Mixtec, Mosaic mask, 1200-1400 AD
Mixtec, Mosaic mask, 1200-1400 AD
Mark Slouka
Virtual World: The Assault on Place

Mark Slouka is a lecturer in literature and culture at the University of California, San Diego. His short story, "The Wood Carver's Tale", in the March 1995 issue of Harper's Magazine, won a National Magazine Award. This article is excerpted from his book War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-tech Assault on Reality.

 Matt Groening, Bart Simpson, Fox NetworkThe digital revolution represents a potential $3.5 trillion market. Vitally important to the success of that revolution is our willingness to move indoors, to renounce the external world (where so many things are free, after all) in favor of the internal one (which can be commodified to the heart's delight by selling us substitutes of the things we've given up). And how do you facilitate the movement from public space into the private home? Simple. You reinterpret the meaning of private and public. You redefine inside as outside, absence as presence, abstract space as Cartesian and three-dimensional. Along with Allucquere Rosanne Stone, you call technology the "new nature".

All of which, one would agree, is a pretty effective way to break down the defenses of those inclined to resist the digital zeitgeist. You're not alone, the argument goes; you're connected. You're not isolated in your room, tapping on a keyboard; you're in touch, linked up, wired to the world. How do we explain the new fear of being left behind, of being insufficiently wired? How do we explain the growth of what can only be described as bandwidth envy? Simple. When the virtual becomes the real, then the computer becomes our window onto the world, and the bandwidth the door by which our friends come to visit. We'll naturally do everything (buy anything) to keep that window open. In time, we may come to fear closing like death itself.

All this may explain how we come to find ourselves where we are - that is, on the cusp of a New Age in which more and more of us happily equate real life with abstract existence. What it does not fully explain is our rush to embrace the new thinking, our apparent lack of allegiance to the physical world. What it does not answer is why we should want this new world. And want it we must. After all, new technologies (and new definitions of old concepts) can go only so far by themselves. They need our help. Without it, they would die on the vine. If enough of us said "no, thanks," and went outside for a bike ride, or a walk in the woods, or up to our bedrooms to make love, Videocycle Tours and Nature Audios and Netsex would go the way of Scent-a-Rama and 3D glasses. As would many of the projects at the MIT Media Lab. What explains the attraction?

The short answer is paranoia. As everyone who reads a newspaper or partakes of the evening news already knows well, it's a dangerous world out there. Parks are bad. The streets are worse. Sex is dangerous. Post offices, apparently, are death itself. But fear, legitimate or otherwise, is only part of the explanation for our withdrawal from the outside world, and not even the largest part. As it turns out, it's not so much that we're afraid of what's out there as that there's no there out there anymore.

Not too long ago, on an episode of The Simpsons, the community's television sets are simultaneously turned off. The effect is immediate. To the swelling strains of the opening movement of Beethoven's "Pastorale", children - dazed, blinking in the sun like mice coming out of winter hibernation - begin to emerge from their houses. In seconds, they are running through the fields, flying kites, building tree houses, swimming in pristine creeks. At the family dinner table that evening, the kids are flushed, tired, and happy. Bart is bursting with news. "And you know what else?" he says, holding his arms a yard apart. "We almost caught a catfish this big!"

The scene is hilarious, of course. It works well, and not just as a parody of that brand of hokey American nostalgia captured in everything from Norman Rockwell paintings to Kozy Kountry Kitchen Kitsch, but as a wonderfully reflexive takeoff on our often overblown fears of the television set itself. Kill the tube, we are being told, as we sit watching and ye shall inherit the Earth. The Simpsons' brief sojourn in the outside world, however, is effective for another reason as well. It cuts close to the bone. Like a lot of good humor, it's funny because it hurts. And it hurts, basically, because the communitarian vision beneath the parody is something both strangely familiar and increasingly foreign. By turning the actual agrarian past into a Tom Sawyer fantasy, The Simpsons underscores how far from that world we've actually come, how terribly antiquated, even fantastic, the world of creeks and horseshoes and catfish has come to seem.

This sense of disconnectedness from our own past, in turn, helps explain why we seem so willing to isolate ourselves from the external world, why we seem so incapable of resisting the encroachment of abstract space on our lives. Simply put, we're retreating inside because the world outside our homes has less and less to offer us. Going fishing, for most of us, is not an option, not necessarily because the fish might give off a disconcerting glow, but simply because chances are good there is no stream or lake near us, and therefore no fish. We live, many of us, in communities whose planners clearly had little or no interest in integrating the outside world into the lives of future residents. In most of these places, if the TVs were suddenly to break down, you could hum Beethoven's Sixth until the cows came home, but there would be no stream, no tree houses, no lawn big enough to play horseshoes, and no meadow for the cows to come home to.

My morning commute offers a dozen examples. From the highway (one of the major West Coast arteries), I can see community after community, each stuffed with identical (and very expensive) houses on a quarter of an acre or less, each with a two-car garage. The postage-stamp lawns are manicured, perfect, and empty. Looking at these communities, one thing is utterly obvious: no life outside the home is possible here. There is no play ground, no park, no field or meadow. Children don't play ball in the streets; couples don't scandalize grandmothers by kissing too long and passionately in the shadows of the trees (there are none); neighbors don't talk or even argue. The only option, if you want to go out, is to take a car. So what do the people who live in these communities do? What else can they do? They live inside: watching television, listening to their home entertainment systems, playing computer games. When they go out, they do so mainly to go in: to a mall, a store, a movie theater. As Gregory Stock aptly puts it: "No wonder the emotional links between humans and the 'natural' environment are weakening; an ever growing fraction of human experience is in an entirely different realm.''

Our movement inside the home, in other words, is to a great extent an environmental issue. As the natural world disappears from our lives, we are forced inside. Our move indoors, however, marginalizes the physical world still further, in the process cutting us off from what's left of the life we once knew: a life rooted in a physical community and a particular, local landscape. To the cyberists inclined to characterize that vision as hopelessly romantic, a yearning for some idealized, Jeffersonian past, I'd simply reply that arguing the importance of the physical world is not utopianism but simple sanity. To think that we can do without, that we can substitute virtual alternatives for the real thing, is madness.

And yet that is precisely the point being made, explicitly and unabashedly, by the cyberist vanguard: Why go out when you can stay in? You say you want to fly a plane? Log on. Like fish? We'll sell you digital ones. Worried about AIDS and STDs? Miss September will take her panties off just for you. (You say it's not the same, that masturbation, however interactive, is still the next best thing to being there? Give us time. We're working on that.) Why go through the trouble of moving your actual, imperfect body though physical space, when you can "get there" instantly? Why put up with flawed reality, when you can engineer your own "surround"? Embrace the machine - it's your kith and kin, your soul, your savior.

Strangely enough, to bolster this vision, cyberists like to fall back on literature. Their favorite, judging by the frequency with which it is cited, is Samuel Butler's satirical novel, Erewhon, in which the author takes on all manner of Luddites and states (they love this quote): "There is no security against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness, in the fact of machines possessing little consciousness now." It's a good quote. It works well. But if works of literature are to guide us into the cybernetic future, I have a better one in mind.

In 1928, E M Forster sat down to write a science fiction story. It was not his usual fare. Forster, the author of A Room with a View, A Passage to India, and Howard's End, among others, was more typically interested in anatomizing the deficiencies of the English middle class than in predicting the future. Forster's sensibility, however, had picked up a trembling in the cultural chrysalis. Troubled by the increasingly machinelike dynamic of twentieth century life, instinctively attuned to the forces that separate people from one another, Forster noted the signs of the times, then looked into the future. Apparently he didn't like what he saw.

A dystopic nightmare fully worthy of Orwell, The Machine Stops opens in "a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee." The woman who lives in this room, Vashti, shops by phone, orders food by phone, gives lectures to an audience she can see and hear without leaving her room. She's pathologically afraid of direct experience. In her world, direct observation, physical space, the unmediated event, have all been banished. Her room - an underground bunker linked to others through a sort of computer fully equipped to compensate for the outside world - is a self-enclosed universe: "though it contained nothing," Forster tells us, "it was in touch with all that she cared for in the world." Nature has been removed from human life. "She made the room dark and slept; she awoke and made the room light; she ate and exchanged ideas with her friends, and listened to music and attended lectures; she made the room dark and slept."

Into this self-enclosed world (his image appears on a blue, TV-like plate) comes Vashti's son, Kuno, a rebel, a malcontent, who lives in a room just like hers in the Southern hemisphere. "I want you to come and see me," he says. Vashti, at first, doesn't understand. "But I can see you," she protests. Kuno, however, doesn't want to see her through the offices of the machine. Absurdly, he wants more. "I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you," he says. "Pay me a visit so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind." Eventually, though already anticipating "the terrors of direct experience", Vashti agrees to go.

The journey itself is an ordeal of uncontrolled events. Though transportation is rapid and painless, though the shock of the new has been largely neutralized (all the world, Forster tells us, now looks roughly the same), though nature has been tamed utterly, other sources of distress have arisen to take their place. When Vashti stumbles, for example, the stewardess, still possessed of a "certain roughness and originality of manner" from having to deal with people, behaves barbarically: forgetting that people no longer touch one another, that the custom has "become obsolete", she reaches out to steady her, then instantly apologizes for not having let her fall. When a man accidentally drops a book (a relic from the Age of Litter), all the passengers are disquieted. The passage is not mechanized; the floor can't pick it up.

Face-to-face with his mother, Kuno tells her of his crime. In this Age of the Machine, in which direct experience has been demonized and the natural world rendered obsolete, Kuno has been to the surface. His rebellion knows no bounds: "We say space is annihilated," he argues, "but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves." Kuno - young, aggressive, curious - is determined to recover the physical world. "Man is the measure," he claims, to his mother's horror. "Man's feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong."

Crawling upward through the machine, Kuno claims to have stuck his head into the darkness of actual night. "I seemed to hear the spirits of those dead workmen who had returned each evening to the starlight and to their wives, and all the generations who had lived in the open air.... I felt, for the first time, that a protest had been lodged against corruption, and that even as the dead were comforting me, so I was comforting the unborn. I felt that humanity existed... and that all these tubes and buttons and machineries neither came into the world with us, nor will they follow us out, nor do they matter supremely while we are here."

Vashti, struck dumb by her son's confession, leaves him to his fate, knowing that "on atavism the machine can have no mercy." She returns to her cell in the hive, unshaken in her devotion to the Machine. The room hums, the machines do their work. Swaddled in comfort, she resumes the abstract life she briefly interrupted.

Forster's story concludes like something out of the Book of Revelation. The consensual illusions, the glowing televisionlike plates, the remote music - at first gradually, then with terrifying speed - begin to shut down. The bunkers go dark. The machine on which humanity has come to depend as a substitute for the world simply stops. Groping her way into the outer passageways, Vashti finds her son, who has come to see her in the final hour. As they hold each other, an airship crashes downward through the human hive, exploding as it goes. "For a moment," Forster writes, "they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of untainted sky."

I confess that I've never been particularly interested in science fiction. Faced with Forster's Dantesque vision, I find myself wanting to qualify, to distance myself from a parallel that seems at once too obvious and too reductive. It's so unabashed, after all, so transparently biased in its allegiance to the physical world - the actual landscape, the human touch. Forster's world is not ours, I want to say. We don't live in bunkers, after all. We still meet one another in real life, touch one another, make love to one another.

But I can't do it. Everywhere we look, it seems to me, Forster's world is beginning to emerge like the pattern of wallpaper coming through the paint. Seventy years ago, Forster placed his heroine at the center of a human hive. Today, the technologists use that very metaphor to describe the interlinked hive nature of the Net. (The cover of Kevin Kelly's book Out of Control, for example, fea tures drones flying from an apartment building in which each window/cell is a computer screen.) Seventy years ago, Forster wrote: "Under the seas, beneath the roots of mountains, ran the wires through which they saw and heard." Today, the prophecy has been fulfilled. Our "wired planet", Kevin Kelly notes, is rapidly becoming "a torrent of bits circulating in a clear shell of glass fibers, databases, and input devices." Another example of Kevin Kelly's New Age hyperbole? Not at all. AT&T, I read in the paper, is laying fiber-optic cable around the continent of Africa.

And the parallels, of course, don't end there. In Forster's story, cyberspace reigns supreme; representations have come to be regarded as superior to the originals they imitate; technology has become a deity that increasingly demands fealty from its many acolytes, a deity, in other words, beyond its creators' control.

As we continue to hurtle toward the technological millennium, Forster's story appears both prescient and genuinely frightening, its lessons uncannily apropos. What its characters did not consider, it seems to me, was where the changing times would lead; how "way leads on to way", as Robert Frost put it; how certain choices inexorably lead to others, perhaps less welcome; how habit tends to be self-perpetuating; how, finally, the psychological strength required to live fully in the real world can wane and atrophy, much like muscles and ligaments left too long unused. Forster's fiction describes an incremental apocalypse; increasingly enervated, impatient, and irritable, humanity entrusts everything to the machine. And the machine stops.

In our lifetimes, it's just getting started.