We Have Been Assimilated

Summary: Two artifacts of mass media, launched one after another more than four decades gone: Star Trek in 1967 and The Night of the Living Dead in 1968, enjoy continued popularity in this summer’s blockbuster roster. They embody two contradictory poles in America’s current and ongoing psychic dilemma. On one hand is our love affair with technology (and progress) and our earnest desire to merge ourselves with it. On the other is a mortal fear that we will lose our individuality and identity to the vast machinery of the faceless collective. 

 

“…in fact, science fiction in this sense is no longer anywhere, and it is everywhere…”   – Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”  – William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

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Americans are famous for talking and arguing about something they call freedom. What we actually mean most of the time is control. We have this obsessive need to be in control of our lives all the way to the moment of death and hopefully beyond and this we manage, at least in a virtual sense, through our fetishistic approach to technology. Oddly, the concept of control and that of freedom are opposing functions in the real world, and our obsession with technology has lead us to a world where the human animal is trained to serve the machine rather than the other way around.  

I’m a dweller in cities, as most of us are. Cities are the human container. While the ‘natural’ realm functions as a place of refuge and renewal, much like an elaborately predictable theme park, the real wilderness is a function of cities, where defined boundaries and limited visibility foster an environment filled with mystery. There the human animal, aware that control is nothing but illusion, continually strains against the limits of the maze with unpredictable explosions of novelty. 

Marshall McLuhan coined the term ‘global village’ to describe the environment created by electronic telecommunication that would render physical distance less relevant to our interactions than tribal affinity. What has evolved isn’t really a village at all, anymore than Los Angeles or New York or Tokyo are villages. The Internet is an urban space, differentiated into diverse neighborhoods, each with their respective gangs, territories and exclusive languages. 

The political dialogue going on these days amounts to a gang fight between factions defending opposing versions of the past. We hear overheated rhetoric espousing theoretical positions over hypothetical circumstances while little effective action is taken in the present. Most of us aren’t asked to contribute to solutions, only to take sides. While politics becomes a spectator sport an ongoing revolutions takes place in realms of culture, design and the arts. 

When we step away from the political chatter we see that nothing remains static and everything evolves. While we point accusing fingers at one another every new idea and innovation alters our environment and the way we live. While we fight wars over race and religion the definition of what it means to be human is undergoing constant change. When we address our problems in terms of left and right, Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, we confuse symptoms with the disease. While we grow more and more enmeshed in a world where every human interaction is mediated through machines, a deep sense of unease infects the whole world. Our greatest fear is that what defines us as individuals with a sense of purpose is being threatened by something outside of ourselves. All of our tradition, religion, and moral and ethical behavior is called into question by the requirements of advancing technologies. In the name of progress we reduce our world to chaotic wreckage made up of conflicting slogans and unsubstantiated beliefs.

Among these voices and artifacts we roam like refugees in a junkyard of found objects. When we look with eyes wide open we find that the most pressing existential questions are addressed in the mediums in which we most urgently look for escape. In unguarded moments, when listening to music or viewing movies and television we are opened to novel possibilities. In the fanciful stories we tell to one another we find the most accurate reflection of the truth about where we are and where we may be heading. Our lives, after all, are made of stories.   

Like archeologists or anthropologists we dig to discover the truth in threads that weave through our fictions. In the dreamworld we step back from the dense layers of event and information constantly swirling around us in our waking life. There we may discover the designs of our future before bringing them to the light of day.

***

“…and now the machines are flying us.” – Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise

 

On the screen a group of actors sit in comfy looking chairs or stand facing a screen on which images of things taking place in the universe outside the room are projected. We journey with these characters through a series of moral and ethical dilemmas encountered as adventures that take place in virtual space. The boundaries of the “Final Frontier” extend beyond the screen we are watching to include the space in which we are watching it.

This is perfect television.  

It doesn’t matter that the sets and costumes are cheesy or obviously made of plywood and cardboard against painted backdrops, no more than it mattered to us as children playing with sticks in our own backyards. When the onscreen fantasy ends and we leave the room to continue in our lives we become the ‘away team’ proceeding on a mission into alien worlds. 

Those of us who’d grown up in big cities were accustomed to watching heroes sort out good and evil in the exotic landscapes of the western or the familiar perky environments of sitcoms. The heroes went up against the bad guys and those comedic moms and dads were almost always wise and good natured and calmly protective. While it was entertaining and provided models we could measure our own lives against, these still felt like somebody else’s lives and someone else’s adventures. 

Star Trek made us feel like we were part of the crew of the Enterprise, along for the ride. The show spoke in an imaginative language that dreamers could readily understand. Most important, it provided us with an organizing center from which we made sense of the confusing age we grew up in, where change came so fast that the world appeared always perched on the verge of chaos.    

The show made its initial run in 1967 and was cancelled after only one season. It was about ten years ahead of its time and couldn’t find a ready fit among the era’s cowboy dramas and family sitcoms. Of course, we who were ready for the future wouldn’t let it die, so we pounded on the studio doors until it was eventually brought back, again and again. Over forty years later the books, movies, comics and television series still feed a subculture that thrives across at least three generations. 

As the first television generation we rode a gigantic wave of innovation that began more than a century earlier, when the first photographic image was burned into a metal plate and our relationship to time and space was forever warped by the image. Or maybe the wave actually begins in the 13th century when the first factory looms were constructed, or maybe even earlier, when the first books were reproduced with moveable print. From those times machinery became increasingly the vehicle for our imaginations. We drew our dreams out of our heads and reproduced them to be cast out into the world.

Ever since there were storytellers we’ve used fiction to make sense of the waking world. Fiction takes a stream of events and gives them continuity in the form of narrative or plot. The fiction of Star Trek organized itself around our fondest dreams of progress in a time of raging conflict. In its fanciful world the issues of civil rights and foreign intervention were all located in the distant past. The crew of the Enterprise functioned seamlessly, like a hive of bees, totally self-contained in the belly of a huge machine. St. Augustine’s trinitarian scheme of memory, intellect and will was embodied in McCoy, Spock and Kirk. Their authority was unquestioned by the creator, Gene Rodenberry’s decree that there be no significant dissension amongst the crew. Like the branches of government the principal actors balanced one another and everyone knew their place and function (displayed by color coded uniforms) and problem solving capabilities. 

It now appears strange that a generation swept up in so much resistance to authority would accept and even embrace such a militaristic model of the perfect society. Perhaps it was our longing for order in a time of disorder. Still, it was a prophetic foreshadowing of the world in which we’ve come to live, where almost every activity is mediated through technology and the dictates of the machine reshapes every aspect of our lives. One almost has to wonder if it was the machine itself that was dreaming.

While Star Trek embodied our living room love affair with technology, another parallel genre emerged at the same moment in the dark chthonic realm of the midnight drive-in. It concretized our deepest dread of a dystopian future, and like Star Trek it spawned a genre has continued to thrive over the decades.  

George Romero’s movie about a zombie apocalypse, Night of the Living Dead premiered in 1968 and spawned numberless spinoffs and reincarnations that proliferate with ever greater frequency as we continue to plunge into the technological future.

Where Rodenberry’s universe envisioned a life of perfect harmony encapsulated within highly regimented machine culture, Romero’s nightmare is one in which the machinery of social order is rendered useless, and humans themselves loose all sense of aspiration and affection, becoming machinelike incarnations of pure appetite. Successive portrayals of the Zombie Fear have incorporated environmental collapse, worldwide epidemic, the fall of the social order. 

I believe that beneath all of these is a deeper fear, that of being absorbed by the collective itself. In the latest contribution to the genre based on the bestselling novel by Max Brooks, World War Z, initial ‘zombie fear’ of humans being transformed into mindless automatons of appetite has been upgraded to a merging of the automatons into a singular collective nightmare.  

To traditional cultures, bound by history, ritual, human affection and common belief the implacable advance of technological civilization appears like a plague, threatening to destroy all that gives life purpose. From a different perspective the technocratic mind fears most of all a collapse of rational order and an abandonment of the social compact to the demands of selfish individuals. The zombie fear manages to incorporate both extremes in a common terror of being swept up into nihilistic oblivion.   

Here is the real World War Z, where a hopeful vision of a universe run by benevolent uniformed geeks or one determined by the rhythmic rituals and cycles based in tradition and relationship to the natural world are both obliterated by the needs of the machinery we’ve created. 

The majority of humanity now lives in cities where life is no longer governed by the sun and the moon and the passage of the seasons. The dissonance between lives we live in manmade environments governed by the clock and the demands of our bodies as parts of nature continue to generate dreams and nightmares. Thus our summers are increasingly filled with apocalyptic scenarios that depict a world beset by zombies, robots, aliens and supernatural beings. In our collective fantasies the earth erupts or is bombarded by objects from space. Epidemics rage across the globe. Our imaginations are alight with fascination with our own impending doom, but within our nightmares are the seeds of resistance.  

The zombies of World War Z are modeled on the behavior of ants, a suitable representation for the fear on both sides of the political divide that we are being overrun by  something less than human, like a virus, driven by a mindless will. We certainly can’t change the world or redraw the bargains we’ve made when lost in a world of dreams, but maybe in our dreams can summon a possibility of change.

In the meanwhile the zombies will return again and again, the monsters will continue to rise from the deep, cosmic villainy will prevail and the world will appear to hang on the brink. Godlike heroes will manifest to save the day. Maybe one day we’ll come to conscious terms with our creations and the Star Trek vision of benevolent and compassionate societies dedicated to exploration and service will come to be. After all, our actions and designs for living are first born in the imagination and even in our most vivid nightmares we plant the seeds of possibility.   

 

Zombie Nation

The other night I was sitting having a beer in a friend’s house trailer, making conversation about the fate of the world, occasionally casting a glance at the flat screen television mounted near the ceiling. Not being a regular television watcher, the idea of having the image factory going constantly, even with the sound off is a bit disconcerting. I couldn’t bring myself to ignore the cavalcade of images that drew my attention as we talked.

The screen was tuned to the Discovery Channel and the program being broadcast was a two hour special called “Zombie Apocalypse.” This is apparently a guide to survival at the end of civilization. The documentary footage features grade B actors playing survivalists, ER physicians, college professors and various “experts” in the defense against attacking zombies. In past decades this would’ve been considered a satirical “mockumentary” approach to an obviously fictional scenario, but in the hallucinogenic culture of today I’m convinced that a large part of the population can no longer distinguish fantasy from truth.

In our America the true is no longer woven out of facts. The truth is merely a matter of belief. One can believe in virtually anything and make it real, turn it into a subculture, a reality show, or a political movement.

A couple of weeks ago in a great circling of the wagons that took place in Houston, Texas, somewhere around 70,000 people gathered for the annual convention of the National Rifle Association. The complexion and makeup of those who gathered most likely resembled those seen at a Republican National Convention, including a large contingent of conspiracy theorists, militia enthusiasts and (I’m sure) zombie fighters . The motto of this year’s convention was “Stand and Fight.”

An obvious question is, “Fight who?”

The answer no doubt includes criminals, liberals, the government, immigrants, zombies and all that the media so successfully markets as objects to fear. A recent poll found that 44% of Americans think that we are headed for an “armed rebellion.” Mostly folks wrapped in a belief that “freedom” is somehow synonymous with the right to arm themselves against all others.

I can actually understand their motivations and perhaps even sympathize with their fears, knowing that underneath all the various projections and fantasies of “the enemy” is the growing certainty of an entire culture being overcome and vanishing, as surely as have all the extinct tribes that have gone before. The pathetic irony is that nothing threatening this culture’s survival can be defended against with armaments, no matter how lethal or quickly loaded.

The foundations of what we once called “freedom” are vanishing as quickly as pond ice on a warm spring day. What remains of the American Dream of individual autonomy is confined to images cooked up in the fantasy world of theme parks and television. Nearly every community and every city, large and small, has turned itself into an artificial construct, where identity is constructed out of slogans and corporate logos. We are what we watch. New York and Paris and Shanghai are rapidly becoming collections of interchangeable parts as each city replicates a well oiled machine interface that balances a shrinking quotient of local novelty with the familiarity of recognizable brands. What we look for as we travel is the nearest Wi-Fi connection at Starbucks or MacDonalds.

I remember a time when I was very young and it appeared that civilization had a direction and my country had a sense of common purpose. I now realize that this perceived reality was a manufactured illusion, but now even that level of commonly accepted artifice is gone away. It went to Las Vegas, where all traces of human purpose are absorbed by our continual response to the demands of automated mechanisms of reward.

A recent statistic indicates that suicides among middle aged males has risen by 48% since 2010. Most of the gun deaths in this country are the result of suicide. Could it be that the relationship of the gun owner to his or her gun resembles that of the bulemic to food? In both cases the object of obsession is perceived as a shield from despair. In either case beneath the shield is a hidden death wish and it brings one ever closer to the very thing feared. Is it any surprise that the zombies we fight in our fantasy scenarios are the reanimated corpses of the very people with whom we are familiar?

Thus we have this sad gathering of the paranoid deep in Texas defending what no longer exists in any meaningful way; the “American Dream” of “the home of the brave and the land of the free, with liberty and justice for all.” What in our era do any of these words mean? What freedoms do we have beyond the freedom to shop? We can choose the 30 round magazine over the 15 round magazine or the 42 inch television over the 36 inch. We can navigate to our favorite web site to stoke our preconceptions or paranoid daydreams. We can decide who to cheer for or who to blame. We can switch channels, but we’ve given up almost every freedom but the freedom to be entertained.

“Daily skirmishes were now being fought, no longer for territory or commodities but for electro-magnetic information, in an international race to measure and map most accurately the field-coefficients at each point of that mysterious mathematical lattice-work which was by then known to surround the Earth. As the Era of Sail had depended upon the mapping of seas and sea coasts of the globe and winds of the wind-rose, so upon the measurement of newer variables would depend the history that was to pass up here, among reefs of magnetic anomaly, channels of least impedance, storms of rays yet unnamed lashing out of the sun.”

– Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon
I don’t want to leave us with a feeling of despair. Despair doesn’t do anyone any good. Although nostalgia for the “loss” of individual freedoms can perhaps justify our desperate response, we may also consider that aspects of our loss may be part of a necessary evolutionary advance.

In 1800 only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. At the beginning of the last century that number had grown to 14% and by 1950 it was 30%. It is now projected that by 2050 more than 70% of the global population will live in urban areas. The population of the world’s cities is growing at the rate of a million and a half people every week. Can anyone realistically project that the values by which we navigated the past will not have to change substantially as we enter the future? (Sources: United Nations and Geoffrey West)
I once studied the ideas and architecture of Paolo Soleri, who proposed that humanity must structurally adapt in order to survive, just as life has always adapted to changing conditions and environmental pressures. As our population increases our lives have entered a new stage of complexity in which we must evolve a more flexible organism, one that is more compact and efficient and requires less energy to maintain. As the age of dinosaurs gave way to the age of mammals, so our sprawling urban landscapes must find ways to consolidate services and resources so that more people can inhabit less space while generating less waste. Soleri (who died on April 9th of this year) proposed a radical redesign of the urban environment that envisioned densely populated cities as single structures, called Arcologies, which functioned as integrated and tightly managed outgrowths of the natural landscape.

His view is controversial, because in order to conceive of such a project one has to envision a humanity as radically altered from what it is now as are mammals a radical departure from the life of giant lizards. How do we get from a world filled with religious warfare and ethnic hatred to one where diverse populations can live in ever closer quarters without civilization self-destructing?

That appears to be what we are seeing right now, as institutions appear to collapse under their own weight and complexity. Having left a century dominated by massive world wars we appear to have entered one where regional warfare is almost constant, waged within cultures even more than between them. Our politics are shaped by the struggles of rural versus urban, tradition versus technology, global versus national and a shrinking population of the privileged versus a growing culture of poverty.

Meanwhile the movies and television and the Internet fill with imagined apocalyptic scenarios of government conspiracies, environmental extinction, alien invasions, wars against machines and zombie attacks. I’ve come to realize that these are the nightmares of a culture that in fact faces very real extinction. And so it must, as a prelude to what Arthur C. Clarke would have called “Childhood’s End.” The new human being is being born at the same time that the old perishes. Rather than mourning what is passing I choose to search for indications of what’s to come.

(to be continued…)

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You Can’t Stop The Signal

Updates

“You have always taught us that liberty is the same thing as capitalism, as if life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness cannot be crushed by greed. Your American Dream is financial, not ethical. Thank you. You have taught us well.” 

 
– the Chinese Ambassador to C. J. Craig in the 7th season of The West Wing
 
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In the wake of President Obama’s dismal performance at the first debate in Denver, Colorado, I read the following article in a recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly that, in my mind, begins to make sense of the whole thing. It maps out a case for the near impossibility for a black person to express public anger (even when justified) in our so-called “post-racial” culture without triggering a sense of primal fear in a good portion of the American public. Not that this is an excuse for Obama’s “bad night” (which could conceivably cost the election) but it puts into context the image of Obama staring down at his notes looking rather weary while a white guy looking like he stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting proceeds to dress him down. Perhaps if we could come up with an acceptable form of the phrase “You Lie!” (voiced openly by a white congressman in the middle of one of Obama’s State of the Union addresses) – something like Joe Biden’s “Malarkey” – then a black man could navigate the shoals of national politics without the forced pretense of polite respect.  
 
Another article I liked, written by Bill Clinton, appeared in a recent issue of Time Magazine. It’s an upbeat presentation of a longer view and broader vision which is the key to successful politics and the reason Bill Clinton is one of the most successful politicians of the past half century.