I witness evidence of the world renewing itself, sprucing itself up in preparation for new rounds, new chapters, future happenings, life proceeding on its way. Birds tend a lovely little nest, tufts of grass sprouting from a neighbor’s rain gutter. A glance at Zillow, however, and the day takes a turn toward the absurd: surrealist homes splintering apart at Cabinet of Dr. Caligari angles. Zillow allows users a networked, Sim City interface for “playing” the local real estate market. After exploring a few neighborhood listings, I shake my head in mock bewilderment and close the browser. As I do so, my eyes flash on my brother-in-law’s Warhammer 40K screensaver. Warhammer features a fascinating mythos: fantasy and far-future sci-fi fused into a single, deeply pessimistic, supernatural clash-of-alien-civilizations cosmology. My sister-in-law and her husband spend a lot of their time in gameworlds. They play Pokémon and Warhammer — and lately, they’ve been playing Zillow. Like Pokémon, Zillow presents the user’s city — sensed remotely, filtered through a game interface. Real estate markets have been aggregated and gamified, reality routed through the “Warp” into the wired weird of digital capitalism. (The Warp is Warhammer’s version of what Borges called “the Aleph,” a magical orb granting sight of all points in space in a “single gigantic instant” [Borges 26]. It’s also like access to the real-time evolving collective unconscious rendered as visionary dream-state.) Or so I gather from conversation over the course of the afternoon. What desire-structures, I wonder, drive my countrymen to want to fashion themselves members of an “Imperium of Mankind” besieged by hostile aliens and malevolent supernatural beings? Where is the delight in that? Why would one want to go to such extreme lengths to estrange oneself from nature? Instead of communing with the weird and the wild, Warhammer enthusiasts project themselves into a cosmos riven by antagonism, humanity locked in struggle with hallucinated forces of chaos. As if in answer to my query, my nephews arrive later in the day. One of them rushes toward a swing set and to his brother shouts, “What the heck are these bugs? When the girls come, let’s hide.”
Improper machinery, loss of greenery. It’s the difference, flesh-wise, between an avatar and a cyborg. We need personhood — hence our qualms with the State. Medical bills, student debt — these have got to go. I don’t just want us all alone in our basements wearing Google Glass or some near equivalent.
Upon my eyelids, a multimedia facade similar to the one envisioned by Keiichi Matsuda in his “HYPER-REALITY” video.
Perhaps I should walk. Moments later, I write into my phone, “We are walking in our minds. Trees are our dendrites. Strolling under the branches, admiring their storage of light, I imagine myself as an explorer of a rediscovered memory palace.” A student of color rhapsodized, reminisced, spoke of the ongoing significance to him of Chance the Rapper. He’d been a fan, the student said, since the artist’s first mixtape, 10 Day. It made me feel a bit ancient, as if I were John Henry, surrounded by machines. And yet the heightened drama of the university recognizing itself as a corporate ruin shakes me back to attention. The line that leaps out at me from the mixtape: “I burned too many brain cells down to be worried about brain cells now.” That’s basically what some of my students seem to think about trees. The mythology is strictly Adidas chasing Nike.
All of those communes, those seedlings of joyful community: why did so few of them take root? Are there lessons to be found among the memories of these vanished experiments? Might we not organize to try something similar today using our own far more advanced technologies? What steps would it require? How might we organize ourselves into a cybernetic communal family? How about a crowd-funded reality experiment? Maybe the Revolution should be televised! By the end of Brand’s essay, Spacewar comes to operate as a grand metaphor. It’s no longer just the name of the first videogame; it’s a parable about cultural revolution, a metonym for real-time video- and computer-assisted reinvention of society through play. Brand also describes it as “a flawless crystal ball of things to come” (78). But what is this future state, this twenty-first century that the game ushered into being? Are we more empowered today or less? Unfortunately Brand was ultimately a libertarian, his optimistic views on the “heroism of engineering” roughly similar to the “heroism of enterprise” imagined by followers of right-libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand. In Brand’s scenario, individuals live and work “communally” in the sense of “side-by-side” or “physically proximate,” but their bodies and minds don’t do much together. Computers and screens and related kinds of machinery mediate our interactions, and capitalism as mode of production remains unchanged. Individuals feeding back but otherwise “doing their own thing” form a subconscious consensus, and a stable teapot reality — a one-world Oikos — locks into place around them.
Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place” leads me into the mirror-world. I drop down into a seat and scry. One of the oldest known forms of divination. Our social media empires have attempted to capture the worlds on the other sides of our scrying mirrors. This is what shows like Black Mirror have tried to teach us. Students and I have returned to head culture’s first encounters with electronic black mirrors in the budding early days of videogames and personal computers as reflected in “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” a report Stewart Brand wrote for Rolling Stone magazine in December 1972. The piece begins with the conviction that the world is windblown and that change, technological modernity — in a word, “computers” — all of these have been foisted on “the people,” regardless of whether or not “the people” are prepared for it. Within less than half a century following the piece’s publication, most of us would be clutching these objects like gods. Brand’s advice was, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” This is the meaning of his Whole Earth Catalog. The medium in that case was indeed the message. The Catalog is significant primarily in terms of its form. A functional blueprint for Revolution is one that provides “Access to Tools.” But why was Brand so nonchalant, I wonder, as all of this began to unfold? Why was he so nonchalant about the effects on neighborhoods IRL as heads began to spend their night-time moments “out of their bodies, computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens” (39)?
Prepare for a spinning forth of words — poetic enunciation, in the hope that by acting one can learn the part. I’m roused by the interpellating “you,” the hailing of me as a person in the title and preface to Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, my nerves get the best of me. We live in frightening times. But it needn’t be this way. Let us dream ourselves into a post-neurotic utopia, without foregoing the underlying continuity of experience. I worry, though, that like Eldridge Cleaver, my most persistent intellectual quality is doubt. Ishmael Reed pointed to doubt as evidence of Cleaver’s role as a “trickster.” Am I a trickster, too?
Hippie modernism was an attempt to eroticize or more broadly sensualize Western modernity. It was a project launched from within the West that drew inspiration from the cultures of native and non-Western people. Within a sensualized landscape replanted and rewilded with minimal reliance on technology, people could relax and admire the barking of dogs, the music of birds. A neighbor operating a chainsaw is all it takes, though, to disrupt the peace of this reverie. I’m reminded of Amiri Baraka’s 1964 poem “A Contract. (For the Destruction and Rebuilding of Paterson,” which begins, “Flesh, and cars, tar, dug holes beneath stone / a rude hierarchy of money, band saws cross out / music, feeling. Even speech, corrodes.” Baraka’s poem reminds us that Paterson’s modernity (like that of the rest of the country) never extended to many of its black residents. To help bear his burden — to absorb the anger forced upon him by the racism of our society — I undergo a cleansing ritual. I absorb, I reprocess, I release.