January 12, 2016

On the Attractions of (Technological) Disembodiment

What is the fascination so many technophiles seem to have for disembodiment?

Repeatedly those enthralled with the powers of technology have issued grandiloquent pronouncements that the bounds of physicality have been or soon will be overcome. How, exactly, this liberation is achieved isn’t explained. Paradoxically, it’s precisely this disconnection from the tangible that the technophiles believe gives them unprecedented abilities to control and manipulate the physical world. 

The startling advances of the Industrial Revolution inspired many to believe that technology would be the vehicle for fulfilling our long-held dream of corporal escape. Oswald Spengler took note of this in 1923, in “The Machine” chapter of “The Decline of the West.” “The intoxicated soul wills to fly above space and Time,” he wrote. “An ineffable longing tempts him to indefinable horizons. Man would free himself from the earth, rise into the infinite, leave the bonds of the body, and circle in the universe of space amongst the stars.”

Today these ineffable longings emanate most conspicuously from Silicon Valley and other hotbeds of technological rapture, where they’re grounded (if you’ll pardon the expression) in information theory, which in turn is the cornerstone of the secular religion Jaron Lanier calls “cybernetic totalism."

Andrew McAfee

Most recently – last Thursday, in fact – I heard the disembodiment trope expressed yet again, in a webcast on the Internet of Things, sponsored by MIT Technology Review. One of the participants was Andrew McAfee, co-director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy and co-author of Race Against the Machine and The Second Machine Age. One of the principal consequences of the IoT, McAfee contended, is “dematerialization.” “We are substituting code and data for atoms, for materials out there in the world,” he said, twice.  As evidence he cited energy-efficient buildings and our increasing ability to produce more food using less land. I found this puzzling because buildings and crops are demonstrably physical entities. Surely the end result of efficiency isn’t evaporation. It also seems odd that dematerialization would be envisioned as an outgrowth of an internet of things.

Early testimony to the growing influence of cybernetic totalism (not yet named by Lanier) was offered by the technology enthusiast Kevin Kelly, who said in a 2005 online debate with the technology skeptic Stephen Talbott that we are on “a collective journey toward the belief that the universe is a computer.” Already, he said, the thinking was widespread that thinking itself is a type of computation, that DNA is “software” and evolution “an algorithmic process.” Galaxies, molecules, mathematics, emotions, rain forests and genes can all be described, Kelly continued, in computational terms. “If we keep going we will quietly arrive at the notion that all materials and all processes are actually forms of computation. Our final destination is a view that the atoms of the universe are fundamentally intangible bits.”

Kevin Kelly

Note the huge leap in logic in that last sentence. Suddenly the atoms of the universe become intangible bits. Why intangible? And how intangible? The bits of information passed around by computers, or the strands of DNA in our chromosomes, may seem discarnate, but they’re not. They’re small and impossible to see with the naked eye, but they’re real. Spooky action at a distance is a phenomenon of the subatomic world; in more quotidian realms, cause and effect aren’t that mysterious. Kelly went on to call information theory a “universal metaphor,” but added that whether it’s a metaphor or a reality doesn’t matter: “the metaphor wins.” Most worshippers at the altar of information don’t bother with such distinctions.

An example is the manifesto issued (not so quietly) in 1994 by a group of high-profile, conservative tech pundits, Esther Dyson, Alvin Toffler, George Gilder and George Keyworth, a former science advisor to President Ronald Reagan. Their "Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age” announced, in its first sentence: "The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter." This fustian rhetoric was more than matched two years later by John Perry Barlow, a hipster cowboy rancher and sometime lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Barlow addressed his "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace” to the "Governments of the Industrial World," which he described as "weary giants of flesh and steel."

"On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone," Barlow wrote. "You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather…Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here…"

Oliver Wendell Holmes

As I say, the Industrial Revolution inspired a rash of such sentiments. In 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed in an essay for the Atlantic Monthly that three technologies would free us from the surly bonds of Earth: the stereoscope, the daguerreotype and the photograph. Their introduction inaugurated, he declared "a new epoch in the history of human progress." In this new epoch the physical world could be reproduced so accurately that before long we might not need it anymore. "Form is henceforth divorced from matter," he wrote. …Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. We have got the fruit of creation now, and need not trouble ourselves with the core.” 

It was the railroad that launched Ralph Waldo Emerson into what he called “the panoramic mode,” a transcendental state he’d been trying to achieve for most of his life. “Matter is phenomenal whilst men & trees & barns whiz by you as fast as the leaves of a dictionary," he wrote of his first train ride. "…The very permanence of matter seems compromised & oaks, fields, hills, hitherto esteemed symbols of stability, do absolutely dance by you.” Philosophers, too, noted a growing disengagement from terra firma as mechanization of the culture accelerated. Nietzsche wrote of the “weightlessness” of the times while Marx articulated what may be the defining perception of the modern era: "All that is solid melts into air."

Emerson, Nietzsche and Marx presumably recognized, if Holmes did not, that our arrival in the weightless, panoramic mode was only a metaphor, that everything solid hadn’t actually melted into air. It’s not clear that today’s cybernetic totalists agree.

During the MIT webcast last Thursday, Andrew McAfee described Uber in glowing terms as a paragon of where the IoT is taking us because it provides a full-service “platform” rather than simply a service or a product. The dematerialization part apparently applies because Uber has established itself as a global transportation company by assembling an app rather than a fleet of cars, because it collects terabytes of data to track every aspect of its business and because you don’t have to pay its drivers in cash. It all adds up to a uniquely satisfying customer “experience.”  Still, I’m not sure this represents a substitution of code and data for atoms. As far as I know the Uber experience still involves asphalt, stop lights, pedestrian crossings and potholes.  

The historian of ideas Arthur Lovejoy wrote in 1936 that although the “otherworldly” doctrines of the great religious and philosophical teachers have consistently held that there are realities superior to those of everyday existence, when it comes down to how we live, most people “have never been able to deny to the things disclosed by the senses a genuine and imposing and highly important realness.” Those words may not be as true today as they were when Lovejoy wrote them; the readiness of the masses to surrender their grasp on reality seems to have increased roughly in parallel with the eagerness of the digerati to declare it defunct. Nonetheless, I’m sticking with the wisdom of one of our great apostles of embodiment, Madonna. “We are living in a material world,” she said, “and I am a material girl.”

Note: This essay is based in part on my book, "Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology," forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. 

©Doug Hill 2016