Writing in the 60s and 70s, Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic work on digital communications technology depicted our complex interlocking web of computer networks as a living organism. This organism represents the externalisation of the human brain and central nervous system, and the picture McLuhan painted was that of a fragile and sensitive creature, one which wears its brain and central nervous system outside its skin, with raw nerves exposed to the risk of shock and infection. McLuhan also speculated on what type of human ‘attitude’ would be required under these conditions. That is to say, in what way would human attitudes and behaviour be expected to change in order to create a suitable ‘habitat’ and ensure that the delicate environmental balance remains undisturbed? His alarming conclusion was that docility and compliance would become primary virtues.
However, this ‘habitat’ should not be interpreted as a physical environment as such. Rather, McLuhan was referring to the effects of the digital environment, its ability to bring the entire globe together in an immediate and instantaneous way. He suggested that the effects of this commingling might manifest as a form of Extra Sensory Perception. He even hinted that it might result in the emergence of a single global consciousness. It is against this backdrop that we must interpret McLuhan’s comments as the final ‘withering away’ of the individualism and privacy of the mechanistic age. Today we can see the erosion of these values in the social media ‘gaffe’: cue the instantaneous global backlash, the inevitable climb-down, the abject apology. The message is clear: conformity is ‘in’. The question is: has it ever been ‘out’?
The idea that we are all one consciousness, moving towards a single or shared form of consciousness, or are individual parts of a gestalt whole is a fairly popular one and has been explored in numerous works of fiction and non-fiction. This particular article was prompted by the usual strange events on Merovee, where myself and others regularly experience phenomena similar to those described by McLuhan. In this particular case, by a bizarre mix of references to the Nazis, eugenics, the popular Bioshock video game series, and an article about the sinking of the Leviathan.
Leviathan is the title of a well-known work of 17th Century political philosophy by Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’ core assumption is that humankind’s ‘natural’ state amounts to a war of all against all in which life is nasty, short, brutish and poor. He argues that the only possible escape from this literal state of anarchy is for the many to voluntarily submit to rule by the few or, more preferably, the one. The many become part of a single body politic ‘represented’ by a sovereign with supreme authority and absolute power. Hobbes’ work contains the paradox inherent to all attempts to reconcile individual freedom with social solidarity, i.e. its central thesis is that we become free, and can enjoy freedom, only by surrendering our freedom.
THE final cause, end, or design of men (who naturally love liberty, and dominion over others) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, in which we see them live in Commonwealths, is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent, as hath been shown, to the natural passions of men when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants…
The idea that we all share a common interest by virtue of geographical location, ‘race’, culture, or economic interest is a common one. History is full of examples of those who would lead us by the nose for the sake of their idea of the Greater Good. Yet no matter how tight the social bonds are supposed to be, the leader is always the exception who supposedly proves the rule. The Leader stands alone as the supreme authority. It’s a trend that received its full expression in the totalitarian regimes of the mid-20th Century, although it’s still evident today in the increasingly salient and ‘messianic’ roles of modern Prime Ministers and Presidents.
Exactly the same paradox applies in the case of McLuhan’s digital organism. Can we really conceive of a single consciousness, the one from the many? Perhaps the best known fictional example is The Borg from the Star Trek universe, yet even here the so-called ‘hive mind’ is under the control of a single individual who speaks as ‘I’ rather than ‘We’. The ‘We’ are merely drones under the control of the ‘I’. The assumption being that without a directing ‘I’ the ‘We’ are helpless and unable to act, a directionless mishmash of competing ideas and impulses with no judge or arbiter as to which goals to pursue and which paths to take. Yet when removed from the hive mind’s influence the individuality of the ‘We’ begins to return.
We see the same thing in the Bioshock series of video games. Here, an idealist creates an underwater utopia called Rapture free from governmental interference. It quickly degenerates into a dystopia based on eugenics and battles for control of ADAM, a substance which facilitates genetic manipulation on a vast scale. Ultimately, in an attempt to impose social solidarity by technological means, its founder releases a substance which obliterates the population’s free will. Bioshock has its origins in the earlier System Shock series, in which a rogue Artificial Intelligence employs eugenics in an attempt to incorporate humanity into a single organism called “The Many” under her control. The second installment takes place on spaceships called the Von Braun (after Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun) and the Rickenbacker (or Reichenbacker).
Similar themes are explored in the Star Trek episode The Return of the Archons. Here, the Enterprise investigates the disappearance of the USS Archon (Greek for leader or monarch) and visits a planet stuck in the 19th Century, controlled by a mysterious leader called Landru, ruled over by hooded lawgivers, and populated by human automatons who have been absorbed into “The Body” and lack individuality. Ultimately, Kirk and Co. discover that Landru is just a projection of a well-meaning but long-dead leader who rescued the planet from chaos and anarchy. Before death he encoded himself into a computer, which maintained his vision of peace and stability at the expense of individual creativity and freedom of expression. When Kirk challenges the computer and accuses it of betraying Landru’s vision it promptly commits digital hari-kari and goes up in smoke.
The memory of The Body will be cleansed…
For the last two thousand years The Body has been viewed as something dirty and sinful, something judged and found wanting, something to be denied and suppressed. The same theology behind this distorted image of The Body also provided the underpinnings of our judicial system. Some have argued that the ethos of this theology also provided the foundation of our capitalist economic system. This ethos permeates our legal, socio-economic and political systems, and they in turn now permeate the entire globe in one form or another. The message is that The Body is deficient and must be brought into subjection. It must not be left to its own devices. Salvation itself depends on its perpetual subordination to a Higher Power.
The perennial problem of human existence has always been leadership. Who leads and how, what is the source of their ‘authority’, what safeguards exist to prevent injustice? As we continue the process of translating ourselves into ‘pure’ information we have to question the messages buried in the bizarre synchronicities we see ‘out there’. Are they telling us that we’re in the process of forming some kind of singular consciousness? Or are they telling us that a singular consciousness has always existed? What if the message isn’t that we’re entering into a hitherto unknown union but that we need to revise an existing one? What if what we see ‘out there’ is telling us that someone or something has always been tucked away behind the curtain, pulling levers like the Wizard of Oz, masquerading as a Higher Power?
What if the messages are an invitation to pull back the curtain and free The Body?
Are you of The Body, friend?