and Accumulation form the twin axis around which we shape our behavior, our attitudes, our values and our understanding of ourselves, and the world that we inhabit. Although we’re just here for the ride – note: not driven by any romanticism or with, and us – a distance we instinctively overcome by filling in the blanks with our own ideas, assumptions and projections. We see people on our TV – people who live on different continents, in cultures that are significantly different than ours, and we think we know what and who we are looking at. We see them and we immediately project what we would do and think in their situation and judge them accordingly – forgetting that they life in a world that is regulated by different rules, beliefs, ideas, expectations and conventions To a lesser degree, the same is true when you are on the phone with someone you know. You hear his or her voice, and you image him or her frowning or smiling – all according to your expectations. As a result, a large part of any mediated conversation takes place in the minds of those involved.
The perceived closeness is, thus, not real. It’s an electronically mediated stream of communication, supplemented with our own projections about whom we are talking to, or looking at. Forgetting this –confusing our projections with knowledge based on perception – often creates misunderstandings and miscalculations. And with the expansion of the Internet we become more and more emerged in this mediated reality, a reality that is partly a product of our own projections and assumptions, and partly a product of the programmers and designers who wrote it’s code and designed it’s interface.
“But I understand, William Blake. You were a poet and a painter. And now, you are a killer of white men.” Nobody, starts to recite a poem by William Blake, the poet.
In contrast with William Blake, who travels from cultured Cleveland towards and into the Wild, we submerge ourselves more and more in an environment that is a product of our personal and collected imagination. With the incorporation of the physical in the virtual we plunge ourselves into a reality that is entirely cultural – a reality where everything is man-made, or man-imagined.
Nothing will escape interpretation. All will be embedded in a web of meaning and purpose.
The IOT is the next step towards our total discard of everything that is foreign to us, or outside us. Everything inside the IOT will come from us, or is instantly framed by us. The Natural will be tagged, or it will be instantly recognized, framed and layered upon. Nothing will escape interpretation. All will be embedded in a web of meaning and purpose. In the end the Natural will loose it’s relevance and disappear, decommissioned as redundant. Far fetched? Not really.
Think about looking at a building trough the camera of your Smartphone. Apps will instantly recognize the building, and will start adding layers that will show you, for instance, it’s inner architecture, or the long gone buildings that occupied that particular space during the ages. It’s true that these apps cannot recognize physical shapes as of yet – they just correlate the position and angle of the camera with a database, but somewhere, somebody’s without a doubt working on solving this problem as we speak. And when all’s mapped, processed and made sense off, who will still need the real thing? This senseless physical world ruled by causality… a world that doesn’t emit ready-made consumable narratives, or convey easy systems of meaning?
But we’re not there yet – not by far. We’re still prisoners of our hormones and other bodily inconveniences. But, undeniably, we’ve come a long way. And we’re gaining momentum. Hormones are already highly instrumental – think professional cycling, and, to a degree, manageable – think birth control. Strange times are often taken for granted by those experiencing them. It seems that the Artificial is our destination of choice. Generated by a deep longing to make sense of our lives, our actions, our surroundings and all things that happen to us we opt for sterilized, hygienic, limitless and most of all purposeful lifestyles. And because meaning isn’t easily derived from nature – a world where everything is driven by a seemingly pointless causality – we opt for culture, we opt to cast off the limitations given to us by nature and surround ourselves with our own projections, assumptions and products. Steadily but surely we limit our confrontation with the genuine Otherness. We become rapidly more urbanized; limiting our interaction with Nature, while Nature itself is reduced to National Parks, constraining The Wild to ‘valuable’ but controlled areas, effectively degrading it to The Tamed. And this distancing of ourselves from that-what-originated-outside-of-us continued with the development of telecommunications. Because, as said, communicating via tweet, text message, email, chat, phone, Facebook, etc. is a narrow experience, and the blanks are intuitively filled up with our own projections and assumption. And that’s a real loss, as there’s merit in confronting Otherness.
Dealing with things that are foreign to us confronts us with limitations. It confronts us of what we can do, and what we cannot do, what we can understand and what we cannot understand. It reminds us of the problematic nature of reality, one that will incessantly question our assumptions of the world and our place in it. The realization that there are things outside of our control seems obvious, but, strangely enough, it’s not. Most of our notions are based on the premise that we can do everything we set our minds to. Many of our narratives tell us that nothing is beyond our reach, if only we believe in ourselves – don’t take no for an answer; don’t be taken aback by sudden obstacles; show some perseverance; everything is a challenge.
This essay, published in 2011 in Volume, was the starting point for a prolonged research into how as a modern society we deal with limitation, loss and tragedy. This has resulted in the Still City project. In it we investigate the nature of growth (economic, demographic, technological), and the possibility of a post-growth urban society.
Monnik translates its research into various cultural forms, educational frameworks and consultancy services.