We are but dwarfs
Standing on dwarfs' shoulders
This week two funny things happened. The first one was Spotify recommending duvet by boa in my Discovery Weekly playlist –– a song I was more than familiar with. The second one was me getting quite nostalgic about the song and rewatching Serial Experiments Lain. I used to love that anime when I was younger. The soundtrack was, back then, quite random to my ears, but the opening, duvet, was one of my favorite songs. And now, maybe 15 years after watching it for the first time, I think I might start to grasp more of its meaning and some more sadness. But is it because I am wiser? Or maybe because it's too late to be any wiser? I don't know. Maybe neither. Allow me to explain.
Navi, connect me to the wired.
One of the central subjects of Lain is the wired, a fictional place where information is stored, shared and exchanged. From today's perspective, the most boring thing. I mean "it's called internet, sweety, google it", right? But unlike our real internet, the characters in Lain seem to perceive the wired as something more extraordinary than we do. The wired is a matter of discussion, philosophy and wonder. This is mainly what caught my attention all these years later: when did we get so used to our internet that we stopped preceiving it?
Somewhat like in our daily lives, in Lain everything is about the wired. People are obsessed with it. Mainly because the wired represents a medium that enables the whole mankind to be interconnected and interexist the whole time. Instead of using something as boring as PCs, laptops or even
smartphones iPhones, the terminal of choice in the series are the 'navis' –– basically peripherals with funky designs. So nothing weird here. People in the series are obsessed with and addicted to this information stream, and just keep their noses stuck to their screens 24/7 because the wired is cool ™.
But the anime's plot is not really mainly about people plainly being obsessed with facebook; rather it's about the implications of a technology that continuously pushes and transgresses the boundaries, perceived or tangible, between the real world and the wired. Because, in a way, when all people are always online and their lives and interactions transcur only in a virtual reality, one might start asking funky questions about what it means to be human.
I guess I might know what you are thinking: "Come on, did you just rewatch an old anime about people addicted to the internet? That is real life!". And that, my friends, is exactly why I started writing this post: we are talking about an anime that first aired in 1998. I don't know what you were doing back then, but I surely wouldn't have been able to picture experiencing a world in which my attention would be in a different place than my body, probably even in different time zone, on a daily basis. I was, of course, using the internet for getting my fair amount of content when I was at home, but being able to get it anywhere, anytime or even to conceive an immersive experience into the metaverse® sounded more sci-fi than a soon-to-be reality. That is perhaps the reason why the questions that Lain was asking back then were merely anecdotic at most. Thinking about technological-driven evolution, the redundancy of a physical body in a digitized world and the existence of an internet God was well beyond my grasp, in a world that would need more than a decade to be confronted face to face with web 3.0, Neuralink™, AI and meta.
You don't need a body anymore. Come to the wired.
One of the main ideas that Lain confronts the viewer with is the subject of not needing a physical body. At first glance, this might strike one as a weird, very literal and metaphysical, if not paranormal, proposition, as the subject is introduced by a character writing emails to her former co-students after committing suicide herself (any references to Project December must be pure coincidence). The subject is elaborated further, with the wired being presented as the place where that dead girl (among many other dead people) resides and is able to interact with the dead and the living. I will, of course, try to not spoil a lot of this really thick plot, so suffice to say that as the plot evolves, the lack of a need for a body is presented from different angles, as the wired is a place in which the only thing that matters are information and consciousness.
Now, 2022 the year, this point proves to be incredibly, if not terrifying true: The fact we have digital nomads nowadays (COVID aside), is not because the work they do is physical labor of the sort that migrants used to do because of the lack of, literally, working hands. Our economies rely more and more on technology, internet and digital processes and transactions –– in short: information. Due to this shift from physical to informational labor, concepts such as offices, ad hoc work, borders, teams and distances are in jeopardy. It might sound blatantly obvious, but the fact that we can have international teams working on the same code base at the same time from countries in the world 10 hours apart is nothing short of a shift in the order of how the cognitively perceive reality. Obstacles that at some point in history were considered insurmountable are now part of our everyday life, as we don't need to leave a room in order to 'send our consciousness' across the planet, and (welcome to the world of IoT), even make things move at our will from different points in space and even time. It might have been perceived as magic just 50 years ago to schedule a dishwasher or a heater from afar with only a device; today we just call it a smart home. Please don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to sound like a really old person that just discovered the amazing advancements that technology has made in the last decades. Rather, I just realized that the amazing thing about all this is that I wasn't amazed before and that I hadn't asked myself what this implies.
It is a fact that, at least in Europe, more and more people suffer from back problems caused by sitting for extremely long time. Another fact is that I often ask myself why I have to type all these articles, all that code by by day, instead of just communicating this information to my text editor, my IDE, my compiler or whatever task my system is running. It is not about the romanticized process of writing, but about efficiency, perhaps the disadvantageous side effect of transmitting information with analogue, mechanical methods, a tradeoff of sorts. And then again the question: do I need a body that constantly reminds me I'm abusing it by going against all that that my ancestors developed through evolution? A mind synchronized with a circadian cycle, the ability to store unused calories as fat, the ability to reabsorb unused muscles, a brain with a high caloric demand and a stress-inflicted fight-or-flight reflex. How do these factors help me generate and transmit information? And, perhaps more eluding, would I be more efficient, and in general better off, without them? After all, I basically live in, for and thanks to the internet. Does that mean I don't need a physical body anymore?
Denizens of the world, unite. Come to the wired
One of the concepts I found quite fascinating while I was studying Russian culture was the Soviet's obsession with the new mankind (an obsession that I guess a large part of the Western world shared during the 20th century), this positivistic idea of humans overcoming their primitive biological and cultural biases to create a new common culture oriented towards the collective and common good. You might think this was nothing but a Soviet gimmick, a propaganda trick, so to speak, and you would probably not be totally wrong. But take a step back to behold the patchwork construct that the USSR was: a nation with 16 recognized languages, conformed by 15 modern states (and growing) and united by a single ideal. I know it sounds like I'm trying to romanticize the Soviets. I'm not. After all, this posts is supposed to be about the internet, not a love letter to Vladdy Daddy. The point I'm trying to make is that the now defunct idea of a utopia in which fellow men and women would live in harmony, putting all past grudges to rest, seems to be a ghost that still haunts us and just refuses to die.
Unfortunately I couldn't find any quote from any
important famous person, so you will have to trust my memories of the mid 90's. As internet and globalization were starting to become a thing (at least in my natal Mexico), I remember a certain positivity taking hold in people's hearts, as they envisioned a global culture, a culture of the internet in which, free of the boundaries of nations, borders and language barriers, people would unite under the flag of the internet, under a new culture, a global culture, not delimited by geographical or religious or national border, but only by human creativity. That, comrades, is the way I remember it, those times of hope, before trolls, bots, spam, phishing, cybercrime,spam, fake profiles, hate threads, shit storms, spam, data collection and user profiling, clickbait, yet more spam. I'll leave you here a short article on why it might have wrong, but when did it happen? Was it truly the shift from web 1.0 to web 2.0?
Funnily enough, Lain has quite the positivistic approach to the subject. Maybe because it was a series from the 90's it was too early for it to foretell that hell would indeed be empty and that all the devils would be here, in the internet. Lain imagines a wired that, at least in my perception, feels like an amalgamation of web 1, 2, 3 and IoT and perhaps the next iterations to come, in which the border between the 'real world' and the wired fade to create a world in which the myriad of human consciousness melts into a network, a new reality, not without strife, but at lest without ads. Is this maybe the world that our lord and savior Mark Zuckerberg (auto-correct suggests Checkerberry, so I guess I'll call him Lord Checkerberry from now on) has in store for with his metaverse®?
Humans are incapable of evolving. Come to the wired.
Lain makes a point about evolution by saying that humankind can't evolve organically, thus resorting to technology as a means to guide its own evolution. The idea is interesting in many ways, but I want to focus on a more anthropological perspective. Humans and evolution have historically been a thing. I mean, let's take a moment to reflect on the following idea: According to Wikipedia, anatomically modern humans emerged around 300,000 years ago in Africa. A great deal of evolution has happened since then –– to name an almost simplistic example: the appearance and disappearance of the European lion, which, in retrospective, doesn't even look like a lion in modern standards. Still, while the world around us humans changed in time, it was not until the 19th century that we, as a species, began to look at ourselves as subject to the same change as the world around us, as if in all the time until then humans hadn't been in the process of evolving, but only descending from other humans. It is almost as if humanity wouldn't have a memory of not being human. I find this thought fascinating.
If we can't recall being anything else than what we are now, how can we hope to discern between what we are now and what we are to become, if we ever do? So, can we really say with any certainty that we are incapable of evolving? Maybe there is no time better to ask this question than today, as we are now capable of recording and amassing data that can be modeled to help us understand this better. But let's not get too technical, as we wanted to focus on the anthropological side of this question. Let's rather shift our attention to what apparently makes us, as a species, what we are: culture.
The dichotomy cultura vs. natura has been a topic of broad discussion in Western philosophy and a pillar in maintaining that there is a fundamental difference between humans and animals, as humans do have a culture (that is, in the positivistic, not the anthropological sense) that they pass on to next generations to build upon it, reach further and overcome the innate physical weakness of humankind. As a wise man (not Newton, of course) once said:
"We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.” ― John of Salisbury
To bring this rant to an end, I would like to ask a last question: Can we really say that we are using our past giants to look farther? When I think about the current conflict in Ukraine, I have the feeling we are still trapped in the middle of the Cold War, or that we are still splitting the Holy Roman Empire when we talk about Covid and vaccines, that statistics and science are looked upon as a new sort of divination, or incantation that makes its conjurer lose all credibility when the
performed sorcery postulated hypothesis is proved invalid. And when time and again we choose the easy answer over the moral dilemma, just because it requires less thinking and helps the ego. Are we, as a global society, getting any better? We do have the means, we have the resources, don't we? Then why the fuck do we still insist on staying dwarfs, trampling other dwarfs just to stand on their crushed shoulders?