Long before the advent of computers, the French mathematician Laplace (1749-1827), proclaimed: Give me the past and present co-ordinates of any system and I will tell you its future.
This was not an aberration, a jerk reaction in a moment of drunken arrogance. It was a statement of faith. When the history of science and mathematics took a wrong turn and landed in Europe, it found itself imprisoned in a mechanical metaphor. Europe took Indian, Chinese and Islamic sciences and mathematics and stripped them off the higher worldviews of these civilisations and caged them in a reductive universe. Reason was divorced from values and transformed into instrumental reason. Science was separated from non-western metaphysics and romanticised as a quest for Truth, Objectivity and Reality (of the concrete variety). What is left when you filter out all values and higher concerns from knowledge is pure determinism or, at least, what looks like determinism.
Old Laplace was only articulating the aspirations of the Enlightenment scientists. They lived and worked in a mechanical universe. The universe was like a machine. The planets went around the sun, the moon revolved around the earth, and the stars and galaxies moved like clockwork. Even the human body behaved as a machine. The heart beats like a pump, the nervous system is a telephone exchange, and the skeleton is just so many joints and hinges. Determinism was the norm both in the heavens and down here on the earth where the white man claimed his natural position in the order of nature using, what else, but machines. Or to put it more aptly: machines that were far superior than anything that the non-West could muster.
But man cant live by physics alone; metaphysics has an irritating habit of returning through the back door. The metaphor of the machine became the metaphysics of the West.
The advent of the industrial revolution meant that machines spread throughout Europe. Moreover, new technology enabled Europe to subdue and colonise non-western societies further and further afield. As machines invaded more and more aspects of life in Europe, they also became the instruments for expressing its social and political culture. Europeans came to believe that because of their machines their culture was unique and their civilisation superior to all others. Three by-products followed.
Machines became the measure of man. Other civilisations were measured according to the level of their technology, or how they related and relied on machines. European imperialist ideologies of nineteenth and twentieth century were based, almost totally, on the power of machinery and the authority of science-based technologies. Machines were seen as essential to civilisation; indeed, machines were civilisers. A culture without machines was thus naturally uncivilised. A reverse logic also came into operation: not just that society free of machines were seen as inferior to Europe, but Europe itself tried to become more and more like a machine. In other words, the metaphysics of machine began to shape the West itself in its own image.
This led to the second by-product. If man is like a machine, and man makes machines, than what is there to stop man making man? Indeed, this was the conclusion of the logic of secular humanism that became the dominant mode of European thought after the Enlightenment. Man was seen as the outcome of an evolutionary process which regulates by the dictates of survival. In a mechanical universe, man survives his extinction by outsmarting his doom. Mans humanity, his morality, art and science, are nothing but gifts of the biological struggle, chance benefits of mans effort and
genius. For his genesis and existence, therefore, man need be grateful to no one: for it is man, and not some external deity, who is himself responsible for his humanity!
The third by-product was a natural corollary. If man makes man, than man can be god. Western mans yearning to be god can be traced back to when he first discovered that machines can be used to conquer the material world as well as other cultures. European humanists realised that this was only a first step towards the long journey to becoming god. The Florentine humanist, Marsilio Ficino, to give an example, declared in his Theologica Platonica (1480): the immense magnificence of our soul may manifestly be seen from this: man will not be satisfied with the empire of this world, if, having conquered this one, he learns there remains another world which he has not yet subjugated Thus man wishes no superior and no equal and will not permit anything to be left out and excluded from his rule. He thus strives to be God everywhere. (Notice how subjugation is equated with the immense magnificence of our soul.)
This than has been the grand ambition of western man. And machines have played an increasing role not just in the quest for the realisation of that goal but also in shaping western man and his worldview.
The arrival of computers has provided a big boost towards the realisation for this yearning. At the same time, certain intellectual developments in western thought have created the illusion that that goal is now more realisable, hence more urgent, and thus the desire for its fulfilment much more insatiable. Developments such as the demystification of scientific objectivity, the emphasis on indeterminacy in quantum physics and mathematics, the emphasis on discontinuity and difference in history, and the emergence of the new science of chaos and complexity, have all undermined modernity and led to the emergence of postmodernism. The deterministic universe vanishes in a puff of hot air. But the machine, which produced that universe in the first place, becomes more and not less important.
Postmodernism insists that everything is meaningless, that all Grand Narratives – Enlightenment Reason, Science, Religion, Marxism, Modernity, Tradition are pointless, devoid of any substance. It also insists that image shapes realty and that there is not much to choose, even if we could tell the difference, between reality and image. All we can do is to save ourselves from a meaningless universe is to rely on irony, ridicule and cynicism. Nothing else can save our sanity.
Where does one go when life becomes officially meaningless?
One turns towards the classical goal: to be god. And the classical instrument for the realisation of this goal: machines. Which brings me to computers and cyberspace.
It is important to realise that computers are not like machines of the imperial age or those of modernity. Computers bring unimaginable power on our desktop. They incorporate what must be the postmodern science: chaos theory. Simply put, chaos is the occurrence of aperiodic, apparently random events in a deterministic system. In chaos there is order, and in order there lies chaos. Chaos theory is the theory that small changes in the physical world can eventually have unpredictable and potentially major consequences. It presents a universe that is at once deterministic and obeys the fundamental physical laws but capable of disorder, complexity and unpredictability. Chaos uses a new king of geometry known as fractal geometry, a geometry of special types of irregular (non-Euclidean) shapes. Fractals are a way of measuring qualities that otherwise have no clear definition: the degree of roughness or brokenness or irregularity in an object. Indeed, a fractal is a way of seeing infinity. Fractals were first seen on computers; and computers now use fractals to create virtual reality and new worlds. Computerised worlds, based on fractals, are now essential for most special effects in Hollywood films the Star Wars films, for example, used this technology to create landscape for alien planets.
Thus, unlike old machines, computers can be used to create totally new worlds. And one can go inside this machine: using virtual reality you can actually go into these new worlds and interact with them; you can become one with the machine. And, in contrast to old machines, computers can think or give the illusion of intelligence because of their shear processing power and ability to learn from their environment. All of which spells good news for those eager to ascend to god-like status.
Cyberspace is that netherworld that exists within a computer or the network of all the computers in the world, what is called the Internet. Cyberspace is where virtual reality exists. From cyberspace, the mechanical metaphysics of western man comes out to embrace him: he is at one with his metaphysics and his metaphor and both ascend towards the Throne.
Cyberspace future, if we are to believe its propagandists, is a future that is already determined for us. There is just no escape. The title of Michael Dertouzos book, for example, says it all: What Will Be (Piatkus Books, London, 1997). And Dertouzos ought to know: he is from MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, the place that developed the World Wide Web and other computer technologies. So we are heading towards a world of 0s and 1s, an Information Marketplace where muzak will be coming out of our beds, medicine will emerge from data sockets, smart cars will drive us around and all of us, God forbid, will be publishing our own electronic books. So we might as well lie back, think of Microsoft, and enjoy the redemptive experience.
And it is all about redemption. Cyberspace is the new god of secular salvation. Its priests are the mangers of Intel, Xerox, Apple, Lotus and Microsoft the people who dragged the computer out of their technological temples and onto our desks. Its prophets are techno-metaphysicians who search for more profound meaning in the information revolution. These folks talk reverentially about information society, third wave technology, the fourth discontinuity and other claptrap while eagerly anticipating the arrival of the machine who really thinks.
Computers, these chaps tell us, will not only improve the way we work, think and play; they are already doing this. But thanks to computers, we will be better human beings and more integrated communities. The Net is the realisation of the unity towards which the world has been working ever since we tripped over technology. At last, we can realise our true spiritual potential, combing material quest with ethereal yearning, and evolve into a higher life form.
In actuality, the computer revolution is motivated by pure lust. Lust for power, control, perpetual desire for more and more, and of the carnal variety. But most of all, its the lust to be god that gives the information revolution its momentum. But, like all lust, the lust for computers can enslave and then destroy.
Computers are ideal candidates for the lust for power. There is the promise of ever increasing processing power and the accompanying snare of the ability to control. Organisations and individuals computerise in the belief that computers will increase their productivity, improve their administration, and provide more control over their business. Once they have heavily invested in the use of computers to perform crucial tasks, they become irreversibly committed. Systems have to be perpetually upgraded; new software has to be constantly installed. Computerisation creates a whole new set of dependencies on hardware and software manufacturers. One is trapped in a pathological scramble to keep up with the incredible rate of change. Administration and management systematically absorb all that ever-increasing power, while workers are not much better off in terms of autonomy, flexibility or greater control. Computerised efficiency is just another name for increased control by management.
Indeed, computers and workers are antithesis. When computers enter, workers exist. Propagandists for computer technologies perpetually argue that these technologies are creating new jobs. This is partially correct. But in reality computer technologies are destroying more jobs than they are creating. This is nowhere more pronounced than in the sunrise high-tech enterprises. What early computers did to manual workers, the new computerised networks are now doing to white-collar personnel. Crafts and skills are evaporating fast. When intelligent machines arrive, knowledge workers too will receive their exist orders. Thanks to computers, it now takes fewer people to develop, build, and sell a product than ever before. So the gap between the rich and poor is set to widen even more, jobs will become very scarce, and security will be a rare commodity.
Far from ushering in control, computerisation has often increased chaos. Indeed, we are heading towards chaotic times in more ways than one. The first signs of this come from the financial markets and computerised trading, which seems closer to the promise of virtual reality than any other human activity. Here, the problem is simple. Given the speed with which astronomical sums of capital flies across the globe, there can be no management in any real sense. Electronic trading has increased market instability by providing automatic responses and by removing the physical limits of executing trades on actual exchange floors.
As computerised networks and powerful satellite communication links make markets accessible from almost anywhere on the globe, a new breed of paper entrepreneurs increasingly displaces experienced traders. These are computer wizards who depend on their computers rather than experience. They use computer-trading programs with little or no awareness of underlying economic activity. There concern is only immediate gains and thats what computerised trading is all about. It is therefore hardly surprising that markets have been so volatile and unstable since 1987.
Moreover, the computer is the ideal instrument of monopoly. Modern, high technology firms are radically different from traditional old-fashioned businesses. Technological innovations proliferate rapidly making nonsense of conventional economics. Indeed, computers are making the economy weightless more and more of the economy consists not of goods but services. Value is generated in cyberspace while jobs, pensions and welfare dissolve and become weightless. The law of diminishing returns, the foundation of classical (western) economics, goes out of the window. Cyberspace has made the western dream of ever increasing profits a reality. Computers, software, optical fibres and telecommunications equipment, medical electronics and pharmaceuticals are all subject to increasing returns. As more people adopt a specific technology, the more it improves and the more attractive it looks to the designers/adopters and to would-be manufacturers and sellers. At the same time products become cheaper to produce and the whole process is accelerated as consumers multiply. Software, once written, tested, debugged and enhanced, costs peanuts to duplicate. It can thus become a massive source of continuous, ever increasing returns – until the producers decide that the time has come to bring a better version.
More companies are now working under increasing returns, and this situation has lead to de facto monopolies. The success of Microsoft is based on the fact that once the initial cost of developing particular software such as Windows 95 is recouped, the returns continue on an ever-increasing spiral, leading to a monopoly: We are Microsoft. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.
It is therefore not too far-fetched to predict that in the not-too-distant future, the world will be dominated by a handful of multinationals.
Surely, any one with an intelligent head over their shoulders should be able to detect that there are serious problems with the computerised utopias that we are being hurled towards. Disastrous side effects, however, become quite irrelevant when the goal is to posses god-like power. Moreover, the problem with the technonerds is that they are just too spaced out to be intelligent. William Gibson, who coined the term in his novel Neuromancer, described cyberspace as a consensual hallucination. And the computer nuts are perpetually hallucinating; and their hallucinations have both historic and physical reasons.
The origins of cyberspace are to be found in the American war machine. Like Teflon and the mini hi-fi, it is a partially foreseen by-product of research whose sole purpose is to discover better and more efficient ways to kill. In the Sixties, a group of technologically twisted hippies slowly subverted the computer from its Armageddon arithmetic, brought the network out into the open and used it to chat and play games. Today, cyberspace bears all the hallmarks of its hippie subverts from an obsession with pagan, psychedelic and new age spirituality to sexual neurosis and perversion to plainly daft talk about free information, community and love.
Virtually all the myths about cyberspace have their origins in this history. One of cyberspaces frequently repeated aphorisms, attributed to the Whole Earth guru Stuart Brand, declares that information wants to be free. So, like an ageing hippie, information is a libertarian entity. Yet, nothing of value on the Web is free. What appears to be free is only an invitation to entrapment, like the drug peddlers initial fixes.
All technology, whatever its origins, it is used to make money and war, and employed for fun (we watch nuclear fission in our television screen). And this is exactly what the Internet is being used for. It is rapidly becoming a bazaar where everything is for sale and selling is everything. It has become a playground of the gadget crazy. And, of course, its use for military purposes continues unabated.
We are also constantly told, that cyberspace is linking us all together, bringing communities closer and producing communities where there were none. Wherever we go in our global village, we can tap into a cellular phone, get on-line with a personal digital assistant with built-in modem and satellite connection, and surf the web at our hearts contend. But connection does not make a community. Nor does it actually lead to meaningful communication. The community that cyberspace generates is purely an illusion.
Computers may draw us together, but they encourage us to divide and fragment even more. The Net facilitates and encourages a separating-out into endlessly sub-dividing groups. It is populated largely by style-groups where people define themselves through their fantasies. Look at the newsgroups or chat rooms. All variety of perversions, from those who get their kicks from nasal hair to Nazis, exist in Internet communities. Well, if all it required to make a community was for a group of people to come together on the basis of their interests and perversions, psychosis would not be stalking so many western societies. Communities, real communities, require more than a machine to be mediated into existence.
We do not inhabit a global village, as that old plagiarist Marshall McLuhan, announced in the sixties. But a fragmented globe. The distance between haves and have-nots is becoming greater and greater. Larger and larger groups are shrinking to smaller and smaller bands. Traditional families gave way to nuclear families which leave an ageing couple living isolated lives ignored by their children. Villages get absorbed as machine dominated urban metropolises sprawl uncontrollably transforming small communities into discrete and alienated individuals. Cities themselves have changed from ordered controllable entities to untamed and untameable fragmented environments the ever-changing, chaotic mass of the postmodern city. Individuals in postmodern cities can come together only on the basis of what they consume or how they define their identity. Sub-cultures proliferate: style consciousness groups of teenagers and violent gangs, followers of particular football teams and pop stars, gays and lesbians, groups from affluent and desolate parts of the city. Cyberspace reflects this fragmentation. When you look closely at the world of Internet junkies, you find discrete, isolated, sad, desperate individuals. You can jerk off using a computer, but you cant develop a meaningful relationship with it.
The real appeal of cyberspace is the fact that it offers a society dominated by individualism what it desires most: a world for one. It is the ideal place for those incapable of saying hello to their neighbours, but ever ready to fire bursts of text detailing their fantasies to complete strangers in newgroups, forums and countless sites (over a third of the Net) devoted to all variety of perversions. Building communities is hard work. It requires you to be out there interacting in the real, massy world, not sitting in front of a terminal talking to some one you have never met, nor likely to meet.
If one tries to form a relationship with a computer, one should not be surprised to know that it is not physically too healthy. Computer induced hallucinations are now becoming common. The ever-growing cloud of what David Shenk calls Data Smog (Abacus, London, 1997) subtracts from our quality of life leading to stress, confusion and ignorance. Computer addicts everywhere are suffering a whole array of diseases that Shenk describes collectively as fragmentia. These include increased cardiovascular stress, weakened vision, impaired judgement, confusion, frustration, decreased benevolence and overconfidence. One direct product of the information revolution is that more and more adults are now suffering from the brain imbalance called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). This syndrome causes acute restlessness, boredom and distraction. Sufferers cannot focus on anything for more than a few seconds. Apparently, we are on the verge of an ADD epidemic.
ADD spells death for the book. For over a decade now, the technogurus has been writing off the book. Reading books require efforts. You cant surf the book and jump perpetually from place to place like on the World Wide Web. Moreover, now that we can all bundle our thoughts using some desktop publishing package, or some idiot-proof software for writing hypertext, and publish it on the Net, the book really is redundant. But the crap that saturates the Net, makes the book more, and not less, important. The Net only encourages vanity publishing at a colossal scale. Its the domains of the unread semi-literate, clutching web-pages, screaming about his undiscovered genius and stalking cyberspace for victims.
In its extreme forms, computer induced hallucination leads to the idea that the Internet represents the next stage of human evolution. Cyber gurus just cant hyperventilate enough about how our individual consciousness will be submerged in the Overmind of the Internet. Soon, in the not so distant future, we will be downloading our minds on to the Net and cruising the world as a digital signal. Virtual reality already makes this possible to some extent.
Virtual reality is the new and ultimate interface between man and machine. In virtual reality, the western man finally meets his destination: the total assimilation and immersion of man and machine. Virtual reality is often combined with the enthusiasm for the new sciences of chaos and complexity, the new age mumbo jumbo about drugs and Zen, Gaia and hedonist rave culture, and the heady brew presented as a quantum leap in human consciousness. The western dream for perpetual orgasmic sex, for relationship without commitment, for touching without feeling, thus meets its apotheosis in virtual reality. It is a world peopled by folks who are more real than the real, who submit totally to your desire, who have no identity except that which you give them: women who match your dreams, then move, than talk, than open their vaginas. Who wants the messy reality where you have to treat people with dignity and respect and pay attention to their demands and requirements?
Initially, machines only shaped the metaphysics of the West. With virtual reality machines become metaphysics. Read any account of how technopagans use virtual reality and you will know what I mean. Virtual reality offers the western seeker an experience of transcendence. But surely, you say, all spiritually purifying experiences require trail, some effort, a desire to let go of the Ego. At this point, virtual reality grabs you by the throat and says: you want trail? I do trail. You want effort? I do effort? And Timothy Leary for it is He emerges from the grave, rolls a virtual joint, and says: Hey man, whats real any way? The world out there is a product of your fantasies, man. Dissolve your ego here. And VR will take you wherever you wanna go.
And it will. Children will tell you its fun. Psychologists will tell you its good for getting people off drugs, coming to terms with trauma, bereavement, sexual abuse and themselves. The military will tell you its good for simulating real war situations. Doctors will tell you its good for training surgeons. Academics will tell you its good for teaching. And priests well tell you its a valid means for experiencing God. So sign here for your free three-month trail subscription; and smile.
Three months later you are ready for post-biological evolutionary leap. Here is Robert Moravac, Director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory, telling us where we are heading in his book Mind Children (Harvard University Press, 1988):
Today, our machines are still simple creations, requiring the parental care and hovering attention of any newborn, hardly worthy of the word intelligence. But within the next century they will mature into entities as complex as ourselves, and eventually into something transcending everything we know in whom we can take pride when they refer to themselves as our descendent.
Unleashed from the plodding pace of biological evolution, the children of our minds will be free to grow to confront immense and fundamental challenges in the larger universe. We humans will benefit for a time with their labour, but sooner or later, like natural children, they will seek their own fortunes while we, their aged parents, silently fade away.
This is a logical conclusion. When flesh merges with the machine, when human beings transfer more and more of their being to a digitised universe, bodies and brains become less and less useful. Where else can they go but towards oblivion? If machines are really better than human beings, than we might as well let the machines take over and allow ourselves to silently fade away.
But this is a theological goal. Man does not only make man, he also creates a world where his progenies reign supreme. So the ascendance of man to the throne of God is complete. This is not simply a symptom of the metaphysical despair that followed in the wake of the Enlightenment and the age of humanism. It is a symbol of the cultural power of the West where western man arbitrates on the questions of nature and destiny. Or as the technogurus proclaim: Man is the source of his own Transcendence. He is not only the measure of everything but is the creator of norms and values as well! Where do you go after conquering Transcendence? Towards absolute immortality.
The merging of machines and the body, the creation of cyborg, is a necessary step towards immortality and transcendence. In cyborgs, all flows and weaknesses of the human body – disease, limited muscle power, emotion, death – are eliminated. The weakness of human mind memory failure, limited and slow processing power evaporate. And we come close to being gods.
Indeed, cyberspace is being prepared to acquire the characteristics we ascribe to God. Once all knowledge, all world of thought and ideas, and all (western) individuals are merged into cyberspace, it will become all-knowing, all-powerful distributive system with multiple selves and infinite possibilities. Not just man, but his creation too will be god. And little god-like cyborgs will roam the earth.
The conquest of death is, of course, essential in the quest for immortality. As silicon based machines, we can live forever. And like God, in cyberspace we will have access to the past, present and the future in a single field, at a specific moment. In The Physics of Immortality (Doubleday, New York, 1994), Frank Tipler tells us that we are heading for a second major event of the universe after the Big Bang. In the Big Crunch, supercomputers will not only have stored all human thoughts but also all possible thoughts. They will then be able to revive all dead humans and produce all possible humans who will then be able to live all possible alternative lives and experience all possible experiences for eternity. Afterlife and paradise will be dragged from the Heavens and made real (or is it virtual?) on this earth. Forever.
Thus western man will achieve his final goal and miss the point.
Computer based images of the future are images of ultimate futility. Computers rule only the dumb, those who are absolutely blind and totally immersed in their own Ego. You and I those of us who rejoice in our mortality, accept our imperfections, fight in the real world to build real communities, and submit to an external Creator cannot allow ourselves to be fooled by these ignorant perceptions. There is nothing inevitable or omnipotence about the machine. Machines, however sophisticated, however intelligent, however infused with human body and mind, are not Us. We must fight to maintain that distinction.
This essay appeared in Motif 5 3-17 (1998)