Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Living after the end times

A lot of the weirdness of contemporary life can be laid at the cyborgian feet of media technology. We don't just live in a world of the talking, life-like facsimiles of Dan Rather and Bill Clinton and Tom Cruise--a veritable Hades of talking ghosts. No, our lives are set within a history of fake-live personas. That is, we live in a world where television and film aren't just real; they're even dated. For most of human history, the idea of literally listening to dead people, with them visibly standing right there, in front of you, was the stuff of magic: a sacred, or at least ethereal, experience. Now, it's still magic, but our all-consuming drive for technology has multiplied the number of talking ghosts so far that they now outnumber the living. Our ghosts are common and banal.

Which is odd, I think: living not even during but after the advent of godlike technologies such as moving pictures (not to mention interactive video games, or how the internet lets anyone split their soul among a variety of ghosts). I mean, as long as there have been people, they've been crowded and defined by their histories. But I imagine it's never been quite so crowded before. Queen Elizabeth may have been preceded by enough English history to fill a library, and she was presumably preceded by her own reputation. But what I'm wondering is, What's it like to be Sean Connery? To be old, fat, bald, and forever upstaged by the walking memory of your youth as a sex-symbol?

Living after the scientific- and industrial-revolutions also means that we're forever obsessed with novelty. Our technological progress has shaped our understanding of the shape of history such that time is shaped like an arrow which moves forward. "Timeless" and "eternal" are difficult adjectives for us to take seriously: we know, from our earliest years, that the future will be new. For us, everything under the sun must be new.

So we're forever looking forward. And, because of our ghost-producing technologies of TV etc., we're forever producing facsimiles of what we're looking forward to. We're the first era where science fiction makes any sense as a genre, because we're the first era to take it for granted that the future will be importantly different from the past. So--to add to the weirdness--we live in an age haunted by the ghosts of the future of the past: of what people fifty or thirty or ten years ago thought the future would be like. We're swimming in an ocean of yesterdays' tomorrows: The Jetsons, Blade Runner, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Most of our examples of "the future" look and feel old-fashioned...which fact must, obviously, have really strange and counter-intuitive effects on our sense of "the future." And since our entire identity as human beings is in reference to the future--we are nothing if not forward-looking--this must implicitly affect our identities per se.

All of which helps explain why I feel 1) like laughing and 2) utterly terrified when I read that flying panoptic robots are becoming commercially available, to police and hobbyists across the country. (Also see here.)

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