M15: Text and the City Part III
This week’s news
More on Microsoft’s purchase of Activision here. We also learn that Google is creating another AR headset which we can be sure will not be called Google Glass and what happens when you spend weeks working in VR. And a couple of articles on the metaverse from FT, here and here.
The first article is called ‘The coming battle over the metaverse’ and as the title suggests, the competition for attention is going to be fierce. The metaverse claims to immerse us in worlds we have never experienced before (see the screenshot above) but instead, that fierce competition will isolate us even more than social media does today. We are made lonelier and unhappier from performing our identities in 2D; imagine the alienation from performing in 3D. Whether the metaverse becomes a walled garden in which we are embedded in one company’s matrix (or one government’s matrix in the case of China) or it’s fragmented and loosely connected network of attention zones, we are likely to become even more alienated than we are today:
We know how capitalism alienates us from the fruits of our labor, and class solidarity is the antidote to that poison, but this new phase of capitalism alienates us from ourselves and our fellow beings, so that solidarity becomes impossible.
The second FT article is about how science fiction influences our imagination of the possibilities of technology:
I am increasingly sceptical of sci-fi’s imaginative capacities (click the link below):
but the hunger for stories that illuminate hasn’t dimished: we need fiction and speculation of some form. What kind though? My prediction (or is it hope?):
The interverse should be text as well as context in this new form of storytelling, i.e., both map and the territory.
But in order to have imaginatively rich visions, we need to radically modify (2 and 3 in the list below) or completely reject (1 below) the all pervasive ‘humanism’ that informs so much progressive thinking. Including the word ‘progressive’ for that term itself is a subspecies of humanism isn’t it? For example, here’s another essay on substack that says:
Not everyone will have the same model of what it means to be a humanist, but however you count the ways, it’s been a while since I have been one. In fact, being humanist in the Anthropocene is siding with the oppressors. But that’s not all: in 2022, humanism is boring. It’s literally the oldest idea ever, finding its way into everything from software (human centered design) to the United Nations (human rights). As an ideal, it’s tired and boring.
Soon to follow: ‘why I’m not a humanist.’ 😛
Scifi is losing its grip on my mind precisely because its default ideology is humanism. Even scifi dystopias are humanist - what would the Matrix be if it weren’t for its foundational myth of a fallen humanity that finds its way back on the shoulders of Neo and Morpheus.
I am a nonhumanist, where the ‘non’ in nonhumanism is like the ‘non’ in nonlinearity, a descriptor rather than a pejorative.
Unlike novels or even movies, the metaverse/interverse isn’t an intrinsically humanistic medium; I can imagine going for a stroll with my dog in a shared virtual world (we would both have our headsets on, of course) and play a game of interstellar fetch.
This week’s theme
Continues our discussion of the map and the territory and therefore, is the same as last week’s theme: text and the city. The twist in the tale: text has to go beyond the written word to include all forms of inscription.
All of us are aware of the city as a storehouse of high culture (classical music) and pop culture (bands) and when we write the history of the city, we usually write in a cultural mode: who ruled the city-who created its masterworks-what is it known for. I might alight upon Trafalgar Square and take a hammer to Robert Clive’s statue because it conveys a message that I don’t like. That’s the semantic conception of sculpture as a medium.
but oftentimes the most important inscriptions are material and infrastructural: the networks of roads, pipes and scaffoldings that lie behind the overt message. That statues are made of bronze and stone is a material conception of sculpture as a medium. In fact, the materialist interpretation illuminates McLuhan’s famous claim:
The medium is the message
The medium is not just the flickering screens in Times Square; it’s also the pixelated nature of the digital screen and its capacity to change display every second. Or the fact that fiber optic cable can pipe gigabytes/sec. The physics and the signal processing of the medium is as important to study as the semantic content of the message.
Question of the week:Is there a conception of information and media that unifies the semantic and the material?
When the medium is the message, function follows form, a point made in detail in Friedrich Kittler’s “The City is a Medium”:
Lesson of the week: media archaeology and engineering is as important as media studies
While the city is the quintessential human dwelling, Kittler’s anti-cultural media-archaeology pays attention to the agency of things, not people. Kittler’s machinism can even play a useful role by helping us look at the city beyond its humanist pretenses. As he says: “what we refer to as “man,” as the play between commands, addresses, and data.” That command and control human is familiar to us: it’s how we are embedded in corporations, the military and the market.
Like Freud peeling the rational conscious to reveal an irrational cauldron, we should scrape away the humanist city to reveal sewage everywhere. One technical point: the Freudian unconscious is inside the conscious coconut, while the nonhuman city is outside the human city. Expanding out rather than peering within.
The optimization of the urban world (smart cities being the latest version) is a disaster not because it reduces humans to machines, but because it’s part and parcel of a neoliberal worldview which is humanist at its core. Any system that places humans at its core, either as individuals or in terms of their relationships - as economics and politics do - is a humanist system. In contrast, a traditional agrarian society isn’t humanist, since human life in that society is controlled and regulated by the relationship between humans and nonhumans, whether they be plants or animals. Not a moral judgment, just a statement of actual relations. It may yet turn out that humanistic urbanism (our current era) is just a passing phase; at the very least we need to monitor carbon in the atmosphere and the flourishing of nonhuman ecosystems with as much commitment as the stock market.
In ‘Code and Clay’, Shannon Mattern (also the author of “The City is not a Computer") disagrees with my dismal assessment of humanism. She says:
I consider views like hers in the category of ‘not all humans,’ i.e., there’s much worth supporting about human cultural heritage even as we restrain our consumeristic desires. Agree or disagree, the triumvirate of Code:City:Culture is contested terrain. We will learn a lot by sharpening our wits.