Sunday, July 22, 2007

Cyber-myths and electrification

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched c-beams glitter in the darkness at Tannhäuser Gate.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

(Blade Runner)

We all witnessed how the "information revolution", internet and the world-wide-web, the availability of low cost electronics and fast paced technological progress contributed to create a thriving cyber-mythology. Well, look, we're all out here blogging in cyberspace reaching out to the multitude of internet navigators, with no barriers and no obstacle (but in truth: is there anybody out there?). This is the triumph of the cyber-revolution, or isn't it? Much has been written on the information highway, the revolutionary power of the internet to make an enormous amount of data easily and freely accessible to the world population.

A good example, in the field of scientific research, of this regenerative power was the introduction of the free distribution of research papers worldwide via the arXiv eprints archive. Suddenly, being in an isolated environment, far remote from the main centers, no longer meant being completely cut off from mainstream research: the eprints provide daily access to the latest results in many fields of research from astrophysics, or high-energy physics, to mathematics. In this as in many other examples, the problem changes from that of lack of information to that or sorting through too much information, trying to identify and select what is most relevant. Search engines like Spires, or the very efficient sorting algorithms employed by Google, then become crucial to this process of navigating through the enormous amount of available data in search of what one really needs. Entire libraries go online (if you don't know it already, check out the wonderful Библиотека научной литературы) and entire archives of scientific papers are being scanned and made accessible (see for instance the freely accessible Numdam or the -only partly open access- Project Euclid).
Библиотека научной литературы
Project Euclid

This is all reality, but with reality comes also mythology. A lot has been written about the mythology surrounding the internet revolution. The cyberpunk movement, for example, is a much analyzed literary phenomenon which in fact predated the advent of the world-wide-web, but later provided a fertile ground for mythopoetic side of the computer era, perfectly in tune with the awe and fears inspired by the development of the global virtual communities of cyber-navigators. Of all that has and continues to be written around cyperspace as a cultural phenomenon, what I like best are the books (not all of them but most) that MIT Press produces.

MIT Press

(Well, at this point I had already written a few more pages of this posting, but due to a glitch in the system they were not saved and I just lost them. I don't know how this could possibly happen since the draft are -supposedly- auto saved, but beware that that's not always the case! Since the posting was coming out especially nicely this time, it's very painful to try to start writing it all over again, but I will give it a try. It won't sound as good as the lost one I'm afraid.)

I tend to like most MIT Press titles in the neuroscience and artifical intelligence section (I will write some review of those sometime). I probably also have a soft spot in general for MIT Press, from the time when I was visiting their bookstore at the printing house on Kendall Square on a nearly daily basis on my way home from work. They also produced a wealth of sleek paperbacks on cyber-culture and society, with varying perspectives and interpretations. Last year, when I was spending a few days in Canberra, I bought in the ANU university bookstore a copy of Mitchell's "Me++". As the title itself suggests, this book proposes a very enthusiastic viewpoint on the change in our lifestyle and in our urban environments caused by the advent of the cyber-revolution. Me++ is the enhancement of our natural self via the acquisition and the eventual merging with the electronic gadget, from Google search engines and Google Earth and Maps, to iPods and transportable libraries and other sources of immediate connection to diffuse and globally accessible information. This transforms the way we live in our houses, in our cities (the author is an architect) as well as the way we view the boundaries of our selves and the structure and location of our real or virtual communities. Me++ concentrates on the power of the new technology to transform and re-invent old notions about embodiment, spatial and temporal location, relational structures and networks.

The same general theme is discussed in a very different general tone in Mosco's book "The digital sublime -myth, power and cyberspace", which I read more recently, on my last flight from the US to Europe. This volume reads much more like a warning against the general indiscriminate excitement for the revolutionary power of the "new". He draws parallels between the hype that surrounded previous important technological inventions like the radio or electricity, how they were hailed as the revolutions that will become the universal and democratic vehicle of human expression (the radio, compared to what is now said about the internet), that will eliminate crime from society (the introduction of electric lights in the streets of our cities, compared to the many proposed miraculous advancements to society associated to contemporary technological innovations). One cannot deny that the invention of radio and electricity were indeed revolutionary and did indeed change many aspects of people life and environment. What is important, however, is to keep a firm distinction between reality and the accompanying mythology that major technological advancements generate. We all remember, I believe, the old myth of Lenin's "Communism is electrification", which identified the revolutionary power to the Soviets with the technological revolution of bringing the electricity grid to cover the whole territory. Today, electricity is a commodity the greatest part of the world simply gives for granted, and no longer pauses by considering in awe its "revolutionary power". Mythology left the scene, while the concrete advantages of technology remained. Such will be the end of the cyber-revolution.

On the general theme of cyber-mythology and culture, I also tried reading another MIT Press book: Richard Coyne's "Technoromanticism." I should say right away that I could not make much out of the book itself: it is far too postmodern for my taste and its prose far too remote from the technical and scientific prose I am used to. So I kept finding my mind wandering off on its own while I was trying to read the book. This wasn't so bad, as it provided me with a good opportunity to come up with my own idea of what "technoromanticism" may be, which might well have very little to do with what Coyne had in mind.

Let us say, roughly, that by "Technoromanticism" I mean images and modes of narrative inherited from the culture of European nineteenth century Romanticism, employed to generate mythologies surrounding the contemporary cyberspace hype. My view on this is colored by the fact that I harbor a profound dislike for nineteenth century Romanticism, which I view as a regressive flight from reason and enlightenment and towards a corresponding exaltation of primitive structures linked to the rise of nationalisms (the abhorrent ideology of nation states in Europe). Romantic music replaced the calm mental appreciation of a beautifully constructed sound edifice, typical of the age of Bach, with bags full of gut-stirring tricks and effects. Generally, I prefer to enjoy things with my mind than with my bowels. Twentieth century avant-garde came finally like a gust of wind to clear out the miasma of Romanticism. Now, what about "Techno-Romanticism"?

Rather than trying to continue with an abstract discussion on the subject, I prefer to consider some simple concrete examples of what I regard as typical instances of "Technoromanticism". The first is the Replicant's speech at the end of the movie "Blade Runner", which I quoted at the beginning of this post. "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe" marks from the beginning one of the main themes of cyber-mythology, the separation and merging of the human and the non-human machine. The passage immediately conjures up the image of a whole population of not-quite-human characters -cyborgs, replicants, androids, and thinking machines. This is not unlike the use that the Romantic imagination of the nineteenth century did of goblins, spirits, angels, from Henry Fuseli's "Nightmare" to Arnold Böcklin's fauns and nymphs. "Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion" is just a space era version of another favorite theme of the Romanticism: just think of the vast supply of paintings of naval battles and ship wrecks from Géricault's "Le Radeau de la Méduse" to Friedrich's "The Wreck of the Hope" (also known as "The Sea of Ice"). The text then continues with the even more explicit "I watched c-beams glitter in the darkness at Tannhäuser Gate". Nobody here would miss the Wagnerian reference, while superimposed on the dark tones of Wagner's music is the pseudo-scientific jargon of "c-beams", which reminds us that these Romantic images are to be applied to our modern scientific world. The "c-beams" make us think of alpha and beta rays and or the heroic beginning of the era of experiments with atomic physics. The most pervasive Romantic theme is recalled in the conclusive "All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain", namely the struggle between the fragile and perishable nature of the human-machine confronted with the gigantic and eternal nature of the Cosmos, which manifests itself so clearly in the man/nature dichotomy of Caspar David Friedrich's paintings.

So given my general allergy to Romanticism, how comes that I can tolerate this variant better? Well, I believe it is because, in contrasting the dark gut-stirring anti-rational modes of Romanticism with the cool rational and progressive modes of contemporary science and technology, one is able to give expression to the "dark side" of our cyber-utopia. Utopia without a drak side is too childishly optimistic for it to continue to be believable, just think of the good old Socialist myths about the radiant future (Communism is electrification). When utopias are accompanied by a narrative that finds the words for a dark side, then the utopia continues to be appealing and maintains its hold on the human mind. Myths always have dark sides or they would cease immediately to exist as driving mythologies: religions invented angels as well as demons. That portraying of the shadow side of the cyber-utopia is generally what the cyberpunk movement has been doing, and the replicant speech I discussed above is just one of many examples.

Another example I want to mention are two visual sequences. both beloging to the animation cyberpunk movie "Ghost in the Shell". The first sequence (see the image on top of the page) is the one that accompanies the initial credits and opens the movie. In it, a purely music and images sequence, one sees the assemblage of the cyborg hero of the story, from disembodied brain and circuits, to final woman body. Once again this beginning sets the cyberpunk tone by stressing once again the merging of the human and the machine into the mythological half-human creature (not unlike the ancient demigods). The accompanying music is giving hint of a chorus of child-like voices, a sort of angelic choir underlying the transformation of machine into human, or human into machine. The second sequence (image below) is even more striking. It interrupts the narrative plot of the the movie by interjecting another long and visually compelling stream of images and music. The music once more is an a cappella chorus of white voices, while the images are slow motion sequences of urban landscapes depicting an East Asian metropolis of a not-so-far future in its splendor and darkness. I am reminded, in comparing these two sequences, of the main theme of William J. Mitchell's "Me++" book (and of his previous "Placing Words - Symbols, Space, and the City"), namely the changes to human body and urban environment brought about by the cyber-revolution.