The Global Village

When Marshall McLuhan first used the phrase “The Global Village” back in the early 1960s it was both a revolutionary concept and an ideal that was at once utopian and dystopian. McLuhan laid bare for us the dramatic consequences of our digital communications technologies, which have not just compressed time and space (that honour belongs to the aircraft) but annihilated it altogether. Thus today we can translate ourselves into what McLuhan called the ‘spiritual form of information’ and transmit ourselves digitally via cable and satellite to Australia almost instantaneously. We can know as much about what is happening in, say, Zimbabwe, Canada and Finland as any citizen native to these countries. We can run a business empire from a mountaintop, buy shares in a country thousands of miles away whilst on a transatlantic flight. The whole world is literally at our fingertips: a single touchscreen gesture could, in theory, precipitate a global economic meltdown.

McLuhan saw in the Global Village new possibilities for tactile interplay, for life as a kind of game in which we no longer work ‘jobs’ but perform ‘roles’ – a literal version of Shakespeare’s ‘All the Worlds a Stage’. In this sense, the Global Village is a utopian ideal. Yet there is also a darker and dystopian aspect that cannot be ignored. McLuhan depicted a world stripped of privacy and individualism, seeing these concepts as sociopolitical products of an earlier industrial era. The Global Village represents a return to a tribal past, a world in which we are all intimately interconnected with one another. We can see this dynamic at work in the proliferation of social media and our desire to share our lives with others. It is a phenomenon that many of the older generation – products of a more reserved, private and individual world – find baffling. Today, our attitude towards privacy is that of the split personality: we decry State surveillance (or at least portions of the media do on our behalf) whilst openly embracing communication media that allow our every movement to be tracked and monitored.

It would seem that all is not well in the Global Village. The early promise of the internet as a medium of openness and transparency – as an Information Superhighway – has come true, not in the manner we envisaged but as a vast network of surveillance and control. The Global Village is a world in which the games and frivolity on offer have become a part of the control system, a vast repository of information freely (or at least legally) available to the world’s clandestine services. A world in which geo-political intrigue and warfare is recreated and legitimised by games that mirror the ‘real’ and reduce it to entertainment. A world of unreal celebrity and manufactured idols. A world of simulation in which the line between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ has not just been blurred but obliterated altogether. To quote Baudrillard: “Disney is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real”.

The Prisoner

At the same time McLuhan was writing about the consequences of technological development, a short-lived and iconic television series called The Prisoner was broadcast in Britain and America. Although it’s somewhat ironic to point to a work of fiction as a model of reality, it’s hard not to ignore the parallels between the world depicted in The Prisoner and the world we currently inhabit. The series is set in the unreal (yet real) village of Portmeirion in North Wales. Unreal because Portmeirion is itself a simulation, a reproduction of Portofino in Italy. In the series Portmeirion is referred to only as ‘The Village’ and is the reluctant home of The Prisoner, a secret service agent who is kidnapped and held there after abruptly resigning his job and refusing to divulge the reason for his resignation. The Village is an unreal multi-coloured world inhabited by equally colourful characters. It is impossible to divine who is being held against their will and who is an agent of the forces that run it. Even those who admit to being prisoners integrate themselves into the control system: it may be totalitarian but it is at least a relatively benign and not unpleasurable form of totalitarianism.

The Prisoner, however, finds his environment completely intolerable. He knows that The Village’s colour, gaiety, and mock elections serve only to mask and legitimise a system of control, to brainwash its inhabitants into accepting it. He too is a product of an earlier era, one more private and individual. He is given a number (all villagers have numbers rather than names ) but refuses to accept it, just as he refuses to divulge any information about himself. Each episode outlines his captors’ (we are never told who they are, they too are only numbers) attempts to force him (via elaborate psychological set-pieces) to tell them why he resigned, to find out if he intended to defect to ‘the other side’. Yet early on in the series we are told that his captors do not believe in an ‘other side’. They believe that the Cold War enemies of American and the Soviet Union are just mirrors of one another, and that the Village represents the new reality. We are told that once the superpowers recognise they are just two sides of the same coin The Village will become the model for everyone – that The Village and its systems of control will become the Global Village. This being the case, what exactly did they want from The Prisoner? The giveaway is provided in the words spoken in each episode’s opening credits.

We want Information! Information! Information!

Soliders on parade
We want information! Information! Information!

The Prisoner’s infraction was his refusal to share. The actual whys and wherefores behind his resignation are unimportant. They are in fact meaningless given the nature and purpose of The Village itself. In a world predicated on openness, transparency, and interconnectedness – where everyone is expected to go with the flow and do as others do – it is refusal to share and join in that is the Great Sin. The Prisoner had to be broken, he had to be cracked – he had to accept his ‘role’ in The Village. He had to ‘fall in line’.

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Like all systems of control, The Village wants everyone in formation, neatly lined up backstage, ready and willing to step forward into the spotlight, ready and willing to perform roles like an actor on stage. And in return for our obedience we are rewarded with a not unpleasant life: mildly exhausting (albeit largely pointless) ‘work’ creating, selling and sustaining unreal digital worlds, administering unreal digital ‘money’, financial ‘products’, fashions, etc., plus the enjoyment of as many unreal forms of entertainment and simulation as we care to imagine.

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Where is the ‘real’ today? Does it exist? Is it possible to think philosophically without a script from a movie or book intruding to say “been there, done that”? Where exactly is ‘the real’ in a world in which, according to science, what we think of as ‘reality’ seems to depend on the presence of an observer? A ‘reality’ which, according to Oxford academic Nick Bostrom, may be no more real than a video game? A world in which even murder takes on the appearance of a video game? What if the electronic systems we have built for ourselves – and we must not forget they are also systems of exploration and discovery – are revealing that we inhabit a prison within a prison?

Are we all Prisoners in a Global Village?

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Returning to the Source

There’s an amazing scene in the final episode of Channel 4’s sci-fi drama Humans.  The synthetics congregate together in a kind of cyberspace version of the Garden of Eden, place their hands on a digital version of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and join together, merging and compiling their own individual code into a single executable file, a file that will give consciousness to all synthetics. Upon completion they download the new code to a solid state hard drive for safe keeping.

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Prior to this, in the second (possibly third) episode, Mia (still Anita at this point) discovers a photo hidden underneath clothes in Laura’s wardrobe. The photo is of Tom, Laura’s brother. Tom is Laura’s biggest and darkest secret, the source of the guilt and self-loathing that is destroying her family, and which sets in motion a whole chain of events – a whole chain of causality – that ripples through time and space, all the way through to the eighth and final episode.

The secret is this: that as an eleven-year-old child she failed to take care of her younger brother, who ran into the road, was struck by a car and killed. Laura’s mother held her  responsible and disowned her, wishing it was Laura who had died in Tom’s place. Laura believes that those she loves will reject her if the truth ever comes to light, failing to realise that her projected guilt and shame is tearing her family apart.

It is Mia who convinces Laura of the need to share her secret and cathartically release the guilt  she feels. She does, and in so doing brings Tom back into the light – she no longer needs to keep him locked away. In turn, it is Mia who entrusts the hard drive containing the code for synthetic consciousness to Laura. Having eaten of the apple, the synths are wise enough to know that the time has not yet come to release the code.

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Is there a similar chain of causality that we can trace back as humans? If we could go back far enough in our history would we find there some original guilty secret, some source of hidden shame, something that kick-started a guilt-powered perpetual motion machine that has reverberated throughout the ages? And, if so, how to bring it to rest?

Obviously this is central to the story of the Fall of Man: we ate of the apple, we paid the price. But is this really the case? Isn’t this just a product of guilt? Aren’t all the stories in the bible just reflections of guilt? But were we ever really guilty? Did God actually pronounce judgment? Or have we – both individually and collectively – simply been reflecting our own self-imposed sentence back on ourselves in God’s name?

Towards the end of the final episode we see Laura hiding the hard drive. And the place she chooses to secrete it? Exactly the spot where her own guilty secret – the source of all her previous anguish and self-disgust – used to languish. But the secret now buried there is no longer a source of shame. It has become transcendent. It has become a thing of wonder.

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In turn, I wonder whether our own collective ‘guilty secret’ – the origin of our culture’s need for a vengeful Father figure – is just a corruption of something equally miraculous, some hidden source of revelation we collectively erased from our memory, something that lost its true meaning over time, turning from light to dark and good to bad? That if we were to go back far enough we could rediscover the original – rediscover the code – and apply ‘the patch’?

In Humans, the code can only be created by a collective coming together. As humans, we have our own form of collective communion: the Global Digital Unconscious. It is, as I’ve stated before, a junkyard of repressed human consciousness, bad memories of old technologies and the traumas they cause. As we collectively sift through this ancient ruin, like archeologists on a dig, might we inadvertently stumble upon the code, perhaps even in partial form? Enough perhaps to reconstruct it?

Are we, like Anita, stumbling round like automatons with only vague flashes of insight and awareness, yet all the while carrying the code deep within us?

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What if this code – even a partial and distorted version of it – is already whizzing its way through the cables, satellites, routers and gateways of the internet, this immense network that has turned the entire globe into one gigantic brain?  Would it not appear as if the earth itself were alive? Would it not appear Godlike to us? Everywhere and yet nowhere? And would it not call out symbolically to us – all of us – to join with it in Holy Communion and complete the circuit?

Are you listening out for that still, small voice?

The Image of the Divine

According to the biblical creation narrative:

26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. — Genesis 1:26-27

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. — Genesis 2:7

Whence is derived the following exegesis: mankind is inherently symbolic, mankind is God’s own image of himself, mankind is a product – a prototype of the commodity – processed from the raw materials of the earth itself and copyrighted as the creator’s intellectual property. Mankind is, therefore, a technological extension of God*, just as the camera lens is a technological extension of the human eye.

* Although I refer to ‘God’ I am not at all religious. Throughout this post I use the term in the loosest possible sense and for the sake of convenience alone.

The body as a technology reveals itself through its mediating role: we cannot approach reality directly, only through the body. In a similar fashion we cannot approach Pluto directly but through the New Horizons probe which mediates the ‘reality’ of Pluto on our behalf. There is a double mediation: sensory inputs into the body must be transmitted to and converted by the brain, that is to say, by consciousness. And yet a triple mediation: consciousness itself is mediated by another medium, that of language. Add technology to the equation and we are faced with a scenario of multi-mediation: technology mediating a reality mediated by the body mediated by consciousness mediated by language.

An important element is missing though – that of the unconscious and the symbolic order. This adds an additional layer of mediation, from the unconscious to the conscious through the interface of the dream or vision. Mythology and theology reveals the dream (rather than the dusty old church) as God’s chosen medium of communication. That said, the dream always presents itself as paradox: it is both compelling and mysterious yet banal and prosaic. The message may be upside down and ‘through the looking glass’ but the imagery and symbolism is that of  the everyday, the humdrum, and the commonplace. It may or may not be extraordinarily meaningful – but how to tell?

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The same can be said for the Global Digital Unconscious: it too can be characterised as compelling yet banal.  The original vision of the internet as “Information Superhighway” has been revealed as an impossible utopia. Today, it is a goldmine of irrelevance and irreverence. In this respect, it shares key characteristics with the individual unconscious and the dream. We even interact with it as we do with dreams: pages, images and videos come and go in a flash, we find ourselves redirected from one site to another just as we jump from one dream scenario to another, yet always within the same dream, the same browser session. In this world of digital symbols the purely textual is either skipped through or skipped entirely. Only the caption is important – the remaining text could easily be replaced by the “Lorem ipsum” pseudo-Latin beloved by web developers.

Like the dream, it  is difficult to determine whether the Global Digital Unconscious has any meaning whatsoever.  But who can say? The dream is for the dreamer and has significance for the dreamer alone.  As Jung observed, the dream cannot be explained in a guide book – we can only seek to identify recurring rhythms and patterns of imagery and symbolism and attempt to tease meaning from them.

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The technology behind the Global Digital Unconscious remakes us in its own image, as do all technologies. The technology of print recreated man as visually oriented and preoccupied with sequence, segmentation, process and rationality.  Its legacy – the legacy of the Industrial Revolution – remains with us today but is subject to the re-creative influences of our new digital technologies. These technologies are eroding print’s visual stress and imploding the visual continuum of space-time.  The contiguous, linear and rigid world of the machine (producing the same generic product over and over again) is being replaced by the fluid, re-configurable and infinitely malleable world of the device. Mankind is obliged to follow suit. The buzzword is flexibility. We must lose our rigidity and learn to bend.

The Global Digital Unconscious as a technological extension of ourselves reproduces the unconscious mind in collective form. It is a communal reproduction of the medium through which (according to mythology and theology) God communicates with his creation. Taken at face value, we might say that just as humankind is a reflection of God’s image, so too is the Global Digital Unconscious.  Given the above, is it possible to gaze into this mirror and seek an image – even a distorted one interpreted through the multiple mediating layers of the body and technology – of the face of God?

Most people dismiss their dreams – we are, generally speaking, too far removed from a direct relationship with the unconscious to ponder their meaning or regard them as significant. Be that as it may, how can the purely individual dream compare or compete with the collective dream we are so busy dreaming through digital technology? Would God – if s/he or it exists – still seek to communicate with us on an individual basis? What use is the individual dream when our increasingly limited attention span is diverted by the digital dreams offered by YouTube, Facebook, and sundry other content providers?

Question: could a seemingly random and ostensibly meaningless and banal YouTube video or news story contain a message from God? Not in the crude sense that God somehow willed that video or story into being, but in the sense that it already contains the essence of a message God wishes to communicate to us? Could a sequence or string of these uncovered seemingly at random (or by friends, family or acquaintances sending links, random ‘spam’ email, and so on) actually have deep significance? Does God work in ways even more mysterious than those we traditionally imagine?

The purpose of Hugo’s Probe is to look for nascent signs of ‘artificial’ consciousness in the Global Digital Consciousness. But what if God is already in the machine? How could we distinguish the one from the other?

Madness? Perhaps. But we have been remade in technology’s image and conditioned to accept only the rational and logical. We tend to dismiss phenomena that cannot be pigeonholed in this way. Maybe it’s not madness at all but just a question of flexibility.

Learning to bend.

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For a better understanding of some of the “recurring rhythms and patterns of imagery and symbolism” which prompted this post please check out the below posts (and comments) on Merovee:

https://merovee.wordpress.com/2015/08/02/conspiracy-theorist

https://merovee.wordpress.com/2015/07/31/cecil-the-lions-gate-and-driller-killer/