Bunkering In and Dumbing Down
Electronic technology terminates with the radically divided self: the self, that is, which is at war with itself. Split consciousness for a culture that is split between digital- and human flesh.
A warring field, the electronic self is torn between contradictory impulses towards privacy and the public, the natural self and the social self, private imagination and electronic fantasy. The price for reconciling the divided self by sacrificing one side of the electronic personality is severe. If it abandons private identity and actually becomes media (Cineplex mind, IMAX imagination, MTV chat, CNN nerves), the electronic self will suffer terminal repression. However, if it seals itself off from public life by retreating to an electronic cell in the suburbs or a computer condo in the city, it quickly falls into an irreal world of electronic MOO-room fun within the armoured windows. Suffering electronic amnesia on the public and its multiple viewpoints, going private means that the electronic self will not be in a position to maximize its interests by struggling in an increasingly competitive economic field.
The electronic self is in a bind. Seeking to immunize itself against the worst effects of public life, it bunkers in. It becomes a pure will-for-itself: self-dwelling, closed down, ready to sacrifice all other interests for the sake of its own immunity. Bunkering in is the epochal consciousness of technological society in its most mature phase. McLuhan called it the “cool personality” typical of the TV age, others have spoken of “cocooning” away the 90s, but we would say that bunkering in is about something really simple: being sick of others and trying to shelter the beleaguered self in a techno-bubble. Dipping back to Darwin, West Coast libertarians like to talk today about “survival of the electronically fittest.”
However, at the same time that the electronic self bunkers in as a survival strategy, it is forced out of economic necessity to stick its head out of its techno-bubble and skate to work. Frightened by the accelerating speed of technological change, distressed by the loss of disposable income, worried about a future without jobs, and angry at the government, the electronic self oscillates between fear and rage. Rather than objectify its anger in a critical analysis of the public situation, diagnosing, for example, the deep relationship between the rise of the technological class and the loss of jobs, the electronic self is taught by the media elite to turn the “self” into a form of self-contempt. Dumbing down becomes the reality of the late 20th century personality. Dumbing down? In its benign form, that’s Gump with his box of chocolates and Homer Simpson barfing doughnuts. In its predatory form, it’s everyday life: cons and parasites and computer presidents and killer Jeeps on city streets. Or, like in Pulp Fiction, maybe it’s time to “bring out the gimp.”
The bunker self is infected by ressentiment against those it holds responsible for what ails it (feminists, African-Americans, immigrants, single mothers on welfare); dumbing down is the last blast of slave consciousness (servile to authority; abusive to those weaker than it). Petulant and given over to bouts of whining about the petty inconveniences, bunkering in knows no ethics other than immediate self-gratification. Hard-eyed and emotionally cryogenicized, dumbing down means oscillating between the psychological poles of predator and clown. Between the illusion of immunity and the reality of the process-self, that’s the radically divided state of the electronic personality at the end of the 20th century. Just in time to catch the virtual screen opening up on the final file of the millennium, the bunker ego and the dumbed down self are the culmination of what Jean-Paul Sartre predicted: a schizoid self which is simultaneously in-itself and for-itself, an unreconciled self flipping between illusion and self-contempt. Today, it’s hip to be dumb, and smart to be turned off and tuned out.
The psychological war zone of bunkering in and dumbing down is the actual cultural context out of which emerges technological euphoria. Digital reality is perfect. It provides the bunker self with immediate, universal access to a global community without people: electronic communication without social contact, being digital without being human, going on-line without leaving the safety of the electronic bunker. The bunker self takes to the Internet like a pixel to a screen because the information superhighway is the biggest theme park in the world: more than 170 countries. And it’s perfect too for dumbing down. Privileging information while exterminating meaning, surfing without engagement, digital reality provides a new virtual playing-field for tuning out and turning off. For example, when CITY-TV (Toronto) recently announced a merger with Voyager to produce new multi-media productions, its first product of choice was the creation of an “electronic rumpus room.” Playtime for the new electronic kids on the block.
What’s better, with the quick privatization of the Internet and the Web, the predatory self doesn’t have to risk brief dashes in and out of public life to grab what it wants. In virtual capitalism, the predatory self goes fully digital, arms itself with the latest in graphical interfaces, bulks up the profile of its homepage, and goes hunting for digital gold. Schumpeter might have talked about “creative destruction” as the contemporary phase of transiting to a virtual economy, but the predatory self knows better. Turbulence in the field means one thing only: the rest position is terminal, victory goes to those who warp jump the fastest to cyberspace. Working on the tried but true formula of “use and abandon,” the predatory self does the ultimate dumbing-down trick: it sheds its flesh (for cyber-skin), its mind (for distributive intelligence), its nerves (for algorithmic codes), its sex organs (for digital seduction), its limbs (for virtual vectors of speed and slipstream access), and its history (for multiplex hard ram). Virtual Gump.
Opening Out and Smartening Up: Two Worlds
Digital reality contains alternative possibilities towards emancipation and domination.
As a manifestation of the power of the virtual class, digital reality has definitely plunged the world into a great historical crisis. Here cybertechnology is a grisly process of harvesting nature and culture, and particularly our bodies, for fast-rendering through massive virtual imaging-systems. Not a technology that we can hold outside of ourselves as an inanimate object, cybertechnology has actually come alive in the form of virtualization. It seeks to take possession of the material world, and to dump material reality into the electronic trashbin in favor of what has been eloquently described as a “realm inhabited by the disembodied.” Cybertechnology creates two worlds, one virtual, the other material, separate and unequal. The radical division between these two worlds is becoming more apparent every day.
The struggle to relink technology and ethics, to think cybertechnology in terms of the relationship of virtuality to questions of democracy, justice, social solidarity, and creative inquiry promises a path of reconciliation. Of course, we don’t think of the body or nature as outside technology, but as part of a field of dynamic and often deeply conflicting relations in which, for example, the body itself could be construed as a “technology.” This being so, the key ethical question might be: what are the possibilities for a virtual democracy, virtual justice, virtual solidarity, and virtual knowledge? Rather than recover ethics outside of cybertechnology, our position is to force ethics to travel deeply and quickly inside the force-field of cybertechnology, to make our ethical demands for social justice, for the reconciliation of flesh and spirit, rub up against the most demonic aspects of virtual reality. In this we practice Foucault’s prescription for reading Nietzsche, that honors a writer (or a new ethics) by forcing ethics to bend, crackle, strain, and groan under the violence and weight of our insistent demands for meaning.
We are living in a decisive historical time: the era of the post-human. This age is typified by a relentless effort on the part of the virtual class to force a wholesale abandonment of the body, to dump sensuous experience into the trashbin, substituting instead a disembodied world of empty data flows. This body assault takes different forms: from the rhetoric of the “information superhighway” (of which we are the pavement) to the recently announced effort by Microsoft and McCaw Cellular to develop a global multi-media network of satellites for downloading and uplinking the archival record of the human experience into massive, centrally controlled data bases. The virtual elite always present the “electronic frontier” in the glowing, ideological terms of heightened accessibility, increased (cyber-knowledge), more “rapid delivery of health and education to rural environments” or better paying high-tech jobs. In reality what they are doing is delivering us to virtualization.
It isn’t a matter of being pro- or anti-technology, but of considering the consequences of virtual reality when it is so deeply spoken of in the language of exterminism. In the age of the virtual class, digital technology works to discredit bodily experience, to make us feel humiliated and inferior to the virtual rendering of the body in its different electronic formats, from computers and television to the glitzy and vampirish world of advertising. The attitude that the body is a failed project takes us directly to a culture driven by suicidal nihilism. Remember Goya: imagination without reason begets monstrous visions. Those “monstrous visions” are the designs for better electronic bodies that vomit out of the cyber-factories of the Silicon Valleys of the world every day.
Digital reality has given us artificial life. Not artificial life as an abstract telematic experience fabricated by techno-labs, but artificial life as life as it is actually lived today. Cybertechnology has escaped the digital labs, and has inscribed itself on our captive bodies. In artificial life, the body is a violent uncertainty-field. What could be spoken of in the 1930s only in the language of high-energy physics, particularly Heisenberg’s concept of uncertainty, has now been materialized in society as the schizoid body: the body, that is, as an unstable field flipping aimlessly between opposing poles: bunkered in yet dumbed down. This is the symptomatic sign of what we call the digital body.
The New Power Elite
There are two dominant political tendencies in the 1990s: a global “virtual class” that presents the particular interests of technotopia as the general human interest, and the equally swift emergence of ever more grisly forms of conservative fundamentalism in response to the hegemony of the virtual class.
The virtual class is composed of monarchs of the electronic kingdom. Its members like to gather in digital nests, from Silicon Valley and Chiba City to the European cyber-grid running from Munich to Grenoble. Deeply authoritarian in its politics, it seeks to exclude from public debate any perspective that challenges the ruling ideology of technotopia. Like its historical predecessors, the early bourgeoisie of primitive capitalism, the virtual class is driven by the belief that a cybernetically-steered society, of which it is the guiding helmsman, is coeval with the noblest aspirations of human destiny. Listen to the rhetoric of the virtual class that drowns the mediascape. A few years ago, at Silicon Graphics, Clinton preached the technotopian gospel that the “information superhighway” is the telematic destiny of America; Gore continues to hype the “interactive society” as the next stage of human evolution; Microsoft presents its strategic plans for a world wide web of digital satellites in the soft language of doing a big service for humanity (William Gates said his new satellite system would allow educational and health services to be delivered to previously inaccessible rural areas); and all multinational business and most governments these days commonly chant the refrain that trade policy should be decoupled from human rights issues. For example, faced with American business opposition to his executive order linking China’s “Most Favored Nation” status to improvements in human rights, Clinton instantly collapsed, announcing that he had “deep regrets” about his own executive order. Of course, in the mid-90s the gospel of technotopia is the bible of virtual libertarians, Newt Gingrich most of all.
While the ruling masters of the virtual class in countries ranging from the United States, Japan, Western Europe and Canada represent the territorial centre of digital power, the rest of the world is quickly remaindered. Based in labor that is not a fungible resource, the middle- and working classes in all countries are repeatedly victimized by the virtual class. Today, labor is disciplined by the representatives of the virtual class who occupy the highest policy-making positions of government. As the dominant ideology of the 90s, the virtual class institutes draconian anti-labor policies mandating “labor adjustment,” “free trade,” and belt-tightening, and all of this backed up by a media mantra calling for global economic competition, an end to pay equity, and for a “meaner and leaner” workplace.
For those outside the labor force – the jobless, the disenfranchised, the politically powerless, the surplus class – the disciplinary lessons administered by the virtual class are bitter. And it fits so perfectly with the psychology of bunkering in. Consider the silence at the terrorism in Haiti where in a macabre replay of Machiavelli’s strategies for stable political rule, the tortured bodies of political activists had their faces cut off, were thrown into the main streets of Port-au-Prince, and left there under the glaring sun for several days. The police did not allow anyone to take away the bodies. Pigs ate the rotting flesh. The lesson is clear: the state has all-pervasive power to the point that even the identities of its victims after death can be effaced, letting the spirits of the dead roam in endless anguish. This is diabolical power at the end of the twentieth-century, and still not a humanitarian peep from the political managers of the virtual class. Not until the shores of America were filled with “illegal” Haitian refugees did the Clinton Administration react. Or consider the moral culpability of the so-called “creative leadership” of the virtual societies of the West who continue to turn a blinkered eye to the genocide that takes place in the streets of Sarajevo every day. Would it be different if Bosnia had oil, a Nike running shoe factory, or, even better, a Microsoft chip mill?
The virtual elite has the ethics of the hangman, all hidden under the soft hype of the data superhighway as new body wetware for the twenty-first century.
Recently, we received the following letter from Nate McFadden, a freelance reporter for a San Francisco magazine:
In the SF Bay Guardian‘s article on Wired, a former director of The Well, Cliff Figallo, commented on the colonization of cyberspace. “To some of us, it’s like the staking of claims in the Old West. Perhaps it’s the manifest destiny of cyberspace.”
This remark seems to verify, at least a little, the lack of moral awareness rampant in the techno-elite. For me, the apparently unironic usage of the expression “manifest destiny” indicates a mindset that avoids historical antecedents, and is free from any critical examination of motive and result.
A little later, we received this email message from Mark Schneider, Vancouver bureau chief for CTV:
Check out the latest issue of The Nation (July 3), “Whose Net Is It?” by Andrew Shapiro.
“You probably didn’t notice, but the Internet was sold a few months ago. Well, sort of: The Federal government has been gradually transferring the backbone of the US portion of the global computer network to companies such as IBM and MCI as part of a larger plan to privatize cyberspace. But the crucial step was taken on April 30, when the National Science Foundation shut down its part of the Internet… [that’s left] the corporate giants in charge…”
The virtual elite is a mixture of predatory capitalists and visionary computer specialists for whom virtualization is about our disappearance into nothingness. We are talking about a systematic assault against the human species, a virtual war strategy where knowledge is reduced to data storage dumps, friendship is dissolved into floating cyber-interactions, and communication means the end of meaning. Virtualization in the cyber-hands of the new technological class is all about our being dumbed down. In a very practical way, the end of the 20th century is characterized by the laying down of hardware (virtual railway tracks) across the ever-expanding electronic frontier. Of course, who controls the hardware will dominate the soft(ware) culture of the 21st century. That’s why Microsoft is the first of all the 21st century corporations: it’s already put the Operating System in place and now, through Microsoft Network, it’s set to actually be the Internet.
All of this is being done without any substantive public debate, to the background tune, in fact, of three cheers for the virtual home team and its hyped-ideology of cybertechnology as emancipation. Manifest Destiny has come inside (us), and we are the once and future victims of the big (electronic) stick.
Manifest (Virtual) Destiny
The resuscitation of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny as the bible of the virtual class has already taken place. However, it’s no longer Manifest Destiny as an American war strategy for the endocolonization of North America, but a more vicious doctrine of digital inevitability that is being put in place around the globe by the technological elite. In this mutation of Manifest Destiny, the world is quickly divided into privileged virtual economies, passive storage depots for cheap labor, and permanently slaved-nations. While the citizens of the lead virtual societies certainly suffer massive psychological repression and suppression (of social choices), countries which are patched into the political economy of virtual reality as sources of cheap manufacturing or as product assembly labor suffer the form of domination particular to primitive capitalism – “work or starve.” For the citizens of the slaved-nations, from Africa to Haiti, they are simply put under the coercive welfare wardship of a newly militant United Nations and then erased from historical consciousness. Like all empires before it, virtual reality begins with a blood-sacrifice.
Contradictions of the Virtual Class
It is not at all clear that the new technological class will win the day. The will to virtuality is riddled with deep contradictions. Can the offensive by the virtual class against human labor actually succeed in light of both growing impoverishment and the crushing of life expectations for the young? The rhetoric of digital reality speaks about the growing abundance of high-paying jobs in the tech industry. Across the OECD, the reality is dramatically different: every country that has instituted policies promoting the expansion of digital reality has witnessed a dramatic, and seemingly permanent, increase in unemployment. Joblessness not just in the low- or no tech industries, but massive layoffs and ruthless “restructurings” in the vaunted digital industries themselves. No one bothered to tell us that digital reality also deletes jobs! This is the dirty little secret that the masters of the technological universe definitely don’t want to talk about, and in their control of the mediascape will never allow to be spoken. It’s the forbidden-to-be-thought truth that ruptures the seamless web of digital reality as the dominant ideology of the 90s.
Can the offensive by the technological class against society in the name of the moral superiority of digital reality be sustained in the midst of a general social crisis that it has created? What will happen when digital reality, this dynamic drive to planetary mastery in the name of technology, actually begins to displace its creators – the virtual class?
Against the new technological class are ranged a series of critical political forces: Net knowledgeable, technically astute, people who speak on behalf of the new relations of digital reality rather than apologizing for the old forces of commercial or governmental interests. Certainly Net surfers with a (critical) attitude who attempt to make the “information superhighway” serve the ethical human ends of solidarity, creativity, and democracy, but also all of those social movements who both say “no” to the virtual class, and “yes” to rethinking the human destiny. We have in mind aboriginal movements from North and South America who make of the issue of land rights a fundamental battleground of (durational) time against (virtualized) space, feminists who have reasserted the identity of the body, the Green movement which is slowly turning the tide on a global scale against the harvesting machine of corporate capitalism, and those “body outlaws,” bisexuals and gays and lesbians, who have made of the politics of sexual difference a way of speaking again about the possibility of human love.
Having said this, we are under no illusion about the fundamental exterminatory character of the times. We exist now at a great divide: between a fall into a new form of despotic capitalism on the one hand, and a world that might be recreated ethically on the other. This is the life-and-death struggle of our age.
Contemporary culture is driven onwards by the planetary drive towards the mastery of nature. In Heidegger’s chilling description, technology is infected with the language of “harvesting.” First, the harvesting of nature as the physical world is reduced to a passive resource of exploitation. And second, the harvesting of human flesh as (our) bodies and minds are reduced to a data base for imaging systems. That’s the contemporary human fate: to be dumped into the waiting data archives for purposes of future resequencing. Some all Web brains, others TV heads or designer logos, here minds as media screens, there nerves as electronic impulses finely tuned to the rhythms of the digital world.
Consider TV: a war machine for colonizing the soft mass of the electronic mind. Three tactical manoeuvres are always in play: Desensitization – following exactly the same procedure used by the C.I.A. in training assassins, TV desensitizes the electronic mind by repeatedly exposing it to scenes of torture, corpses, and mutilation. By reducing the electronic mind of the population to the deadened morality of the assassin, it preps the population for its own future sacrifice in the form of body dumps; Infantilization – that’s the gradual media strategy for reducing us all to retro-children: perfect political fodder for the growth of virtual- and retro-fascism); and Reenergization – left to its own devices, the mediascape will always collapse towards its inertial pole. That’s why the media must constantly be reenergized (recharged?) by scenes of sacrificial violence. In every war, there are victims and executioners. In the television war machine, we are always both: victims (of the three tactical manoeuvres of the mediascape), and executioners of an accidental range of victims dragged across the cold screens for our moral dismissal (much like the terminal judgment of the Roman masses in the amphitheatres of classical antiquity).
Photography, cinema, TV, and the Internet are successive stages in virtualization. Beginning with the simulacrum of the first photograph, continuing with the scanner imaging-system of TV, and concluding (for the moment) with the data archives of the Internet, human experience is fast-dumped into the relays and networks of virtual culture. McLuhan was wrong. It is not the technological media of communication as an extension of man; but the human species as a humiliated subject of digital culture.