Don’t look now, Louise, but somebody’s hacking your neural net
“Or here’s another scenariofor anyone who‘d like to escape the constrictions of dull old human biology: a futuristic robot surgeon peels away the brain of a conscious patient, using sensors to analyze and simulate the function of every neuron in each slice. As Moravec puts it, ‘Eventually your skull is empty, and the surgeon’s hand rests deep in your brain stem. Though you haven’’t lost consciousness, your mind has been removed from the brain and transferred to a machine. “
(Charles Platt in WIRED 3.10; Hans Moravec is a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute.)
So how do you feel about your future as a cyborg? Or would you rather be an android? Whatever. As you morph into your new personality as a wet-wired robot, you’ve got plenty of decisions to make: Where do you want to go today, punk? As we disappear into the future where man, machine and Johnny Mnemonic meld inextricably, ask yourself this in your last frantic choked humanoid gasps: Is Man as Machine the Frankenstein monster or inheritor of eternal life?
Marshall McLuhan pointed out three long decades ago that confusion and despair are hallmarks of an age of great technocultural upheaval. Our time, in case you’ve been dozing for the last 50 years, is the age of electronic transformation, as the hypersonic neural web gets torn out of our bodies and flung into the streets. Speaking in media terms, this is the shift from print technology to electronic technology, which in turn was preceded by the shift from writing to print, which in turn was preceded by the shift from orality to literacy.
Such cosmically chaotic times generate extreme polar emotions of fascination and revulsion, hysteria and nostalgia, as our nervous systems get pulled inside out and familiar terrain buckles and writhes and waxes downright disconcerting and intensely psychedelic. Take the Internet—please! Mass media treatment of this brave new world veers from adulation to horror. “A newly emerging virtual community!” “An epochal epidemic of pedophilia and smut!” “The Library of Congress in your laptop!” “Terror bomb hacker crackers on the infobahn!”
I am becoming increasingly tired of those querulous wombats who wheeze and complain because their favorite straw man metaphor is a leaky sieve. Paul Goldberger in the New York Times on why cyberspace is not really space. Duhhhhh. Virtual rooms like the auditoriums and chat rooms on America Online aren’t really rooms. Geeeeez. “In cyberspace, the person at the other end of the conversation is only. . . a set of data bits, floating in something that tries to pass for a place but is really nowhere at all.” Gag me with a spoon. People, Goldberger whines, are so isolated in front of their computer screens— as if people aren’t alone in front of TV sets, paperback books, or the Gospel Herald in the privy of their own home.
Currently I am slogging my way through a ghastly and pretentious book called the Gutenberg Elegies, whose author’s main point seems to be that if we prefer the sparkling and scintillating give and take of the computer BBS or email network to his lame, dreary and turgid prose, we are electronic Huns and cultural losers. Literacy just ain’t what it used to be. «sigh»
Let me just offer two metaphors that actually do apply to cyberspace: the first from an ancient Buddhist sutra and the second from the pen of McLuhan. The Avatamsaka Sutra speaks of Indra’s Net. This cosmology portrays the universe as a vast net or web with a jewel at each of the innumerable nodes—the intersections of each strand of the net. Each jewel mirrors every other jewel in the infinite cosmos, so that each node contains all moments of time—past, present, and future—and
all of infinite space. This is of course a religious concept, but it also happens to be a pretty darn good description of the World Wide Web.
McLuhan’s theory of media is that each extension of our body is a medium. The shoe, and eventually the wheel, is an extension of the foot. Print is an extension of the eye. Clothing is an extension of the skin. His use of the term “medium” is rather extensive. Now, in the 20th century, he says, we have managed to extrude our central nervous system, and this is electronic technology. “With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself” (Understanding Media, p. 53).
This helps to explain some of the dislocation and disorientation we experience among the new electronic media. It helps to explain the persistent sci-fi fantasy of the cyborg—the human being whose nervous system is now a machine. It helps to explain the “innumerable confusions and a profound feeling of despair” that McLuhan identifies as the marks of an age of intense technological change. So relax, don’t worry, be happy. You are like a patient anesthetized upon a table, as a benevolent Bill Gates peers down at you through his rose-colored virching goggles and inquires, “Where do you want to go today, punk?”My Druid