Web 8.0: The Return of the Human

I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for eleven (almost contiguous) hours. A pittance, really. But I can almost hear my optic nerves crackling. I’m fried. Some days this slick machine, this little digital light-box, my MacBook Pro, really puts a raw whip to my back. And every morning, without fail, I’m back for more. It’s a dysfunctional relationship. And an intimate one. Part of the problem, perhaps, is this upright sitting position. I feel like a popsicle stick when I’d rather be a mustang.

What if the act of computing could be less like a time-out in the corner and more like flying—like cutting through a cool October sky with nothing below the feet? An absurd fantasy, surely, but Jaron Lanier (a legendary techie, so intimately involved with the birth of virtual reality he’s been called its “father”) is increasingly prophesying a digital world where such bodily urges are taken seriously. Writing for the Wall Street Journal last month, he suggested that the greatest “cognitive adventure” virtual reality has to offer us is just this—the opportunity to be more animal, more carnal, more of a living body.

What he’s promoting here is a concept called “somatic cognition”—thought that registers in the body before it hits the “mind.” If the tendency has been to think of the digital as an ethereal realm, Lanier is encouraging us to think the meat of bodies into it. The avatar, he says, should be thought of as the “ultimate somatic object”—not an opportunity to escape the body’s reality, but to intensify it, or even to feel what it’s like to to occupy another kind of body. We might learn about hydration by getting inside a water molecule, or photosynthesis by getting inside the leaf of a jade plant, or food storage techniques by getting inside the mouth of a chipmunk. 

If this sounds miraculous, just this side of mystical, you’re right. Lanier’s work appears, on the surface, to be a radical critique of religion. But there’s also a subterranean spirituality in his work.

Lanier has been undertaking an iconoclastic project to tear down the walls of what he calls the “First Church of Robotics”—the “new religion” or the “nerd religion” of cybernetics. He’s troubled by techno-spiritualities like the Singularity—the quest for an etherealized digital promised land. With the rhetorical flourish of a biblical prophet he charges, in his bestseller You Are Not a Gadget (2010), that our technology has begun to dominate us. What we should be demanding, he argues, is that it bow to our needs and desires.

What he despises most about today’s “cybernetic totalism” is its “tribe-like” aspect. The allegedly tribal nature (read: closed, exclusive, restrictive) of religious communities has been voiced by other cultured despisers of religion like Richard Dawkins. Lanier, in particular, dislikes the model of digital engagement on offer via web 2.0, where we’re forced to find our place in the cloud, the “hive mind.” Lanier finds this a kind of false consciousness, a “digital Maoism” that, he thinks, is corroding a hard-earned faith in the power and potential of human individuality.

Lanier calls himself a humanist and plays the role of religion’s sober, rational, critic. He wants to resist the kind of mysticism that lures us into digital futures as a bridge toward a speculative immortality—that the web promises “salvation” by folding us up into a big, eternal, digital brain. Any collective ideologies that might pop this particular pill are, more or less, part of a dangerous tribe.  

Against this threat, Lanier tries to get small, discrete, concrete: human individuality. It’s only on the level of the human individual where Lanier’s willing to get mystical. Human nature, he says, is a mystery—the great mystery, perhaps even a sacred mystery. But it’s a mystery that’s rooted in our actual life, the life of our bodies. 

It should be noted, however, that if Lanier finds “human being” mysterious, he still sees us as a unique species—not like any other animal. He has, for example, reservations about animal rights. Too much empathy for other creatures, he alleges, can lead to “empathy inflation.” If we want to protect the rights of non-humans, we might as well torture ourselves over whether or not we have the right to kill the harmful bacteria that’s crawling around on (and in) us. The borders of the human might be “variegated and fuzzy,” Lanier says, but that doesn’t mean we should use this “metaphysical ambiguity” to erode personal and individual freedoms through law. 

Neither is Lanier particularly snake-charmed by reports of a mysterious divine majesty. Take the creation story, for instance. He’s played the game Spore, so he basically already knows what it’s like to perform as a creative divinity, acting as the force of evolution over a creature. More, he’s suggested, isn’t God (or the gods) rather akin to a “pimply faced nerd in the sky who is running a cosmic copy of The Sims, who are us”? The concept of a fabricated (but divine) creation is no more thrilling than a video game. 

Addressing the intensifying religion-and-science debates several years ago, he charged that it’s futile for scientists to get deeply involved in debates over the existence of a God. “People are afraid to die,” he wrote frankly, “and they sometimes find hope in the unresolved status of the biggest questions. Take that hope away and you hand it over to whichever creep can give it back.” His suggestion was that scientists, instead, should leave open a grand and sweeping space for mystery, for wonder. He even mischievously suggested that scientists should succumb to religious impulse so that they, too, begin to “actively delight in a cacophonous, multicultural colonization of that far frontier so that it can’t be monopolized by fundamentalists.” 

When Lanier speculates on virtual worlds that might act as portals into new bodies, I read this as a kind of prophecy. I am endlessly curious to discover what it might be like to exist as one of the skin cells that hangs out on my hand, or as one of the Rocky Mountain goats who grazes on sage and sunbathes on cliffs above the clouds. An opportunity so radical, so novel—I can’t see it as anything but an invitation into awe, into reverence, into a deep gratitude for the adventure that we call living. And, yes, I’ll admit it—as someone who lives by the computer, any possible computational future that might take this creaky body of mine more seriously sounds like a kind of salvation. 

Lanier uses the language of mystery for a reason. But for all his efforts to preserve “human uniqueness” and “human specialness,” the “somatic cognition” he describes seems to show where the efforts break down. 

Mystery is a troublemaker. Humanity may be a mystery, but what about the human who virtually enters a spec of dust and is able to learn the mysteries of dustness? Doesn’t this kind of leap require us to adopt a kind of awe and reverence for the mysteries outside the human as well? When we experience the crazy life of a stalk of wheatgrass, and come to the realization that—as it sways in the wind—it’s party to a kind of peace and elegance (as our human language might describe it) that a human body may never really have… might we want to give this form of life some mystical due as well?  

Lanier offers a way to re-think the way we relate to technology; he’s trying to get us to be more ambitious in our hopes for the digital future. Virtual reality might be a place where we can dance as molecules and learn their internal rhythms. To the extent that this will obligate us to take our flesh and calcified bones into account as we dream up programs for this new future, I’m all for it. But if a future like this does unfurl, the mysteries that we encounter might prevent us from crowning “the human” King of the tangled webs we’ll weave.  

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