Optimists and pessimists about the Digital Age are usually practical in their praises and fears of computers and the internet. We’re looking at either the potential for more technological wonders, for more creative endeavours and for greater control over our lives or else an emerging apocalypse, the end of life as we’ve known it and perhaps the conquering of our kind by our machines and totalitarian systems. There’s much to be said about the benefits and risks of digital technology, but we should also consider the existential revulsion for our virtual worlds. We’re amazed at the preliminary stages towards what many hope will be the Star Trek holodeck, these stages including computer animation, 3D movies, holograms, and virtual reality, and we’re addicted to the internet and to our handheld devices with their thousands of apps for every conceivable whim.
And yet there’s a philosophical cost of knowing that computers exist. During the Industrial Revolution, mass production already humiliated artists and craftsmen and depersonalized their creations, since not only did machines take over the role of production, if not yet that of design, but they showed that art and handiwork can be systematically copied, leaving only negligible differences between the copies. Implicit in mass production was the seed of digitization: the algorithm or recipe for generating inevitable effects by the taking of simple steps. (Rube Goldberg famously depicted the logic of mass production in cartoon form.) To live in the virtual world, then, the fruits of our imagination must be digitized, which means our pictures, songs, games, novels, and other such creations must be converted into the binary code of ones and zeroes. This is like saying that the price of entering heaven is that first you’ve got to be dead. Most people aren’t properly horrified by this conversion because of the magical aura surrounding high technology which steeps its users in blissful ignorance.
The revelation that’s nevertheless becoming harder to deny has crept up on us over millennia, ever since our ancestors indulged in artistic reproductions. There were warnings, as in Plato’s Republic, which condemns the falseness of art and the folly of producing mere copies within material copies of abstract reality. There are the legends that native cultures believe that a photograph of a person steals the person’s soul. But from the ancient cave paintings of animals and sculptures of voluptuous women, to the orally recited poems and mythical tales, to the written word and the Renaissance flowering of art in Europe, artists have nevertheless translated experience into other forms. The animals which our nomadic ancestors hunted became smudges of charcoal and of other pigments on a dark cave wall. The outpouring of the gods’ wrath in thunderstorms or diseases became tales of woe which were both venerated as scriptures but which also robbed the gods of some of their power, by allowing worshippers to manipulate the texts and the prayers like voodoo dolls. The essence of the gods itself was thought to be captured in a shrine or a statue which likewise trapped the dread supernatural forces and empowered the elders who knew the incantations to mesmerize them. As paintings became more and more realistic, the illusion of reality in the artistic rendering was uncanny long before computers, because you could always walk up to the painting and marvel at the brush strokes that somehow added up to the image of a building, a tree, or a person.
Codes of Creation
But the binary code is all the more fearsome for its universality and for the starkness of its implicit message. The images captured in paint strokes can only be seen, just as the sounds made by plucking a string instrument can only be heard, but seemingly everything can be digitized—not just pictures, music, and texts, but now three-dimensional fabrications like guns, sculptures, and jewelry, thanks to 3D printing. The world’s greatest artistic masterpieces can be photographed or otherwise sampled and stored on a computer in the form of a long series of ones and zeroes. The New Testament, once available only to Christian elites, was translated for the masses, from Greek into German, by Martin Luther, but now everyone with access to the internet can read any part of the Bible in any language, aided by all manner of concordances and commentaries. That which was once revered as the holy Word of God, which itself was already an idol, became bastardized yet further by that final translation of Judeo-Christian scripture into the binary code. So first God was held prisoner by his revealed instructions, which priests could finesse like lawyers, as they thumbed through the papyri, and now God is at the mercy of our highest technological manipulations.
What, then, is the horror of the world’s digitization? Just this: digital encodings prove the ephemerality and absurdity of our values. Our humiliation at the hands of technology which began centuries ago is nearly complete, thanks to our world’s digitization. How so? Well, we prefer our creations to be unique so that we can anthropomorphize and feel at home amongst them. After all, a unique artwork in analogue form—a painting, a concert, or the playing of a game—commands our admiration or at any rate some emotional response, since we’re consummate personalizers and socializers; we relate to the products of our imagination as though they were our friends, neighbours, or servants. Thus, we value a painting, song, or even a written story as long as the story is encoded in a humble form, like that of a book, which allows us to personify it.
But we cannot feel for a message written in binary code, because the raw form of a digital work surpasses our capacity for anthropomorphism. For one thing, the code is usually hidden from view. For another, a binary message is preposterously verbose so that only a computer has the memory and the patience to encompass it. Moreover, binary instructions are unfathomably fickle, as it were; what looks to most eyes as a random series of millions of ones and zeroes can encode either an image of the Mona Lisa, a Beyonce song, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Thus, we can’t know how to feel about the essence of the digital version of something, because we can’t decipher it. Nevertheless, we know that all our cultural treasures either are currently digitized or could be so. Our admiration for our favourite bits of pop culture, then, is trivialized by the fact that culture can be reduced to a form about which we’re incapable of caring. Imagine your parent, child, pet, or some other treasure were to stand beside you one minute and then in a puff of smoke were turned into a rock that lies next to countless millions of other seemingly identical rocks. And you’re told that that treasure which aroused strong emotions in you is contained in that rock form. The horror, then, is that we might begin to question the point of our emotions in the first place. Can something really be a treasure at all if it can be transformed into something so dull and seemingly vapid?
And yet digitization is only one such humiliating sort of translation. Take those firsthand experiences which even low technologies (speaking and painting) mocked millennia ago. Take the sights and sounds that make up the “real” world in which you live. The objects you perceive are represented in your brain, expressed in a neural code that’s just as inscrutable as the binary one. The brain and the sense organs transduce information, captured by light and sonic waves, into neurochemical impulses, and the “real” objects that are the subjects of our thoughts and feelings are actually the ones we represent and that live in our minds. So when you look out your window at the trees on a summer day and you listen to the birds sing, you’re not beholding the trees or the birdsongs directly; instead, you’re sensing how those sources are translated by someone with sensory equipment like that which pokes out of your head. Again, can we continue to feel so strongly about the so-called beauty of nature if the beauties are actually hidden from us except when we think of them noumenally, in abstract terms? Can we still approve of what we perceive when we appreciate that the world must first be captured and processed by our horrendous neural code? We speak of the miracle of the human brain, because it’s the most complex known thing in the universe. Nevertheless, were the windows on the brain any larger than the black pupils, so that we could see the whole squiggly mass of gooey nonsense as it squirts its juices whenever we’d attempt to interact, not only would all personal relationships be impossible, but we’d run screaming from each other so that our species would come to a screeching halt.
Then there’s the DNA code which again is a veritable Philosopher’s Stone, a seemingly random and tediously long jumble of key molecules (guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine, in addition to sugar and phosphate backbones), which nonetheless codes for the building of all life forms. Indeed, adding insult to injury, the entire code is found not just in every organism but in nearly every cell of every organism, and is also found twice in each cell, because of DNA’s redundant, helical structure. And like the godawful folds of the brain, DNA strands are tightly coiled squiggly messes that are so fiendishly complex they can’t be read by the mind. So again, on the one hand, we have ourselves, our friends, relatives, and pets, and the animals and plants we consume, as well as the astounding variety of all life, but on the other, there’s the monotony of DNA’s algorithmic instructions for the building of all of those bodies.
Of course, the humiliating reductions don’t end with biology. In physics, we learn from the Standard Model that with just a dozen elementary particle types called fermions (divided into quarks and leptons), four fundamental forces (weak, strong, electromagnetism, and gravity), and four force-carrying particle types (gluons, bosons, gravitons, and photons), we get everything in the universe, including DNA, the brain, the binary code, and all the stars and galaxies. Now, the relationship between, say, a human body and the quadrillions of atoms that equal that body isn’t exactly one of translation, since the atoms don’t encode the person; rather, things are made up of their atoms. Still, there’s an equation here and also a translation at the level of theories for understanding things. You can think in commonsense terms of the familiar items from our daily experience or you can think of masses of elementary particles and their interactions. The two are identical, although there are emergent phenomena and inherent uncertainties in fundamental physics, so that higher levels of explanation are needed as well as being convenient. Once again, then, there’s infinite variety on the one hand and a relatively paltry basis of that variety on the other.
Or take the phenomenon of language. Think of the rich variety of utterances, the galaxy of stories, rumours, poems, arguments, and explanations that have ever been spoken or written. Each of those series of words is made up of only a relatively small number of letters in each language. Just as ones and zeroes can be shuffled to code for trillions of different artifacts, so too just the 26 letters of the alphabet are combined to form the thousands of English words and thus all of the messages they in turn can form. Luckily, the English symbols have some character, although their shapes have no inherent meaning, so they’re not as humdrum as the binary code and thus there’s less horror in the realization that even religious scriptures are nothing but combinations of the very same letters that could just as easily produce profane utterances and iterations of toilet humour. Just as everything is made up of particles interacting by means of forces and force-carriers, so too everything in the linguistic world is made up of combinations of a relatively small number of phonemes or morphemes (the minimal units of speech sound or of grammatically significant symbols that make up words).
The Horror of the Codes
To be sure, there are differences between these systems and I’ve simplified the process of coding. Neither a genome nor a binary string alone would make for an organism or for, say, a computer game. DNA contains only instructions that have to be followed, as it were, by an assembly line of proteins which builds cells and larger structures; moreover, the environment also affects behavior. And of course a computer program has to be implemented by a computer attached to its peripherals to produce a playable game. So a person isn’t entirely replaceable by her DNA, for example. Moreover, on the scientific view the world we perceive isn’t contained in the symbols we use to think of it, if only because the world can be perceived in different ways by different sorts of creatures and we explain perception by positing independent material objects like the brain. Still, what these systems have in common is a rough and uncanny identity between things, which threatens our commonplace evaluations. In each case, we’re shown to be prejudiced in our emotional attachments and that ought to embarrass us.
To see what I mean, consider this scenario that’s familiar from pop culture. A husband is forced to live in a wheelchair after having a car accident and his wife leaves him, proving that the physical difference between his able-bodied self and handicapped one is important to her, that she didn’t love his inner self, which remains unaffected by the accident. In the movies, the person who shows she’s so superficial comes in for criticism, because of the romantic idea that love is somehow spiritual or supernatural and that mere physical differences shouldn’t count. In any case, my point is that when the difference between two things or two states of the same thing does matter to us, that different ought to be reflected in our behaviour. So if the husband loses only a single hair on his head, instead of the use of his legs, his wife’s feelings will be unchanged (except that she might worry about his driving skills or about the near miss, and so forth). But this isn’t the case with respect to the above natural transformations. Again, there are differences between, say, hearing a song played live at a concert and looking at a printout of the binary script that codes for the digitized version of the song. The song doesn’t equal the code, since the code contains only the instructions for the computer to play the recording. Still, a virtually indistinguishable copy of the song is contained potentially in the code. And yet liking the song is no guarantee of liking the code; indeed, we can’t feel for the code because we can’t read it.
But the horror I’m speaking of is more than just a matter of our partiality to certain forms. The problem is also that we become attached to unique things even though their uniqueness is undermined by the universality of their elements. Take, for example, the traumas currently suffered by the culture industries. As most people know, most illustrators, musicians, novelists, and other artists are having great difficulty making a living, despite the promise of the internet. The old business models no longer apply and so the intermediary businesses are losing money and the artists are forced to market as well as produce their work. The internet cuts out the middlemen and allows many more would-be artists to start selling their wares, and yet the medium of the internet also devalues their work, so that most art is offered for free or is pirated. This is because of digitization. Whereas before computers and the printing press, artworks could stand as monuments of unparalleled genius, so that you’d have to travel to the physical location of the cathedral or other home of the masterpiece to bask in its greatness, now most works are easily converted into digital form whereupon they can be copied millions of times. As a result, not only have customers lost respect for art, but artists have lost their inspiration, having been repulsed by the digital shell into which their art will inevitably mutate. To be sure, there are still genuine artists and fans left. Artists make money from live events or with enormous or unwieldy installation pieces or performances that can’t be digitized, and fans meet at comic conventions, chat rooms, and the like. But the writing is on the wall and even if art survives the Digital Age, aesthetic values will have to accommodate the fact that the more high-tech machines are involved in the production and presentation of culture, the more trivial culture becomes.
In the case of DNA, there’s the similar phenomenon of cloning. We value ourselves as individuals, but potentially we can all be cloned. The minds inside the clones will differ because of the bodies’ different interactions with their environment, but we’re nevertheless faced with the questions that are often posed in science fiction, as to whether clones have the same value as the original and whether the original can be special in the first place, given that it can be cloned. Again, at the deeper level of physics we find repeatability in the multiverse that might result from quantum fluctuations or from the infinitude of space which allows for endless cycles of evolution and complexification. Nietzsche posed the question of whether our will would be sufficiently strong to affirm an event despite our knowing that that event happens over and over again in an eternal recurrence of the same. On the contrary, we feel that the rarer an item, the more valuable it should be. And indeed, there are many rare and unique items on our planet. Even if there are duplicates of us in other universes or in iterations of this one, we can never reach them, so we’re scarce resources alright. Nevertheless, our uniqueness is mocked by the potential for our infinite repeatability, contained in our elementary forms, in our DNA and our subatomic basis, just as culture loses its sacredness thanks to its digitization.
In the Digital Age, the real world tends to be substituted by simulations, and a virtual habitat is bound to change our character. Will we become disenchanted with digital culture, having come to despise the real world for including the seed of its infinite repetitions and thus of its trivialization, so that commerce and civilization at large can continue only with totalitarian controls? Will we lose respect for creativity in general and thus for all creators, including our gods? If creation isn’t fundamentally a unique work of genius, but a trivial and tedious shuffling of the units of the neural or genetic code which eventually spits out all possible configurations of outputs, what’s the point of further development? Will we come to understand that the universe is decaying rather than growing? That at the heart of existence wasn’t perfection but a horror that had to be erased? That the codes behind neurally-mediated experience, the evolution of life, and the digital simulation of reality are so disheartening because they are themselves echoes of the ultimate transformation which is intuited but garbled in most of the religions’ Creation tales? That we’re bound to turn nature into virtual worlds that have been drained of any worth, because we’re instruments of a cosmic process of dissolution, of the decay of God’s corpse which is the universe? What heroism could we muster to make the best of that grotesque state of affairs?