Sunday, January 15, 2017

What Our Screens Are Hiding from Us

I spent many hours on the internet today, as did most of the several millions of people in my vicinity, not to mention billions more around the world. Whether it elates or depresses us, much of our lives are now lived, in some sense for which we lack precise vocabulary, online. Simultaneously, our movies have become longer and more spectacular, our tolerance for long, complex books has increased (witness the popularity of behemoths such as A Song of Ice and Fire), the number of television series has exploded. We are starving for entertainment, no matter how we may stuff ourselves.

Though our online lives are as complicated, emotionally fraught, confusing, fascinating, and even at times fun, as our 'real' lives, the virtual dimension has proven immensely difficult to narrativize, though many writers, filmmakers, musicians, and other artists have been experimenting with form, genre, and style, trying to figure out a way to render the way we live now in fiction.

The problem is that our virtual lives are not terribly interesting when we are not living them. It is no great thrill to watch someone stooped over a gleaming screen, tapping at a keyboard, at work or at play on the internet. It's perhaps even less absorbing to read a stranger's texts, skim a stranger's search history, float in the wake of an aimless boat in a sea of memes.

No matter how intently engrossed in our virtual lives, the entertainment for which we hunger indicates that we are rather bored by them when we are in the position of a spectator. Although our technology permits us to explore outer space while staying safely put on Earth, our movies are only ever concerned with manned missions. Although most robots that we use now and that are in development are not androids, our fiction insists on the humanoid, whether humanoid robots or computers with recognizably human voices. The most popular genres at the box office - science fiction and action movies - zero in on individuals performing deeds of derring-do in the 'real' world. Though technology may prove of assistance, human beings race, fight, fire weapons, scheme, and conquer, their actions unmediated by their devices - this is so, even though the most popular genre, science fiction, whether in the form of superhero movies and comics, first-person shooter video games, dystopian novels, or whatever else, is as deeply tied to technology as magic is to fantasy.

This is not to say that technology doesn't play a role: there's no Star Trek without the transporter, no Star Wars without light sabers, no Batman without the Batmobile. But, over and over, it is a human character, rather than a computer or non-humanoid robot, that has the ingenious idea that will save the world, that codes the program that will undo the villain's nefarious plan, that punches, stabs, slices, zaps, etc. the enemy.

The plethora of science fiction, and especially science fiction that exists at the very center of the mainstream cultural imagination, could be seen as our way of exorcising or indulging our intense anxieties over the rapid changes wrought by technology and the pressure of questions related to the survival of the human species. If our technology supersedes us, will we still be necessary, or even worth preserving? Science fiction reassures us that yes, we will. The primary reason, almost invariably, is that humans save the world. And if we are unable to save our planet, where will we go? Science fiction tends to be less reassuring on that score; eco-fiction, dystopias, and zombie apocalypses paint dire visions of the future indeed.

But I wonder if a deeper concern is at work, one that delves more painfully into the human subconscious. As much as we cling to our smartphones, our tablets, even our adorable roombas, our technology plugs us in and in the process flattens out our lives. My generation grew up with a saccharine, poisoned rhetoric that told us we could be anything we wanted to be, do anything we wanted to do, because we were each the heroes of our own lives, and even apart from the noxiousness of that sentiment, never based in reality, our technology reminds us that it isn't true.

When we visualize a hero, we don't see a guy in his sweatpants hunkered over a tablet, alternating among chat forums, instagram, twitter, and porn. We don't see a woman, her thumbs at work on a smartphone, crushing candies, scrolling through her facebook feed, and tapping out a listicle.

But that's what we look like. That's who we are and what we do. Our entertainment, saturated with spaceships, supercomputers, and androids, doesn't show the heroes stooped over a screen. It shows us as a species for whom technology is a tool, or an enemy, or helpless without our ingenuity. It protects us from our mirror image. We are Jedi warriors, not schlubs vegging out on the couch; we are spaceship captains, ring-bearers, black knights, wizards, hackers breaking humanity out of the matrix.
Science fiction, whether utopian or dystopian, brightly lit or grimly dark, peaceful or violent, reverses the trend to which we are all subject. As we become increasingly sedentary, passive, enwrapped in the virtual and estranged from the physical world, our dreams become ever more frenetically dynamic, active, and rooted in the (imagined) body.

We don't have to wait for the machines to build the matrix. We're already building it ourselves.

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