The Surrender Machine

Since the web became ubiquitous in the early 2000s, the centre of our focus and attention shifted to the screen. Although, that is not entirely true. Television had been ubiquitous too, and the hours the average adult watches TV over the years may have only slightly decreased whilst the use of privately owned web-capable machines rose over the years. People may have switched the underlying machine, but the habit of being glued to a screen has been pretty much constant since, I guess, the early 1970s.[1]

People do different things at the screen. Formerly called programmers, software developers sit in front of their screens typing codeline after codeline. Authors and writers have long abandoned the typewriter and use the computer as text processing machine. People may watch less cable TV but simply switched the provider to watch the movies online instead. Streaming services became the norm while cinemas and movie theatres keep closing shop. Music, once purchased via vinyl, then CD, now stream as well; purchases became micro by the advent of single song purchases online.

For many years activism for social change, environmental preservation, working rights, political resistance used different venues. Now much of it occurs on the screen as well. Social media and formerly relevant publishing tools like blogs made audience-building and pressure coordination a more screen-oriented, detached activitiy. Protests stills happen in the streets and the courts, communities still spring up at the parks and in the neighbourhood quarters, but the coordination, the organization, the talk, the chatter now happen via the screen-machine.

With handhelds and web-capable telecommunications machines, the screen, not the specific underlying hardware, became the most important aspect of today’s instant access. Access and screen, be it touch, press, or click, merged into one, the underlying machine rather a question of convenience and consumer choice than of task- and end-oriented hardware choice. Today, the most important device that connects people with the web is the screen. It may, in some future, transform into a brain-transplant, but right now the screen is what makes people act and react.

We don’t even need to point to the ubiquitous stare of people at their handheld devices, be it smartphones, tablets, or e-readers. What we do have is the omnipresent connection of the human eye, the human mind, and the screen a few centimetres away from it.

One change since the early 1970 is the replacement of the old cathode ray display by the liquid crystal display, which made the individuation of screen-machines possible. The devices became portable. But what did not change since the dawn (and spread) of televison is that when looking onto the screen, we look into a source that directly emits light. Before screens became ubiquitous, the way we looked at the world, at movie screens, at newspapers, magazines, books, was looking onto surfacees that reflected light stemming from a another light source. That is, we used to look into the world by relying on indirect lightning. The (rather) rare exceptions when we would look into direct lighting were the lights of the streets, the cities, the work places and the nightlife. Apart from that, the sun would be the main direct source of light emission. Into which we would rarely stare.

I don’t know how things changed evolutionarily, or if they changed at all, when we began to substitute confronting ourselves with indirect lightning by confronting ourselves with direct lightning. Perhaps the stare into the direct light source does indeed put us more into a dream-like state, circumventing rational and verbatim thinking, directly entering our subconsciousness. Or perhaps the stare into the direct light source fuses a dream state with verbatim and rational elements. But being glued to the screen makes us look away from a world of indirect lighting. Instead we are locked to a source of direct lighting, in which things don’t stay fixed and calm, but rush to change and replace the other. So what might be said, on this broad, over-generalized level, is that for most people the web and the machines to access it are little more than interactive television. It’s television in which we participate on a myriad of levels and aspects. But it still is a shiny screen. And we keep being glued to it.

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Attention is linked to appreciation and that to committment, even love. We not only care for what we love, we also love what we care of and care about, as Shery Turkle once wisely observed.[2] That is: Whatever we invest our attention and appreciation in, we sooner or later begin to love, that is, to be concerned about. That doesn’t mean that we learnt to love our gadgets and the screens that go with them – although that, in a sense, isn’t false either – but that we learnt to love what we interact with, or create, or belong to. People started using the computer as a «tool» to solve problems, getting tasks done, and ended up devising more and more tasks the solution of which demanded even more time to spend with the computer – or more precisely: with the screen. This is not to say that we are facing a worldwide pandemic of addiction to screen-mediated flicker – although one could argue for that as well – but that we came to convince ourselves that the amount of attention we can spend a day is somehow best spent with a screen. And if you look into one direction, you look away from others. Watching the screen means looking away from what happens aside of or outside the screen. Which we then try to accomodate by looking at things via the medium of the screen.

But when things become relevant insofar as we can watch them on a screen, by looking into a lightsource directly emiting light, they no longer stay relevant in the world of indirect lighting, of bodies and concrete. That is: The screen changes the things of the world into information and images. They thus become toy blocks – which can be a good thing – in danger of their own meaning getting lost – which mostly is a bad thing. When we stop listening to what the things want to tell us, we begin substituting their voices with ours.

A few years back the term «Anthropocene» made its entry in the boundless talks and thoughts attached to screens. And recently, some people started to say that we indeed now have entered the geo-historical era of the «Anthropocene», in the sense that there are no further corners of the world untouched and unchanged by human intervention, meaning that everything we now can discover and experience already has a man-made touch or is of man-made nature. Wilderness, not in the Romanticists’ sense but in the sense of «untouched by man» has become a lost «category». All we can encounter in this world, on this planet, is already a mirror of who is encountering it.

There is a sadness, even desparation, that comes with the loss of wilderness and the ubiquity of human intervention, the loss of something that is part of the world but still not made by humans. The staleness of a world in which everything we find is from man-made industriousness, discourages us from caring for this world. A man-made world, it seems, is ex hypothesi a world not worth saving. When everything is just what a ridiculous plan has devised and incompetently realized, then all we find out there is a shadow image of ourselves, and even a lesser one. Then why keep looking into that mirror, when all it shows is the Gollum, and not the Elf?

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What I was trying to make plausible is that the talk of the «Anthropocene» has a very important inherent flaw. It sees the world as solely remaining of the man-made and man-influenced items. That, what is not man, the wilderness, is no longer part of what once has been called a world (in a slightly different sense). A world that encompasses man-made and man-independent things (or «aspects») is different from a world that solely encompasses or consists of things made or touched or influenced by man. The former leaves the hope that things may still change unexpectedly, into a direction we couldn’t have dreamt about, even fathomed, in advance. It makes the world a place to discover, to play with, to marvel about but also to fear. The other world, the one containing solely the things (purportedly) being made, touched or influenced by man, is the stale world of multi-storey car parks, skyscrapers, and theme parks. The world of everlasting amusement, challenges, research, work, sustainable design options, self-realization, etc. It is also, like in Antiquity, an encapsulated world, beyond which nothing exists but chaos.[3]

The need to live in a world not made by ourselves seems deeply ingrained in our psychê. The wilderness «out there» seems to be needed as a handrail for walking through the wilderness «here inside». Lose the former and what happens to the latter? It seems, just seems, to vanish as well, leaving stale rational constraints and obligations as the parameters of reality. But that might not be the case. Perhaps the «wilderness inside» just re-appears outside, inside, throughout, as disfunctionality of societies, of economic systems of quantitative exchanges, of paranoia, dispair. The wild, that is, will not disappear, it will just come back in different guises, as «problems» that entice us to «solve» them by rational means and technical expertise. And thus make them worse.
So what the talk of the «Anthropocene» gets right is that there is the conceptual option of a world containing solely man-inspired items, with all the staleness that goes with it. But it goes wrong in two ways. The one is to think that wilderness simply disappears. It in fact re-appears as disfunctionality. But to think disfunctionality is tantamount to practical design problems asking for a solution will not only not solve or enhance anything, it will reinforce the urge to purge the world from wilderness at all.

But even more important is the second way this talk goes wrong. It forgets that the «Anthropocene» is not something we discovered «out there», in some world of mud and stone, but in the intermediate realm of the screen, of us glued to the screen. In which things already appear not as themselves but as hearsays, as information, as toy blocks, which we inflate and shrink at will, according to the attention we give them. And which haunt us inasmuch as we care for them.

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In order to keep the right balance in a world made of screen, we try to resort to the science that already proved so successful in establishing the laws of a world that wasn’t us: mathematics. And so we keep using statistics, polls, measurements, extrapolations, bell-cuves, algorithms, data structures, toplogies, in order to re-visualize the world we once knew to be not of our making. And we keep pushing the Myth of «algorithm neutrality»,[4] thereby falling below even the crudest form of 19th century Empiricism that, in itself, has always been a strangely concocted theory about the world and our making sense of it.[5] In doing so, mathematics and its related structural sciences only enhance the fanciful character of what we take to be items outside the screen. In a sense, this can be seen as a variant of Donald Davidsons «Third Dogma of Empiricism»,[6] this time the Myth of a distinction between a pure topic «out there» and a medium of «access» (i.e., representation) – screen, pure eyes, experiment – somehow «right here». In this Myth, the means of our visualization constitute the nature of the things we’re talking, marvel and worry about.

But mathematics and her related structural sciences will not tell us what formulas to apply and what theorems to prove. That is, following the argument (or: following the deduction) is only as good as the premisses and axioms we still are forced to choose. In particular in the sphere of the screen, where things reappear as data, topologies, structures, or images and films and movies and texts, what comes about is almost entiriely determinded by the choices we have made in the beginning. What to put onto the screen, in what way, in what mode of representation. Mathematics and her siblings thus become subsequent justifications for choices already made without them. We may still «follow the argument» in the hope of a reductio ad absurdum to occur, but that by no means is guaranteed to be an endeavour to be reached effectively and in finite steps. Not really a way to ascertain the «reality» of the things we began with.

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Of course, the talk of the «Anthropocene» was only meant to serve as an example. This is not about the «Anthropocene» but about the impact of being in a world that more or less happens via the perception through screens. It makes things appear of being of our own making. In thus appearing as of our own making, the things, the world, tend to become stale, hopeless, as all we find is the stuff we put inside them, not what they might tell us of their own. In that, we give up hope of a world not, or not entirely, of our own making but still relevant to us and our fellow beings. When things become all equal, what matters is not what they tell us but what we find important. That is not dangerous or limiting in itself, rather a call to our conscience and awareness. But right now, via the screens and the modes of our perceiving them, things turn out to tell us what we already know. They cannot tell us of their own. In that, the world becomes a boring place, a desperate place, a place without a livable and worthy future. We give up. Even, or perhaps: especially, as the problems magnify and the dangers grow. The screen becomes the machine of our surrender, surrender not to something higher than ourselves but to the fatigue that permeates all what we know.

For more than 50 years we have lived with the screen. It became ubiquitous in the way we understand what world is. That all the liberating fantasies of this technology (be it, first with televioson, then the computer, then the web) turned out false is one aspect; that it enforced our hopelessness and despair quite another. That we still turn to the screen for solace and encouragement, is the third and perhaps most vicious aspect of it. As we love what we care for, we keep being glued to the screen, even and specifically because of our best intentions. And this is the most terrifying feature of the screen: Not only does it need our attention and care, not only does it induces in us love and admiration, in keeping us hooked to something with which we cannot act nor understand nor go away, it became the most intrusive surrender machine of the last 550 years.

The screen will not go away. We will not switch it off. We will never know how the world is outside the screen – to the detriment of us and the beings that experience our screen-mediated activities. Wilderness has been reduced to malfunction, and in this lies the most terrifying aspect of our surrender. It’ll make us unable to face the wilderness that is about to come.

 

[1] Cf. Jacqueline Howard, «Americans devote more than 10 hours a day to screen time, and growing», CNN Health, July 29,2016, 20:22 GMT.
[2] Akiko Busch, «Q+A: Sherry Turkle (February 2008)», I.D. The International Design Magazine, Vol. 55, No. 2, March / April 2008.
[3] To be more precise:  The ancient Greek word «oikos» that was tanatamount to «world» is usually translated as household. It is the proximity that is familiar. Accordingly, what lies beyond it is the un-familiar, which in ancient Greece took the form of the chaos, the disorder, the void. This distinction changed in the Roman-Christian-West in which the world (lat. «mundus») is what is part of the divine salvation whereas that outside it, the «un-familiar», is the sphere of what is not part of the divine salvation, thus is the «sphere» of the un-redeemed. It’s worth highlighting that these old conceptions are still (or again) underlying the current usage of terms like «Anthropocene». It thus shows a relapse into terminologies and practices that are quite inconsistent with a purported modern, secular use.
[4] I first became acquainted with the term «algorithm neutrality» and its associated problems through Evgeny Morozov’s article «Don’t Be Evil» (The New Republic, July 13, 2011, 9:30 PM). Another link to it is here.
[5] Cf. the discussion of the Three Dogmas of Empiricism by Willard Van Orman Quine and Donald Davidson.
[6] See note 5 above and his seminal article: Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 47, (1973 – 1974), pp. 5-20.

 

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