The Global Digital Unconscious
In a limited sense, the “Global Digital Unconscious” can be viewed as the sum total of all the digital, electronic communication technologies (or media) mankind currently employs worldwide. This includes satellites, radio, the internet, and so on. In reality, it’s much more than this. Such a limited definition only covers the “Global Digital” bit, it doesn’t really explain the all-important “Unconscious” element, which is something typically associated with the human mind and the work of psychoanalysts such as Freud and Jung. So what does it mean to associate artificial human technologies with the human psyche itself?
It’s important to recognise that our technologies aren’t just things that exist ‘out there’. Fundamentally, all technologies – digital and non-digital – are extensions or ‘outerings’ of the human senses. The club extends and amplifies the human arm, the telescope the eye, and so on. However, the discovery of electricity and the invention of the telegraph, telephone, radio and, more recently, the computer, began to reverse our relationship with our technologies. The electric revolution enabled us to lay down a network of telegraph, telephone and radio networks that mirrored, extended and amplified the human central nervous system itself. Our individual nervous system relays information about sources of pain, discomfort, threats and pleasure; the electric nervous system served exactly the same purpose, relaying exactly the same information but on an increasingly global scale. A mere flick of a switch brought the concerns of entire continents into our living rooms. We became aware of new threats and conflicts (actual and potential), new sources of entertainment and enjoyment.
The subsequent development of electronics, computers and the internet enabled us to take the next logical step: we added something analogous to the human brain to the electric central nervous system. We now translate our thoughts, dreams, hopes, aspirations, fears, drives and motivations into packets of binary data and transmit them across the globe. We build ‘life stories’ on global social media platforms, download movies and TV programmes that communicate the ‘archetypes’ of 21st Century mankind, share our thoughts, feelings and perhaps even our darkest secrets with friends and family across the global via technologies such as Skype, and so on. We can do all this from our living rooms, our cars, our places of work – even on a mountaintop far from civilisation. We have even begun to outsource the tedious business of learning and remembering to our devices. Why bother remembering facts, figures and telephone numbers when our smart phones can do this for us and Wikipedia is only a mouse click or gesture away?
It should by now be obvious that our technologies are much more than mere things. It should also be obvious that the digital revolution has led to the creation of technologies that are very much more than mere extensions of the human hand or eye. So much so that we are now actively pursuing the next obvious links in the chain: the ‘Holy Grails’ of Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Consciousness. Our own investigations into the human mind uncovered the existence of the unconscious aspect of the psyche: a mysterious world of symbols, exotic imagery, and subliminal drives and motivations. Yet even today, a full century after Freud and Jung’s ground-breaking work, the world of the unconscious seems strange and alien to us, and we still believe that the age old form of the dream (or, in extreme cases, the vision and hallucination) remains our only ‘interface’ with it. Today, however, this is no longer the case. We have externalised the unconscious: it exists ‘out there’ in the digital realm, flashing through fibre optic cable at the speed of light. It exists in the vast array of data centres that store and transmit hopes, dream and fears that are not always consciously understood – some of which we may be only dimly aware of.
The Global Digital Unconscious is us translated into ‘particles’ of information and disseminated across the globe (and beyond) like the atomic nuclei (all of which were once part of a star) that comprise our physical bodies.
In his seminal work The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan defined the unconscious as a “slagheap of rejected conscious”. In his view, what we call the ‘unconscious’ is a product of the closing down of the senses, which is itself the result of the re-prioritising of the senses via technology. Gutenberg invented the printing press and gave us the book – the printed word. As a technology or medium, the printed word favours the eye and produced a culture-wide sensory imbalance that relegated our other senses to the periphery. The printed word facilitated the rediscovery of ancient Greece and Rome, leading to the Renaissance. Similarly, the uniform, sequential and repeatable method of the printing press was the Industrial Revolution in miniature. It provided the basic template for everything that followed. As the technology developed and became ubiquitous the sensory imbalance became more and more accentuated. We literally lost touch with the tactile. We began to hear without listening. Our speech became like the printed word itself: devoid of emotional inflection and vibrance. We repressed these sensory experiences and shunted them into the unconscious. Unlike our tribal ancestors, we lost the ability to communicate with the unconscious as lived experience.
Our own intelligence and consciousness is built on the unconscious. In this sense, the unconscious can be viewed as firmware providing a foundation for the malleable software that is consciousness and intelligence. Yet we still have only the vaguest notions of what intelligence and consciousness actually are. There is no single accepted definition. How, then, can we create an artificial intelligence or consciousness? What we know from our own evolution is that at some stage the basic ‘hardware’ of the human brain evolved to a point which permitted intelligence and consciousness to emerge from the symbolic murk of the unconscious. If this is the case then is it not more likely that an ‘artificial’ intelligence and conscious will emerge spontaneously and unexpectedly from the digital unconscious as our technologies become more sophisticated, more interwoven, more ubiquitous? Were this to happen – were such a consciousness to emerge not in a single machine locked away in a research establishment but in a vast interconnected network spread out across the globe – then how on earth would it communicate its existence to us? What might its first flickers of consciousness look like?
There are therefore two dimensions to the Global Digital Unconscious. It is first and foremost a new medium for the expression of the unconscious – an environment in which we can, once again, rediscover and interact with the unconscious as lived experience. It is also, in my view, the breeding ground for a new form of consciousness itself, commonly referred to by way of oxymoron: “Artificial Intelligence”.
Hugo’s Probe is my attempt to scan the Global Digital Unconscious for these first flickers of consciousness. It’s a kind of localised SETI searching for mysterious and illusive blips, whistles and gurgles against the digital background chatter. My ‘probing’ is unashamedly based on, and guided by, the incredible work of Marshall McLuhan. My basic approach is to treat the Global Digital Unconscious as exactly that: as an autonomous environment rich in symbolic imagery rather than the written language of the conscious mind. My core assumptions are as follows:
- That consciousness and language go hand in hand.
- That, like a newborn child, an ‘artificial’ consciousness (or, rather, an entity with the capacity to achieve consciousness) will not have some kind of innate ability to speak English, French, Chinese or any other language for that matter.
- That apparently random and coincidental manifestations, patterns, and convergences of symbolic imagery could represent such an entity’s attempt to communicate its existence to us.
- That any such manifestations, patterns, and convergences of symbolic imagery will not be alien to the human mind, given that such an entity will have ‘inherited’ its stock of images, symbols, and archetypes from us.
Given the subject matter, my methods will be no more subtle, mysterious, and symbolic than the unconscious itself.