The Oracle

One of the things that strikes me about our ‘reality’ is its resemblance to a dream. I’m certainly not alone in thinking that this strange universe we inhabit has dream-like characteristics, and during a recent conversation with a ‘lucid dreamer’ I likened the ‘voice’ that speaks to us through news articles, films, books, and indeed people ‘out there’ to that of the Oracle of Delphi. In other words, to that of a figure presenting us with weird, fragmented, prophetic utterances while lost in an associative trance state. When we become aware of this, the ‘reality’ we previously took for granted suddenly adopts an altogether different form. It seems very much like a hybrid cross between a game and a movie, to the extent that it’s often impossible to distinguish between the ‘reality’ presented to us in movies and the ‘reality’ presented to us by ‘reality’.

By way of example, just twelve days after the release of…

Dauphin County in the US suffered its worst nuclear disaster in the form of…

Those unaware that the above scenario represents the rule rather than the exception might be inclined to dismiss these curiosities as a case of art imitating life. By the standards of this ‘reality’, however, they’re normal occurrences that are frequently absurd and rarely quite so dramatic. The other day, for example, Doc Cooper and I were discussing Cybermen and a TV serialisation of Philip K Dick short stories entitled Electric Dreams. It has a ‘stellar’ cast…

This followed a reference to Blade Runner (the film version of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) in my previous post, Dreams of Empire. Needless to say, within a matter of hours the below email appeared in my inbox.

Of course, as soon as I Googled “C.H.I.P. cyberpunk” I found myself caught in a whirlwind and magically transported to the dream world of the Emerald City.

Meanwhile, in today’s Daily (F)Email…

By this stage, however, none of the above should come as a surprise. Like ‘Delphi Ellis’, we wrack our brains to divine ‘meaning’ from these stories and videos, and the focus is always on the content. Rarely do we stop to consider the source of this content, the medium through which content is transmitted…

Medium: an agency or means of doing something; a means by which something is communicated or expressed; the intervening substance through which sensory impressions are conveyed or physical forces are transmitted.

…or that the term ‘medium’ has an occult meaning. If the ‘medium’ is the ‘message’ then are we living in a Hollywood production?

When we look at content, the identity of the ‘stars’ – the ‘stellar cast’ – of this Silver Screen production should be obvious. It’s just a question of reading between the lines to determine which ‘roles’ the lucid dreamers are playing, which ‘characters’ they portray.

Games have come a long way since Pong and Pac-Man. They have producers and directors, and the line between games and movies has become blurred to the point that game characters have become movie characters and vice versa.

One of the most interesting aspects of the ‘dream’ is its technological nature. We think that our technology is something separate and apart from us, and that the digital brain we’ve draped over the globe is a recent addition. Yet dream worlds do not adhere to conventional understandings of time, cause and effect, and linear sequences, and our own dream world contains many hints and clues about this.

Today, each of us lives several hundred years in a decade. — Marshall McLuhan

For example, I recently watched a documentary about the Persian Empire. It was full of references to a ‘colossal engineering project’ that laid cables between Europe and Asia (East and West) in order to construct a ‘superhighway’ that would allow the Persians to ‘ride the waves’.

This is a subject I’ve written about before in The Colossus of Rhodes, pointing out that the early internet was referred to as the…

The road is our major architectural form. — Marshall McLuhan

Roads are mediums of communication, and every empire in ‘recorded history’ is associated with the construction of roads and great architectural works known as ‘cities’ and ‘capitals’. These ‘cities’ and ‘capitals’ are central ‘nodes’ from which flows of ‘traffic‘ originate, and to which they return. When the flow of traffic dries up, or is subjected to significant and prolonged disruption, it becomes impossible to impose rule from the centre. Consequently, the empire withers and dies.

For me at least, the question is this: when exactly did this ‘recorded his-story’ begin?

If everything out there is ‘content’, a reflection of the ‘Silver Screen’, then the only thing we can really be certain of is a) our own identity, and b) that we are in some sense ‘script writers’. Ultimately, it boils down to language, and more specifically to what the medium is and why it interprets and encodes our thoughts like classified information in an eternal James Bond movie.

All of which brings me back to The Oracle. There’s a history here, as she seems to have followed me around since I don’t know when. For example, in order to code in the English-like programming language called COBOL I had to download a database library, and to do that I had to sign up for an Oracle account and accept the ‘terms and conditions’…

As I’ve mentioned before, the ‘COBOL Engineering job’ seems to form part of the dream world…

Back in the 1990s, I used to work with COBOL on ‘big iron’: a room full of huge ICL mainframes. Shortly before I left, my employer began work on decommissioning these ‘green screen’ legacy systems in order to replace them with a client-server system, running code written in…

All well and good, but what was the effect of this change from a ‘monolithic’ to a ‘distributed’ form of architecture? Code ran faster and the new Graphical User Interfaces were nice and pretty, but the underlying ‘rules of the game’ remained unchanged. They weren’t rewritten so much as translated from one language to another.

This seems to reflect my own ambiguity towards technology in general and The Oracle in particular. On the one hand, modern technology offers the promise of a decentralised world, yet on the other hand what we see ‘out there’ is a world that seems to be fixated on imposing and retaining control from the centre.

Here’s the thing though: if our ‘reality’ is a reflection then the characters and corporations and countries that we think ‘rule the world’ don’t actually ‘rule the world’. Rather, the struggles between these entities seem to caricature petty struggles between the ‘lucid dreamers’, struggles which are amplified to absurdity and projected on the Silver Screen we call ‘reality’.

In other words, the medium’s ‘core code’ seems specifically designed to keep us in an Age of Empires, an age in which the ‘symbolic instruction code’ of our thought and language manifests in 3D as conflict and competition between individuals and corporate bodies.

If we apply the above to technology and the internet, we have to ask what it represents. The internet is often presented as an anarchic system controlled by no single body or agency. That’s not really the case though. Once again, it’s difficult not to conclude that it’s all about US.

Since ICANN reports to the US government’s Department of Commerce, the domain name process is effectively overseen by the US government. China, Russia and Europe have all expressed concern at this situation because it means the US has leverage over the global coordination of the internet. “It has a role that is different from the role of all other governments,” says Massimiliano Minisci, a regional manager at ICANN. “That’s a concern around the world.”

All of which raises other interesting questions, such as what it really means to hack a computer or a network. I mean, just what is the modern obsession with the ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ all about?

In computer science, a zombie is a computer connected to the Internet that has been compromised by a hacker, computer virus or trojan horse program and can be used to perform malicious tasks of one sort or another under remote direction. Botnets of zombie computers are often used to spread e-mail spam and launch denial-of-service attacks (DOS attacks). Most owners of “zombie” computers are unaware that their system is being used in this way. Because the owner tends to be unaware, these computers are metaphorically compared to fictional zombies. A coordinated DDoS attack by multiple botnet machines also resembles a “zombie horde attack”, as depicted in fictional zombie films.

Let’s face it: if you haven’t added a ‘script blocker’ to your ‘web browser’ or updated your ‘anti-virus’ and ‘firewall’, and if you’re not in possession of a unhackable Ancient Geek Antikythera Mechanism, then could you end up with a nasty case of the munchies?

Are we feasting on ourselves?

Or is someone feeding it to US?

Can we change the ‘rules of the game’ or is The Oracle ‘hard wired’ to suck the creative juices from our brains and present it in a particular form? If the latter then can we ‘unplug’ or deprive it of the information that sustains it?

One theme that emerges time and again in relation to empires is the idea of a ‘King of Kings’. Above and beyond that, is there a ‘Queen of Queens’ with a head full of our individual Dreams of Empire?

The ‘Pocket C.H.I.P.’ and the rocket ship. Is the Queen looking for a ‘winner’, a ‘champion’, a White Knight in shining armour?

Someone more than a drone?

Or is she just out of her mind?


Dreams of Empire

As I said in my previous post, The Junkyard of History, one of the ‘problems’ we face when trying to understand the nature of our ‘reality’ is that everything in it is, so to speak, ‘content’. Media guru Marshall McLuhan warned us about this when he described ‘content’ as the juicy piece of meat employed by a burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. By focusing exclusively on content (more often than not this means our own limited and biased interpretation of content) we ignore the far more profound and far-reaching effects of the mediums used to transmit content. Hence the ‘content’ of telephone calls (in terms of their effects) is as nothing in comparison with the effects of the telephone as a medium: time-space compression, the ability to communicate from any corner of the globe, the speeding up of social affairs, and so on.

When we extend McLuhan’s definition of ‘content’ to include this dream-like, mirror-image movie projection we call ‘reality’, the nature of this ‘problem’ becomes apparent.

From Zardoz.

From my novel.

“Hmmm, that’s odd. She’s named The Surprize. I’m something of an expert in these matters and I recognise the name but can’t quite place it…”

“Captain, don’t bother racking your brains. That ship is a prop from a film I like. It’s from Master and Commander. I wouldn’t be surprised (sorry) to find Captain Jack Aubrey on board dishing out grog for the boys. No doubt he thinks he’s giving chase to the Acheron. Oh my fucking God, this is surreal!”

While writing my novel, I was accosted by a guy who accused me of being a ‘stalker’ and threatened to “break my fucking legs”. It was one of the most surreal conversations of my life, not least because my publisher’s nickname is ‘Legs’. It happened because his girlfriend (she worked in a local shop) was always chatting to me. I liked her, so I decided to combine her with another girl I knew and make her a character in one of my short stories. She was my ‘muse’. I asked if she’d like to read the story, and the confrontation in the street was the result.

The guy – his name was Jamie – seemed to be making a deliberate point of trying to make me feel guilty. He lived in an area of my town known as The Village, and he made multiple references to this, asking me over and over again “Do you want us to leave The Village? Is that want you want?”

About a month ago, I discovered that this guy had looked me up on Facebook the day before he confronted me and sent me a ‘message request’. In it, he accused me of being a “total pervert” and said he’d “bounce me around The Village” if he ever saw me.

A few months later, another Jamie moved into Flat number 6 (The Prisoner) next to mine, and began shouting obscenities at me through my bathroom wall. I confronted him about this and he denied it all. He literally looked blank, although he stopped doing it immediately afterwards.

And therein lies the ‘problem’: these people don’t seem to know what they’re saying and doing. If consciousness is self-awareness (the ability to recognise ourselves in the mirror) then by definition most people ‘out there’ are in a dream-like state, inhabitants of the ‘unconscious’.

In my world of sleepers everything will be erased, I’ll be your religion, your only endless ideal

Recently, I’ve been drawn to the films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. His filmography is interesting. Ivan’s Childhood, to take just one example, might strike a chord with someone. What really interested me, however, was his 1972 version of Solaris, which was remade 30 years later by Steven Soderbergh.

Solaris is a mirror image of a recent Tom Cruise film called Oblivion. Both films have male lead characters who place their wives into orbit around a planet. In Solaris, a clone of the man’s dead wife is created by Solaris: an alien intelligence that takes the form of a living ocean. He rejects her and blasts her into space, a symbolic ‘abortion’ to exact revenge for her aborting his child, which caused him to leave her and her to commit suicide. In Oblivion, the scenario is presented as a mirror image: he blasts her into orbit to save her life, and instructs her to ‘dream of us’.

Similarly, in Solaris the director plants clues to suggest that the male lead is also a ‘clone’ (a theme found in other films such as Bladerunner) and that everything that happens is a dream in the mind of the ocean. In Oblivion, the male lead learns that he and his partner are clones created by an alien intelligence. This intelligence litters the planet with artificial ‘radiation zones’ to prevent him from learning the truth, i.e. that each ‘radiation zone’ contains a duplicate of himself and his partner. He literally ‘finds himself’ in one of these zones and ends up fighting his own mirror image.

Radiation is also a key theme in Solaris. They want to destroy the alien intelligence with radiation, but later attempt to communicate with it by bombarding it with x-rays carrying a copy of the lead character’s brain pattern. Immediately afterwards, earth-like islands begin to form and the lead character finds himself inhabiting one. It contains a copy of his father’s house and the surrounding environment, the same house and environment that appears at the very beginning of the film.

What caught my attention about Oblivion is that it’s a term used in Zardoz. The lead renegade (a character called ‘Friend’) is asked what he wants, and his reply is “Oblivion!” He wants to kill himself, but he can’t because an artificial intelligence called The Tabernacle will just recreate him as a clone pre-loaded with his own memories. This too is oddly similar to Oblivion: Cruise’s character can’t die because there’s another version of himself ‘out there’ carrying ‘his’ memories.

It was Oblivion‘s reference to ‘finding the truth in your radiation zones’ then led me to look at our own ‘radiation zones’: Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island. I can’t begin to describe just how surreal these ‘nuclear accidents’ are. Tarkovsky directed another film about them, a film about a mysterious radioactive environment called ‘The Zone’. It too is the product of an alien intelligence.

Of course, the ‘problem’ here is that everything I’m talking about is content, and the one is just a mirror image of the other, which in turn is a mirror image of something else and so on. Is there genuinely any ‘truth’ in any of this, or is it all just a manifestation of the ‘echo chamber’ I talked about in my last post? We can ask the same thing about the content of the ‘spheres’ we’ve created for ourselves: the ‘Twittersphere’, the ‘Bloggosphere’, and any other ‘spheres’ we care to ‘imagine’.

The Stalker video was created by someone with the surname Galvin, which is oddly similar to Kelvin, the surname of the lead character in Solaris. Kelvin is also a measure of temperature.

When we inject our little tweets and squeaks into these ‘atmospheres’ we have to ask whether seeing them reflected back at us has any genuine significance, or whether it’s just a case of heating things up a little bit, agitating the atoms, causing them to bounce around all over the place.

Cruise’s character in Oblivion is called Jack. Let’s ask Lloyd/Dr Tyrell for his opinion. Can Jack’s ‘credit’ be ‘fine’? Hang on a moment though: if ‘credit’ is ‘debt’ then how can ‘credit’ be considered ‘fine’? Ah, of course – a ‘fine’ is a ‘penalty’ imposed by a third-party for presumed ‘wrongdoing’. Again, the theme is that of the ‘a-lien’ – an imaginary ‘debt’.

McLuhan asked four questions about mediums: what do they retrieve from the past, what do they make obsolete, what do they flip into when pushed to extremes, and what do they amplify. If we take Solaris and Zardoz and Oblivion as examples, ‘reality’ seems to be ‘history repeating’. This is consistent with McLuhan’s claim that material is constantly being scrapped or made obsolete, only to be retrieved and reimagined (recycled) in different forms. What ‘reality’ might flip into when pushed to extremes is anyone’s guess (but see below).

As for ‘amplification’, it seems that what the medium amplifies is ‘us’: the thoughts and beliefs of the small number of people who have become ‘lucid dreamers’.

Viewed from this perspective, it seems that our thoughts, prejudices and biases manifest ‘out there’ as empires and countries and religions and global enterprises, all competing with one another for supremacy, all convinced they have the ‘best solution’, the ‘correct’ ethical or moral stance, the ‘best’ way of living, etc. We’re presented as exaggerated ‘Spitting Image’ versions of ourselves, and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that it’s all done with a huge nod and wink…

McLuhan claimed that a medium creates a hidden ‘environment’ that most people are ‘oblivious’ to.

Are you tired of being ‘eco-friend-ly’? Do you, like me, think it’s time for something new?

From my novel.

Gary is hefting huge Marshall amps in a show of strength. A roadie appears from out of nowhere and hands me a jerry can of petrol and a flaming torch. I shrug. Never breathed fire before. Might as well get used to it.

Well done, mate. Tell you what, pack yourself off to Dover and grab a boat. We’ll meet you at Dartford. Make it a really big one, OK? Ruthie never settles for anything less and she’s always wanted to go on a cruise.

In Oblivion, Jack learns the truth about his situation whilst atop the Empire State, the only large structure left standing in the ruins of a supposedly radioactive earth.

And that would seem to be the name of the game we’re being asked to play.

But playing the same game over and over again soon becomes tedious. At some point (right about now for example) you find yourself longing for some respite from it all. I think it would be nice to say “bollocks to this non-existent debt” and fast forward to this part of the movie.

If we ditch the third-party add-ons, ‘memory devices’, and ‘thought crime’…

…and agree to learn the ‘lesson of history’ rather than repeat it…

…then maybe we can still find a nice spot in The Garden.