The Augmentation (i.e. Humanization) of the World
According to the technocrats a change in our reality is under way. They call this change the “augmentation” of reality, which ought to assuage our ever persistent fears of a degradation of reality, a phantasmagorical and schizophrenic unreality. In contrast to this Virtual unReality, Augmented Reality (or AR as it referred to in the pages of Wired and co.) signals precisely the opposite: a new robustness of reality. [See my earlier posts here , here and here about the definition of “augment” as an ‘increasing’ or a ‘making stronger’]
We tend to breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect of a reality that will be Augmented rather than Virtual, however it is imperative we take a deep breath and ask ourselves whether our sighs of relief has been premature. Even the desire for health and robustness can become pathological, as the newly minted diagnosis orthorexia nervosa (the obsession with healthy eating) attests.
There are no shortages of dystopian or apocalyptic analyses purporting that technology is mashing our subjective and emotional qualities into a pulp. By fixating on the end of Man in the world of high technology we ignore dystopian and apocalyptic analyses based on the humanizing (anthropomorphizing?) of the world. So typical to the 21st century, we worry about the anorexia of the human subject, but never the orthorexia of the subject. And we do so at our peril.
What if it is not that the meaning-less Object that is consuming the Subject, but the meaning-giving Subject that is consuming the Object? What if, rather than being de-humanized (inhuman), we are becoming over-humanized (all-too-human)?
I’ll suggest to you that techniques-of-subjectivism (where I situate AR, for example) are not unique to the present day. Nor need they be thought of as machine based technologies. For well over a century, astute commentators such as the terribly neglected Julian Benda, have noted with trepidation the “curious desire of moderns to yield to subjectivism”. (See pg.73 of his Treason of the Intellectuals)
But this “subjectivism”, this desire for Man to impose himself on the natural world, is by no means Modern. Seen from a height, our desire to “yield to subjectivism” is the culmination of an extraordinarily long historical narrative dealing with the aestheticization of the world, the will to make the world in the image of Man.
Compare those paintings on the cave walls in dark Lascaux to the luminous metropolises visible outside the earth’s atmosphere. Compare the Palaeolithic Venus of Brassempouy carved from the ivory of a long extinct species to the present day geneticist who dreams of carving and cutting away at the ideal genome…
I am in Tokyo, on the balcony of my 30th floor hotel room, looking down on the bustling city after dark. I am trapped beneath the black night sky, surrounded by glass skyscrapers, bright neon lights and the endless city. Two hundred and twenty miles above me are astronauts aboard the International Space Station, whose night-time photos of the earth tell a similar story. From space, vast areas of the earth’s surface are covered in a webwork of snaking lights and cities like Rome, Cairo, and New Orleans are bathed in an eerie white glow. The earth has put on its finest sequined gown and it shimmers in the eyes of mankind, its narcissistic lover.
What if the clue as to what drives history lies in our ever increasing and ever complex will to subjectivize and aestheticize: the will-to-design cities like Masdar and our will – since the Romantic days of the anti-Enlightenment – to carve up the canvas of the universal into particular volksgeist (i.e. all those particular gendered, cultural and religious knowledges battered into the heads of wide eyed postmodern undergraduates). The later being similar to what Paul Virilio, in an Ellulian moment, refers to as the “prohibition on imagining any form of transcendence, perspectival, prospective, physical, or metaphysical”. (See pg.89 of his new Futurism of the Instant). Modern day cities, from this point of view, are immense living canvases where human beings are free to engage in the largest, and most intricate, portraiture the world has ever seen.
What if history is the story of technology but technology is really the story of art and increasing aesthetization?