New objects arrive into the lifeworld, gifts from friends and family, well-wishing from near and afar. Some are even hand-crafted — a granny squares knit blanket, an alphabet book, a stuffed creature — made with care specifically for our daughter. These objects return me to the place in my memory palace featuring Sadie Plant’s book Zeros + Ones, a book from the future somehow released in the past, ahead of its time. It’s a steampunk biography about Lord Byron and his wife Annabella’s only child, the nineteenth century mathematician Ada Lovelace. The book focuses especially on the cause for Lovelace’s fame, her encounters with the engineer Charles Babbage’s early computer, the Difference Engine. Lovelace was the first person to recognize the full potential of computing machines, designing and publishing the first algorithm intended to be used by such a machine, thus in a sense making her the first computer programmer. Her biography follows Babbage in calling her the “Enchantress of Numbers.” I read Plant’s book decades ago. What would I find in it if I read it again today? Would I find it frustrating? Perhaps even a bit frightening? Or would I find something worth retrieving — a major arcana? Perhaps the Queen of Wands? Where did Babbage and Lovelace stand, and to what extent did their work contribute, with regard to empire? Byron certainly wasn’t the most admirable character. I prefer different stories, different rabbit holes, bunnies chewing on carrots.
One of these days I’ll have to tell the story of the architect who designed a memory palace. A stately pleasure-dome there decreed. I’ve done something of that sort myself, with my books. Ideas stored in locations across a navigable space. Internal / external and micro / macro realms flip, begin to seem like indistinguishable sides of a Klein bottle or a Möbius strip. One thinks again of the famous Great Library of Alexandria and, following its destruction, episodes in the externalization of memory, the latter launching eventually from the Gutenberg Galaxy out into cyberspace. According to McLuhan, it was by way of this extension of its memory outward into media that humanity desacralized the world and assumed a profane existence. Enter our friend the architect.
There, sing the birds. There, there. Let us materialize and mobilize, let us get up on our feet and go for a walk. Things click: memory palaces are what we’ve built for ourselves, only we’ve externalized them, turned them into digital media devices, software and hardware, computer beings co-evolving alongside an “us” that includes gourds, birds, gardens, neighborhoods, communities — an “us,” in other words, that is both Psyche and Cosmos. Speaking of which: perhaps I should read Richard Tarnas’s Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, with its proposed “participatory epistemology,” in which Nature is a self-unfolding reality, a “living, sensuous and ensouled matrix in which we fully participate and belong.” Up to now, astrology has never made much sense to me. But I have found that outer events meaningfully coincide, both with one another and, more importantly, with inner states of consciousness. Bringing the planets into it and assigning them characteristics, however, just seems a bit messy. Though the “fortune,” I suppose, is the genre that allows us to interact with astrology, playing with it as one would a language game or a narrative system. I’m not yet ready to ascribe to it any more meaning than that.
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.