Universe Part Seven: Curse Of The Ruby Slippers

Or: Welcome Back, Dollhouse.

Listen, Bloggers: can you hear that? Out of the West, here it comes, the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse…

TIME!

Boy, have I ever been losing time lately. And I think I’ve got to chalk some of that up to Twitter, you know? I mean, I’ve been kinda logy around the keyboard for a while anyway, I start but I can’t finish, I’ve looked but I just can’t find…but just as my friends might tell you that my usual torrent of e-mails dwindled to a trickle #torturedphrasing as soon as I got a blog, I think I must tell you that since I started abusing Twitter my level of blog-posting’s gone down for exactly the same reason the e-mails got drier and drier. Because you can’t leap to the keyboard over something the same way twice, can you? Posts used to boil up in me, I would see things and be shaken but not necessarily moved, I’d itch but I wouldn’t scratch, for as long as I could, but then…some final piece of the puzzle would come along to break the camel’s back, some phase-shift would crop up #badlymixedmetaphor #methodtomymadness to turn a string of random annoyances into an arrangement of facets on a crystal of complaint…and then, BOOM!

Just like that!

A turgid three thousand words would be born.

Twitter tends to inhibit that sort of accumulation, though; or at least, that’s how it works for me. Strands of thought that might’ve knit themselves into cloth, are so easily plucked away one-by-one, and given over to the volatile world of Fast Diaristic Slippage…instead of Slow Diaristic Slippage, obviously, because SDS can’t really tolerate twenty-word installments, not that anyone knows much about such a new form but I think we can at least know that: that there is such a thing as a post that’s too short to publish. Which is a somewhat odd thought, I believe, but then it just shows how we’re not really thinking this thing through very well, as though deep down we’re just convinced, all evidence to the contrary, that we already have all the answers.  But maybe it’s time, finally, to wake up from that particular dream? Oh, who was it who said it, Toto? What was it? “The Internet is the first thing that human beings have made, that human beings do not understand”, I think that was it. I actually think I got that off an endnote from a Criminal Minds episode, which…

…Which by the way, have you noticed that show is made by people who devoured Claremont/Byrne X-Men comics when they were younger? I mean look at it, it couldn’t be more Eighties X-Men if it tried, Thomas Gibson’s portrayal of Cyclops is like Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, absolutely indelible, and there’s a Kitty Pryde, there’s a Wolverine, there’s a Storm, there’s a Professor X…hell, Jean even dies, you know? And not to mention that they fight evil mutants. Who are all basically serial killers anyway, let’s be honest…and how do you get serial killers?

Well, you screw up the natural pattern of their development, don’t you?

And this may not be immediately apparent, but it’s actually a very interesting sort of line to take, this Criminal Minds one. Bold, even. Because you see the study of psychopathy can be, as so many other things, roughly divided into two camps: nature and nurture. This is either something that happened to you, or this is something that you are…and in our contemporary climate of neo-materialism, the latter controls most interpretations both fictional and academic: the horror of the monstrous child is an irruption out of some primal vein of chaos, the warped human being himself emblematic of the limits of human control…of helpless frailty in the face of vast chthonic forces. Which is an oddly religious posture for materialism to drape itself across, huh?

But then it’s as Lucretius said: all man’s religions begin in the fear of lightning.

But although we see this peculiar, reactionary, really oh-so-Eighties interpretation of psychopathy over and over and over again in our popular entertainment, we actually do not see it in Criminal Minds…and yet, we don’t see its opposite either. The terrible, soul-chilling responsibility of every village for every child, even the monstrous ones…the frighteningly-contingent nature of human sanity…the awfulness of the reaping and the sowing, well that’s all not quite here either, because the rough division of the study of psychology into two camps really is rough, and not actually real: but just a simplification, in service to a viewpoint.

Which is, not to go off on too long of a rant, the viewpoint previously identified as the controlling one, the Manichaean world of the materialist in which the dirtiest word isn’t soul but transactionalism…ah, transactionalism, the process-driven high ground of the filthy hippies of the twentieth century, and not just the seventeenth, which necessarily sucks a host of other issues into its complicated, perhaps ultimately unresolvable, philosophy…and is harder to attack, too. Sure, there are “good” mutations and there are “bad” mutations, but it isn’t Moses that defines those qualities — no, it’s Gaia, and furthermore for all we talk about the X-Men as a story about minority oppression, from the very beginning that was only the secondary kick: because the first metaphor was environmental, all about damage and remediation, destruction or salvation, thin idealistic hopes versus waxing threats of practical comeuppance.

Wasn’t it?

And so of course the first lesson of ecology is that ecology itself is a throwback to nineteenth-century science: where the truest of all subject-object dichotomies is found in the observation that objects only exist in the mind, not in the world. Hey, I really should point out that you folks don’t have to just take my word for it all, you know? Because that the twentieth century’s conceptual bias has been to look for Plato in the garden instead of the mirror is eminently look-up-able! But nevertheless this is not actually the first lesson of ecology, that this twentieth-century bias is in fact a bias…no. That’s not what I mean to say.

Because the meaning of ecology’s first lesson is that objects exist only in the mind, only because everything outside it is a subject.

A thought you can easily locate in Plato too…obviously, since it’s only in the twentieth century that anyone ever thought the world was primarily quantitative, instead of qualitative. So neo-materialism isn’t such a particularly good word for it really, since the materialism of today is harder than that of yesterday in much the same way that Barack Obama is a much more conservative politician than Barry Goldwater ever was…and we simply don’t notice it, or if we notice it we don’t think about it, or if we do think about it then we still try not to, because who wants to have to notice that the baseline of the graph is curving upwards at an accelerating rate?  It isn’t, you understand, that it’s a ladder to Heaven we’re climbing…it isn’t that Moore’s Law is bending all spatial dimensions into alignment with the dimension of time, so that we fall up into a black hole of angelic perfection …that’s just another one of our friendly symbols for how frightening all this real acceleration is. And…so am I saying you can find another of these friendly symbols in the deceptive Claremontese of Criminal Minds? If you look at it the right way, it’s Neuromancer: the sins of the father are visited on the child, but the child doesn’t know it because the father’s long gone; the tragedy of the commons is also the tragedy of twisted human individuals, but they can’t see they’re twisted. They can only feel it. Sure, it’s just another cop show, and the good guys with the badges always win their standard Pyrrhic victories — it’s an inherently-conservative pinhole camera view of life, meant to be anodyne in its narrowness, and it shields us from the true facts as well as any thing-made-of-convention does. But…

Hey, did I ever tell you that story about The Commish, and how his son wanted to get an earring to impress a girl in his class? So the Commish sits him down and tells him the story of how once there was a little Susie in his class at school, and he wanted to impress her by getting a tattoo, and BLAH BLAH BLAH STANDARD SITCOM BOILERPLATE…and that’s when I realized it, Bloggers!

That the Commish’s advice to his son was totally wrong!!

Let the cry fly ’round Shropshire, the Commish is not attuned to modern methods!

Because of course eventually all the old boilerplate goes out of date, and this is where the one-about-the-tattoo foundered, because it certainly didn’t matter in nineteen-ninety-five or whatever if little Bobby got an earring before he turned sixteen, right? And anyway an earring’s not like a tattoo, you can take it out…and anyway the tattoo thing isn’t even that big a deal anymore. So the Commish was wrong, but what was interesting about that was of course that it wasn’t him that was wrong, but whoever was writing him. Or…

Was it, really? Because all these conventions are just conventions, and writers don’t make ‘em, they just have to live with ‘em. But: slippage. Because as all genre fans know, it’s just when the conventions are strictest that the nature of all their -versions becomes more -sub, and whatever has the awful power to centralize also has the same power to decentralize…because you have to hang the human interest in story on something in the end, don’t you? And ultimately it can only be on what human interest is interested in, so inevitably all the poisons that lurk in the mud must hatch out. Everything in real life that gets excluded from what the conventions permit discussion of, comes out anyway sooner or later, even if it’s just in the case of wise father suddenly looking like a bit of a reactionary blackmailer, someone who has the power and thinks he uses it wisely…but doesn’t, and so it’s not too surprising that things go perversely wrong or sideways or uncomfortably close even in such a commercial product as Criminal Minds, because it really is an ecological fable above all, because that’s what people want to know about above all, whatever they may say when queried by an agent of the government…and after all, there’s nothing so new about this, either! I mean I dunno if Plato ever thought too much about it, but the questions of soil and growth and gardening have always been buried deep in the urban context of the American Crime Drama, as indeed they were buried deep in the context of its precursor the American Western, and the whole thing is just pretty inescapable really, and so honestly it just must come out from time to time, even in the unlikeliest places. Or maybe, especially there? Which is pretty much the real reason why you can’t find a cop show today that doesn’t slow down and get a bit lugubrious about the little matter of why the cop became the cop, which is largely a very silly thing because it largely doesn’t matter at all…except if the cop is Jeff Goldblum…oh, Raines, how I miss you still…

But in Criminal Minds, you see, this question not only matters, but it really matters. Where did these good mutants come from, what kind of homes did they have before they made it to Xavier’s? These teasingly-elliptical matters are as important to this show as they are unimportant to Star Trek: TMZ

…Oh, you know that one, right? Starfucker Kirk, Black Dreads Spock, Surfer-Dude Worf, Snide Blonde Uhura? Off-Colour-Joke Geordie, Frosted Tips Chekov, Combative Guinan?

You’ve seen that one, haven’t you?

So you know it doesn’t matter where they’re from; they’re from anywhere they need to be. They’re from the backstory. They’re actors who play actors — the guy from Georgia plays the guy from Ohio, who came to Hollywood just like he did, but got a different job. It’s the madness of the Method, the tree with two trunks, and one branch…

…And we’ll get back to it in a minute, but first: diaristic slippage. Have you ever wondered why it must be, that there must be so much of it in our online lives? I’ve mentioned it before, in occasional slight lamentation: the wealth of brilliant (truly brilliant!) comments that this blog has accumulated, that probably no one but me will ever see again, and even I don’t look at them all the time. Blogs are great, but the slippage is real, and no matter how we turn the sidebar links to our own Greatest Hits purposes it will never be anything more than a kludge. Hmm, but maybe this is not the time or the place, to get deeply stuck into Big Media Theories? And anyway I’ll tellya, I’ve been living with this one Big Media Theory for about a year now, and it’s grown to include so much I’m not sure it even really is a Theory anymore…honestly, it’s just gotten way too big. I could dramatize it, maybe; but I’m not sure I could ever just explain it, at this point. Well, maybe I’ll just have to get around to that one day! However in the meantime, diaristic slippage doth make unnoticed victims of us all, because there is just no adequate way to constellate all the stuff we put up on the Internet, whether it’s on free blogs or properly-rented sites…we can make feeds, but that’s about it, and that isn’t enough. We haven’t yet found a way to use a screen as a setting for informational content that grows increasingly deep and detailed; like the five hundred channels, you can have them but you can’t easily know them. Sure, you can search for them or link to them, but who even looks at blogrolls now anyway? When it is beginning to become apparent that the only links that really work are the ones that live INSIDE POSTS…the only search-strategies that are at all effective are the search-strategies of the writer, not the reader.

Which, as you may now notice, was pretty much exactly not the way they told us it would be?

And not really what it was ostensibly designed for, this World Wide Web of ours. But the hell with all of that for now, can we please get back to the point, Bloggers? I mean: pretty please? So Twitter is a slow reverse-IV-drip vampire that sucks away my impulse to write, well that doesn’t even “suck” it but simply allows it to seep…because it is a good thing, of course, in that it delivers a way to leap to the keyboard and see instant results from ordinarily-inadequate input! It’s just that, unfortunately, it delivers this way, at the occasional cost of the other way. For those of you not on Twitter (and I would never ask you to be on it unless you strongly felt the urge, because it may well become really horribly evil at some point in the future, and besides it is the first thing the Internet has made, that the Internet does not understand!…) I can tell you that it’s a fine way to connect with friends, it’s an unusually egalitarian way of starting conversations, it’s a frankly superior news-feed to what I can get on TV, radio, or indeed most of the regular web on an average day…but then I guess I might also tell you that the only reason I’m still using it is because I found a third-party Twitter client that was designed for people with visual disabilities? Because Twitter has — already! – gone and got itself all fucked-up, due to its makers’ tremendously un-self-perceived Judy-Garland-ism. Well, it is perhaps one day going to be axiomatic that social-media websites will always choose features over functions, because their designers don’t see any difference between these two things — and because they are in a bit of a panic, you see. They made technological applications that succeeded by accident, and so naturally they wish to consolidate the gains accident made for them, before accident takes those gains away again out on the tide. So they can’t stop fucking with something that already works, you know? Me, I’m lucky enough to be an aging curmudgeon at the right time, so I’ve kept my Twitter feed spare and lean and seen the benefits mount in inverse proportion to the rate of growth of my personal network…

But then again, that’s only because the people in my personal network have let their networks grow and grow

And so, finally, at long last…let’s get to the point.

Let’s talk about Dollhouse.

You may recall that I was very disappointed in Dollhouse, the Chalkeresque show from Joss Whedon about blank-minded personality-transfer subjects hired out on black ops that ranged from espionage to prostitution (if by “ranged from” I mean “mostly prostitution”) for wealthy clients who could afford to hire the software of a human individual without bothering much about what hardware it was running on. And I thought that when Joss Whedon made this show he had experienced a creative renaissance by making some pretty adventurous X-Men comics for a while, and letting that record of comics successes and comics failures come into his TV-making mind, and decided YOU KNOW WHAT: NO! I’m going to push my own envelope a little, here. Working in comics has taught me that you always have to be chasing new techniques and new ideas, you can’t play it safe! I won’t lie, I thought Joss was going to take a hard look at his involvement with nostalgia and his evident skill with the obsolete form known as the teleplay, and make something both tough, and truly imaginative. I thought, as I said, that Dollhouse was going to be the 21st century version of The Questor Tapes. But…

This is where this post gets complicated, Bloggers. Where do I begin?

Always at the same place.  In perhaps Dollhouse‘s best moment, Patton Oswalt’s software billionaire looks at the male lead and with a sigh tells him “the toughest part of my business, is getting people to accept the change that’s already happened.” On the surface, he’s talking about incredibly poorly-worked-out mind-control technology. One level down, he’s talking about computers: digital automation, and its unstoppable centralizing/decentralizing power. And then one more floor and the elevator opens on a fairly exact replication of Neuromancer‘s chief irony, emblematized for us in this most aggressively normal of men, who’s nevertheless utterly failed at normality and consequently must purchase its seeming from somebody else. Or, is “seeming” all it ever really was? It is, of course, that new favourite of community-college Philosophy courses: the Transporter Problem, from Star Trek. Is Captain Kirk killed each time he’s beamed-down to a planet’s surface, and more importantly is that really any different from what happens to him at every moment anyway when he isn’t being beamed-down? Just sitting in his chair, turning from one thing to another. Well, we know what Patton thinks about it, and it’s a certain shade of heartbreak hearing him tell it, it is in fact the amazing opposite of Gene Roddenberry’s positive-if-querulous odd-couple story of android and human…and as you might expect (except if you’re like me you foolishly dared not to), Joss sells it out so far down the river that it ends up in the middle of the sea by the time he’s done with it, and it develops that I guess writing X-Men comics didn’t really make him want to push his boundaries at all, because actually it gets pretty incredibly anodyne by the end, why it’s such scheiss it makes MEDICINE taste nice…

But…

One more level down from that

He’s talking about phones.

Not that he intended to, probably, at least not quite so specifically. But in the end, that thing he wanted to analogize, that he knew-not-where it would land…that turned out to be phones, actually. Because we like to think we understand phones, because we’ve always understood them up ’til now. What they are. What they do. What they’re for. We like to think we already have all these answers.

However, that we probably don’t is — finally — the essence of the change that’s already happened, that we haven’t yet decided whether or not to accept. The Internet is like a quantum seed in a classical system, you see: you can have fun exploiting its weirdness to cheat time and space for just about as long as you can get away with it…but then no longer, because when it finally bites you in the ass it doesn’t ask you what you think about it beforehand. Because you can’t stop a snowball from rolling when it’s already at the bottom of its hill! And in fact you can’t stop it in the middle of the hill either. Hell, you can’t even necessarily stop it at the top, but you have to stop it before it starts rolling. But we don’t see this, basically because we don’t want to: hey, they’re just phones, relax. You know phones. Ah, but they’re not just phones. Because nothing subject to the fey contamination of Internet Time is “just” anything. Bit by bit, it insinuates itself into our tissues…we no longer have fully non-Internet time, things don’t just speed up and slow down, but their clocks speed up and slow down, and that’s quite a different thing even if it looks the same. The world is ever-more mediated by this alien praxis, this…visitation. Internet space spores drift lightly down, landing on the tree, the rock, the car, the job, the date night, the shopping spree, the sidewalk outside the theatre and the ceiling in the dentist’s office. The bus stop. The mountaintop. The old curiosity shop.

And yes, it’s all very science-fictional in the way I put it, here. But just as in the Transporter Problem, it is not the technology that makes it that way: because things were already that way. The indispensible Fowler’s gives my favourite definition of irony, as the condition of an utterance that is intended for two audiences…whether or not the second audience dwells within or without the skull of the first hearer, which rather neatly makes science fiction our most ironic literature, since nothing in it fails of a duplex meaning. That’s right: one branch, two trunks. I’ve talked about this before, but I’ve been thinking about more examples of it lately…one I’d nearly forgotten about was that common Nineties artifact, the story about genetically-engineered superbabies. Such a clever thing, that was…because of course it really is not about the genetically-engineered superbabies at all, is it? Because we’re not going to have genetically-engineered superbabies: it’s just not going to happen. Income inequality just isn’t going to produce a subspecies of ubermenschen whose financial advantages are transmuted to physical ones, because, well…

We wouldn’t know how to do it!

And I mean that quite literally. Because it isn’t just that we don’t have the technical skill (although we don’t), isn’t even that we don’t have sufficient knowledge to predict the effectiveness of the technical skill we may develop (we don’t have that either!), but it really comes down to the unalterable and epistemic fact that we just aren’t ever going to have an unambiguous and non-contingent definition of “superness” anyhow, anyway, anytime, no matter what we do. And this is science right here, you understand: this is science itself that’s telling us that we’re never going to have that. For example, in ecology, the organism is part of the environment that shapes its development, and shapes it in turn. It’s a feedback loop, or rather several feedback loops…or rather, an uncountable number of feedback loops all meshed together. Context is everything, even content…and context is a content too. I mean, we can’t even agree on the merits of IQ tests, we can’t even agree on the measurability of the merits of IQ tests, we don’t even know if tests are good for determining intelligence, due to the fact that we do not have a good working definition of what intelligence is in the first place. So, genetic superbabies? Not going to happen, and even if it were there’s an easier way to do it: just get a few billion human beings together and make reproduction easy to do, eventually you’ll get some Einsteins out of it. Of course you won’t know if you’ve got any Einsteins unless they do something kind of…I don’t know, “Einsteinny”? Whatever that means, anyway but if you just kind of decide that some kind of “good Einsteinniness” can be demonstrated by an increase in some other metric, like…hmm, maybe “happiness”?

Uh…

“Standard of living”?

You know what, let’s not overthink the design. Let’s just get the human beings together and see what happens. Focus on making it popular, worry about monetizing it later…

So: superbabies are out. Which is why it’s shocking to hear people, even apparently people with the job title “philosopher”, still discussing it as though it were a Thing, an issue in ethics like: what are the social implications for having all these genetically-engineered superbabies running around in the boardrooms of multi-billion dollar corporations? When, as SF writers of the Nineties know very well, that just isn’t the philosophical issue at hand. There is a philosophical issue at hand, and the superbaby stories do in fact point it up very well, but it isn’t the issue of what to do about the ubermenschen

But rather, of course, it’s…what to do about the untermenschen.

That irony, yeah: she’s a harsh mistress. As long as we’re talking about bulletproof Einsteinian Rockefellers, things are nice and safe and anodyne; but if we just flip this thing inside-out, we’re in serious fucking trouble all of a sudden. Because suppose we take the technical skills we already have, and just remove the barriers to access that money represents? Give free pre-natal assays to every pregnant woman on Earth, and suddenly the future just comes rushin’ at ya…

And so you have science fiction in a nutshell. The utterance intended for the double audience, it’s everywhere. Even in Atlas Shrugged, where for all Ayn Rand’s total ideological commitment she just couldn’t shake off the duplex nature of the form…and so Atlas Shrugged actually makes a darned good recipe for the revolution, I mean just look at this Peter Thiel guy, he’s clearly never been more than thirty feet from shore on a rainy day, with his fellow libertarian software billionaires he’s somehow managed to read every cautionary tale written for the last hundred years and more and somehow miss the cautionary part of it all…and this is the guy you’ve got driving your Internet for you, by the way, so…basically as soon as I get a little extra money in hand I’m going to donate it to him for his seasteading cause, you know? Because if I learned nothing else from Atlas Shrugged, I learned that putting guys like him on an ice floe with a bucket of caviar and pushing it out to sea can result in nothing but bliss, pure bliss

Even though this was the exact opposite of what Ayn Rand wanted me to learn from it all, but then I guess that goes to show you can’t escape science fiction’s ironic character even with a tiger in your tank, you can’t bury it even with a shovelful of speed, nor certainty. Because the poisons that lurk in the mud will hatch out, you can’t control them, you can’t build enough fences to block all the avenues of freedom nor grow enough tentacles to catch all the subversives. Which turns out to be a darned interesting fact-of-life for Joss Whedon and his Dollhouse, actually! Because although that show sucked, it sucked for a reason…a “Commish reason”, if I may make so bold as to call it that? Or, a Criminal Minds reason? Which is to say…

An interesting reason. PHONES, people. Because we don’t really need the Transporter, if we have the Communicator. The Transporter is superfluous, just a symbol, an ironic misdirection, an absurd inflation…the Communicator is the thing to think about. And the world of Dollhouse is a world wherein that thought is succesfully thunk, even if it’s imperfect in its thinkitude when all’s said and done. It wasn’t too long ago that I was thinking of how the next George Romero zombie movie ought to give up bloody brain-eating shopaholics in favour of slowly-starving ultra-preoccupied street-crossers who’ve never tasted brain in their unlives…because I could poke an iPhone user in the eye at a crosswalk and be three blocks gone before he even noticed, right? And the “fast” zombies, those are just slow zombies in cars, who can’t react fast enough not to mow anybody down…

But Joss Whedon was well ahead of me at that point, and my imaginary George Romero too. Because if you’ve got the phones already, then the zombie thing’s just superfluous. Irrelevant. No point in adding it in there. That wouldn’t even be the scary part, that the cell-phone users were zombies; the scary part comes in when they’re not zombies. To have them be zombies is a pinhole solution, anodyne, and not really what the whole thing is about. “The toughest part of my business, is getting people to accept the change that’s already happened.” The real story’s with what happens to the people, when identity is made fungible but awareness is not erased by zombiehood. Remorse and doubt in a world where the self is an illusion that’s terrible because it’s necessary — where the self is a prison, because objects can only exist within the mind, and never outside it. The world a-boil with nothing but subject…so if The Questor Tapes’ concern was with how to get the individual out from under a strict definition of “humanity”, and what to do with that freedom once you found it, then Dollhouse‘s concern was to show the terror of that freedom made absolute, the same in every direction and always the same distance away, choiceless and formless and perfectly isotropic. Someone’s been quoting Adorno on it, recently: closeness is the death of intimacy. Pattern grows in the parts of the net that aren’t connected, and dies when there are no such parts — isolation is as easily achieved by universal linking, as by no linking at all. Society becomes a hot plasma, a quark soup: no more people but just bits of people, people busted up into packets and routed down different wires to their temporary destination. Everywhere: the present. The end of history. The other side of history. The skin of the bubble, expanding forever, accelerating out into blackness.

And it’s happening now. Is, in fact, comin’ at ya. So Dollhouse itself may have been crap, but the doomsday scenario it presented was prescient, and all its utterances were impeccably ironic: it starts so easily, you see. You think nothing of it at first; it’s just convenient. Guilt-free prostitutes, well who wouldn’t want that? It’s a human, but it’s not a person; heck it isn’t even a robot with feelings; so there’s just nothing difficult to deal with, and nobody gets hurt. Your regular boon to mankind, but it’s just a app, it’s only a toy, it isn’t like it’s gonna destroy the world or anything…and indeed when the nightmare finally lands and the mind control goes portable and viral, when the fungibility of souls is taken to the logical end of its implications, the world is not destroyed: only replaced.

By a surveillance state. That’s what the Dollhouse technology’s quantum seed is finally about, you see: surveillance that alters what it touches. Active surveillance, where to observe is to change, where to know something you must take it completely apart into its constituent particles. They say Modernism is like a tall, tall building: a skyscraper, a structure that would be as alien in scale a million years from now, as it would’ve been a million years ago. So it’s natural that one day this monolith should come crashing down and be broken into bits by its own horror, but after the moment of modernity there can also be no going back to a pre-modern way of looking at form and function, so everything made afterwards is cobbled together out of the stuff in the collapsed building’s footprint, and the art becomes how to do the collage, how to put the pastiches together, to create a post-modern way of living through which the powerful urge to be un-alien to oneself can be safely channelled. And yet the thing to remember is that Modernism is not dead just because this happens — the skycraper still towers in the imagination, a ghostly finger accusing the sky — because the moment of modernity was still real in a way that the stitched-together world that follows it never can be, and thus it too is but a pigment on the palette of Art, because it must be. Because it happened. And in the acceptance of that fact is, perhaps, finally a reconciliation…

But we’re not there yet. PHONES. We still haven’t recognized what they’ve become. We know about the surveillance now, because of Wikileaks, but it isn’t like we didn’t suspect it before…it was just that we didn’t want to hear about it. Because it would make us all sound like conspiracy nuts to confess our suspicions in the open, wouldn’t it? But perhaps this will be Wikileaks’ greatest contribution, that it will make it so we can openly confess our belief without worrying about whether it will get us cast out of society. I was having dinner with my father the other day, and I told him I was nervous about feeling like he and I now lived in two completely different worlds. He gets his news from the TV and the newspaper, and I now get it from Twitter, so in a way we were being made silent antagonists, warring embodiments of viewpoint and belief, just by sitting there…but only I knew it. He had not even heard of the riots in Oakland at that time, thought the Occupy movement was in a mere half-dozen cities worldwide…meanwhile I felt like I was taking crazy pills, stalking the streets of my hometown like a shade, disconnected from the earth. I showed him a graphic from the Guardian online, pockets of protest squeezed into the map of Canada, and the world, like seeds in a pomegranate. He was astonished. Astonished. Because he had simply not been told, you see. No one had thought the matter important enough to mention to him. He was out of the loop; unaware even that things had changed, because someone else in charge of his newsfeed hadn’t wished to accept it, because someone higher-up from them wished to continue profiting by (and, undoubtedly, from) that state of complacency.

So the Internet worked pretty well there, as a decentralizing power…but my point here today is: that doesn’t mean any kind of war’s been won. Far from it. Hell, we haven’t even made it onto the battlefield yet, because what my Dad learned about how “classical” media work today is a lesson not yet taken up by people like me living with (dare I call it) “quantum” media…and that’s not good news, because it’s here that the war will be fought. It’s here, that surveillance will get active; the methods of control that worked well on my father were fairly passive ones, and so they were fairly innocuous, but against you and me much bigger guns are about to be trained. Are being trained, even as we speak. Or what do you think it means, that you are now being invited to blog from Twitter, tweet from Facebook, and if you want to find something then just Google YouTube? I freely admit that I sound just like the Establishment oldsters in the Sixties and Seventies, lobbing crude derision across the Generation Gap at their revolutionary offspring: you talk about how silly they sound, you call them clownish, and you try to keep it all from happening…first you ignore them, then you laugh at them, then you fight them, and then they win. So okay, I know how it sounds. But these recombinatory Internet trans-platform acts aren’t actually part of any youth revolution; they’re not meant to open things up, but to shut them down. It’s the centralizing power of automation in action that we’re seeing there, not its beautiful other face: and every time someone wants you to Yelp from Klout, they want to own you, not set you free. The Internet is too big and too useful to be successfully transformed into a fully-corporatized space, but if its callow Western users can be encouraged to access it through intensively-corporatized portals, then the wider fields can be hidden from them effectively enough. Which all sounds…I don’t know, maybe just a little like conspiracy-nut talk?

Or it would…if not for Wikileaks.

Because now we know, really factually know, about the surveillance industry that surrounds us. Not long ago, I was unlucky enough to stumble on the transcript of a computer security talk given by a senior editor at Wired Magazine to a roomful of powerful CIOs…like Ganymede bringing Zeus another daiquiri, said editor made much of the scary prospect of data falling into the unauthorized hands of cyber-thieves. Which made me laugh, because…really, O Ganymede? You think the very great danger of the 21st century will be personal data falling into the hands of unauthorized people? And also we should watch out for dinosaurs lurking in the bushes, I presume. Oh, he had a lot of quaint ideas, this guy. I mean, he even thinks that young people answer calls on their cell phones, why can you imagine? So if there’s a dinosaur lurking in the bushes, he’s it: trying with all his might not to notice the flying saucers in the clearing. Until as far as he’s concerned, the safest thing in the whole world is that home is never more than three clicks away on the ruby slippers…!

And so he doesn’t know, doesn’t suspect, that the world has already come and gone while he stood there.

When fears become facts, that’s when we’ll finally move past them: the modern moment just another colour on the palette. We’re not there yet, but we will be. Mind you, until we are, things will only get scarier and scarier, sheets of lightning falling down around the mouth of the cave. Really, the double shame of Dollhouse is that it not only failed at being an update of The Questor Tapes but also at being a much-needed update of They Live…all that intel-led policing, “threat-assessment” security models being applied even in a whorehouse…I mean, it’s crazy, right? It’s spookily suggestive, of something else going on…something nasty curling around the edges of the broadsheet. This shit looks harmless. But it’s not. You thought you were in love!

But it was really just Stockholm Syndrome.

The toughest part of the job, is getting people to accept the change that’s already happened. Okay, so let’s say we’ve made that particular psychological breakthrough, pushed through the veil of that denial. So then what? What’s the next step after that?

And so we return, and begin again.  The world doesn’t end, it just changes when we start to think differently about it. Accept how things are, then see who that makes you; then figure out what your job ought to be. A lot of our popular entertainment is awfully slack about this sort of thing, I’m talking “Commish-with-the-earring” slack, and so things get twisty around the edges sometimes, but shouldn’t they eventually have the chance to come out, too? I could talk about comics here, just as easily as movies and TV: mainstream comics are pinholes too, now, failing spectacularly to be about what they’re about, even when “what they’re about” isn’t exactly any exalted literary aim. I mean, these are the genre literatures, this is the slop-bucket, this is about the only place in the world where they’re not watching…you think maybe we could manage something, it doesn’t have to be terribly earthshaking, but at least something honest? I mean, something past how Dr. Strange sleeps with co-eds now? This is a bit of a tangent (aren’t they all), but if you want to know something fairly radical, that superhero comics can still achieve, after reading our old friend P-Tor  discussing once again how disappointing modern reboots of Dr. Strange are, I think I feel a bit moved to tell you. And this may sound a little bit like an odd noise, when you hear it from inside the tent of modern storytelling, but I think it’s worth thinking about…

That you don’t have to be able to identify with every single character you see.

Eh?

Dr. Strange doesn’t have to be just like you, except with magic, and his job just like yours except with Dormammu. You know? It isn’t necessary. You don’t need that constant level of validation and comfort in your life, that everything you see needs to shout your pop culture back at you. Because actually, these entertainment artifacts with the incongruous pop references in them, they’re supposed to be critiques, right?

Uh…right?

…Okay, never mind. That’s probably better left for a different post, since this one’s getting too long for tangents now anyway, and do you know I have yet to get to the payoff of it all? As in: so what do you do, once you return and begin again, and accept the change that’s already happened?

What stories are relevant to that reality?

Well, here’s one, and this one kind of is the update of The Questor Tapes that I’ve been waiting for all this time. Or did you think all that business about the skyscraper of modernity falling into its own footprint was just for show? You know we say it all the time: “the world changed, after 9/11″.

But do we ever really think about that, when we’re sitting down to catch up with what our old entertainment media’s been doing this week? Ten years ago: the end of history. We don’t have much insight to show for it, though. I mean, we have to live here now, so why aren’t we telling more stories about what it’s like to live here?

Well…

There is Person Of Interest. And you know, it’s perfectly okay to look at it as “just a show”; although I don’t know the last time I saw a show that was actually made properly, and professionally, as this one is. Why do you know I was beginning to think we’d forgotten how to make ordinarily decent television shows? The TV people of today take the wrong lessons from cinema, as the comics writers of today take the wrong lessons from Watchmen: it’s supposed to be about seeing, not sweating. Everything strives for tactility, now, like an advertisement does — how close it gets, is what’s deemed to matter. How enveloped you are in it. Perhaps it is, again, a sort of misplaced zeal for identification? If we can just get people in through this portal, we can tune what they’re interested in, so they never even think of wanting to look for any wild fields outside this enclosure. And I really don’t want to conflate too much, here; but Christ our TV is boring as shit most of the time, isn’t it? And even the mainstream, full-network stuff should not be quite so boring, I think. Do we really need this many pinholes, is nature vs. nurture really still such a hot-button issue, is this really knowledge? For real, is this what passes for it now? Dollhouse may have started badly and ended badly, and been pretty frankly for shit in the middle, but at least the idea was beautiful…and at least there was an idea there, whether it was beautiful or not.

But this idea’s a little more up-to-date. Mr. Finch’s machine sees everything, everywhere, but keeps the vast bulk of all that seeing to itself, like Google’s search algorithms. The algorithms know everything about all of us, you know? But they assemble all that data for a very simple purpose. They’re not gods, they’re not aspects of Fate, they’re not even SF’s old superintelligent computers…they’re just simple forces, set loose to interact automatically and bring back what they’re told to. What hidden processes and interactions and exchanges are involved in the wish the djinn grants? We don’t get to know that, because we haven’t asked to know it. How many steps really lie between one node of the system and another? We let the daemons worry about that, so we don’t have to. In the old days of SF, sometimes when the Total World Government put everybody on punchcards, the hero would be the one left out of that database — and indeed, the “man who does not exist” became so much of a thing that they even (senselessly!) used it for Knight Rider, right? — so all this is nothing particularly new, but consider the inflection of it: when the database is the only one that knows about the hero, but it doesn’t matter because no one even realizes the Total World Government is here. Well, it sort of is, you know…I mean, a Total World Government is just a sort of machine, that’s the whole point of it. So…”government”, perhaps not, but there is a machine out there, of the requisite size?

And now that it’s there, it’s all too obvious that Ashby’s Law applies to it, too. You couldn’t make a government out of the Internet, see? Oh, sure, once we imagined such a thing, but that we didn’t imagine it unironically is quite easy to see now…because that machine turns out to be too big to treat as “just a machine”. That machine’s too big to be anything but an ecology of its own. Of course: and those stories were never about how one day we would have control; they were always about how we never would. The Internet is the first thing that human beings have made, that human beings do not understand. It never was about artificial intelligence, or even artificial life, anymore than today’s tales of the Singularity are about uploading consciousnesses into angelic machines. Similarly, Person Of Interest is not about tapping into the Machine’s power to perform superhuman and Fate-defying feats…but rather it’s about…

Diaristic slippage.  The river rushes on, and we can’t stop it; that is not something that can be fixed. And the operation of the Machine for its intended purpose may cause great wrong, great harm! In fact we know it does cause great wrong, and great harm…! But that’s not the issue. The issue isn’t whether it will cause some harm, or even much harm, but whether it can cause any good. Because it isn’t the machine’s role, that we’re debating.

Heck, we’re not even wondering how to fight against the machine!

Those days are over, John Conner.

And you’ll have to come with us this time, if you want to live.

Because Carthage is defeated.

And so I should probably stop talking about it.

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And sometimes Y.

11 responses to “Universe Part Seven: Curse Of The Ruby Slippers

  1. This was totally not supposed to be a “Universe” post. Mind you, it was also supposed to be about four thousand words shorter, so your guess is as good as mine.

    • Guess I didn’t have to worry so much about that whole “Twitter bleeding off verbiage, springing to the keyboard” thing. This would’ve been tough to do in 140-character installments.

  2. I wouldn’t advise you to!

    Pursuant to some Twiiter-talk about it, I feel like going into the Dr. Strange thing a bit more. Probably I should say this over on P-Tor’s blog, but what the hell, I’m here now…

    There are a couple of very important things to remember about Dr. Strange. The first is, he’s a Steve Ditko character, in the heroic mode. And though he’s had ups and downs under a lot of good writers with whom Ditko might not necessarily agree about much, he’s remained that same sort of hero. When we look at Marvel comics, Kirby’s influence is obviously tremendously widespread, with Ditko really just having the two main characters compared to Jack’s couple hundred or whatever it is. But there’s a reason we talk about Steve as well as Stan and Jack, and it isn’t just because kids happened to like Spider-Man’s weirdness, it’s because Ditko was good at presenting characters who may have found their responsibilities arduous, occasionally even really difficult — even wearisome! — but never anything from which they could imagine themselves detached. Peter Parker chooses to be Spider-Man — that’s his origin, that he chooses to be, and rejects not-choosing. Similarly, Dr. Strange isn’t interested in not protecting the Earth from dark magical threats, doesn’t wish it could be someone else’s job, doesn’t have higher aspirations, isn’t an egoist. Kirby’s Ben Grimm has feet of clay and a heart of gold, you can’t keep him out of the action and he’s too good a man to keep down, but he’s torn about it. He’d love to take off fishing instead, that’s what makes him interesting, but Spider-Man and Dr. Strange aren’t like that. They’re committed. So…no, Dr. Strange isn’t like you and me, he doesn’t wish he was someplace else and neither is he “happy in his job”, he’s fundamentally not a person who negotiates the options of modern living. He was that person! He was a worse and more selfish bastard than either of us, but in his origin too, he got right past that. He doesn’t have a favourite sports team, he’s not “relatable”, he doesn’t slack off when it all gets too much, he doesn’t have likes or dislikes about consumer products, he doesn’t have moral weaknesses. And so what’s wrong with that? So he doesn’t like Oreos, so what?

    That’s really sort of the second thing, a bit: that Dr. Strange is a better person than you or I. He’s a hero, and we’re not heroes; we flinch at stuff all the time, and he never does. We could be a lot of semi- or anti-heroic characters, we could be Indiana Jones if we knew how to use a bullwhip, we could imagine ourselves as being like a lot of heroic fictional folks, and recognize ourselves in them…but honestly, that gets a bit boring after a while, doesn’t it? Just constantly recognizing ourselves? And it isn’t like it’s some radical character mode, to have the hero who’s better than you, the character you like and maybe even find insipirational or aspirational but that you don’t see yourself in? I could be Wolverine so easily that it’s stupid, Wolverine isn’t even as good a person as I am, he’s just some whiny clown with claws. Imagining myself as Wolverine is just imagining myself as being better at beating people up. Imagining myself as Dr. Strange is imagining myself older and wiser and less silly and with more courage…not to mention, operating in a world that’s pretty much got nothing to do with the world I operate in. But the way things are at the Big Two now, you would think that was just the weirdest idea ever, that people would be interested in a character like that. Which for me is a pretty sad state of affairs. You see Dr. Strange sleeping with co-eds and it getting weird…this is the kind of thing that I would like to make more time for in my life, which shows you that I am not really fit to be Sorceror Supreme, you know? The Ancient One probably wouldn’t have seen anything in me, I’m just too shallow a guy. I’d like to have more temporarily-gratifying bad relationships where somebody, preferably not me, ends up holding the bag. But Dr. Strange should not want this, he shouldn’t just be better than me at the thing I’d like to do more of, he should be above that thing. So all these mirrors of me make for some fairly dull looking-into, honestly…it reminds me a bit of that Jackie Mason line about how they gave him a TV show and they wanted there to be some sex scene in it (shudder), and he said “why?” and they said “well, it’s realistic…it’s relatable, everybody has sex!”

    He said: “everybody also eats soup, in fact probably more people eat soup than have sex…so shouldn’t we have some soup-eating scenes in there too?”

    Or people will turn the channel, right.

  3. Of course, the real reason you’re on Twitter more than this blog these days is that you’re part of this new MTV generation with the short attention spans. No stomach for reading anything longer than the label on a box of Snappy Wappies.

    I am sure that people have invented all kinds of things that they didn’t understand. Or, well, that they didn’t understand any better than they understood the internet as they were inventing it. You think people understood all the implications of the automobileback in the 1890s? The printing press? Do we understand them now?

    This thing with the Ayn Rand fans taking to the bounding main… I don’t get that. What the flip are they going to do out there? Fish? At least in Atlas Shrugged, Rand knew enough to have the residents of Galt’s Gulch doing useful things like farming and building a power plant and what have you. Now, I don’t think the math works out on that; I think there were too few people to do all the work they logically would have had. But at least there was some recognition of the problem, and after all she was doing fiction and could gloss over anything she cared to. But these guys on the oil rigs and stuff? You can’t farm on an oil rig. Among other things. Which means you can’t even make a stab at being self-sufficient, and if you’re not self-sufficient then what exactly is the point of all this?

    When it comes to the future there are a couple of things that I believe to be true. Not “believe” like it’s an article of faith, but “believe” like this is my understanding of how it works.

    First, if something can’t go on like this forever, it won’t.
    Second, when some trend or pattern or something has begun to look permanent and unstoppable, that means it’s almost over.
    Third, every twenty years or so society takes a major zag in some unexpected direction and everything becomes way different from all the predictions.

    Which doesn’t mean that we can just sit back and count on the luck of the draw. I think it means that we should work extra hard to make things go right because it’s possible that suddenly we could have a huge effect, or at least maybe prevent the wrong huge effect.

    How long you think before someone gets a phone, or similar piece of apparatus, internalized? Like physically attached to their arm or jaw or something? You’d have to make provision for upgrades and repairs and stuff, of course…

    And let’s not forget that when it comes to phones and Twitter and stuff it’s perfectly acceptable to not use ‘em. It can be done. Effectively.

  4. Pingback: Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » The 3 Bawbags of Xmas-yet-to-come present: Tue Massacre: Beyond the New 52! (featuring Mister Attack)·

  5. Twitter…I get it but I can’t really get INTO it. I do check it every day, and I like that “news feed” aspect to it you call out, but I don’t use it to the degree that I could because there’s all these little things with the interface that bug me – it seems a travesty that I have to read it from the bottom up if I want to read things in order (but I’m not sure how you’d do the updating interface otherwise), it drives me crazy that unless you follow both parties in a conversation, you only see half of the conversation (it makes Andy Partridge’s little Twitter Q&As nearly useless because you get tantalizing As, but the Qs can be difficult to find).

    But then again, SHOULD it be made easier for me to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations? But if these conversations AREN’T meant to be eavesdropped on, why are they presented to me? Hurgh.

    These of course could be entirely my problems, though. I don’t do much blogging anymore either, but that is ALL me and decisions I have made. At any rate, Twitter is a good way to know when Kate Beaton or John Hodgman have posted something new, which makes it certainly useful enough to me.

    I wish I had seen some of these TV shows. Person of Interest does sound refreshingly solid. I saw on the show’s Wikipedia page that it has a voiceover at the beginning of the show? *SWOON*

    Doctor Strange, though, he’s actually had some long runs with his own titles, so I think to some degree the whole “Doctor Strange is a hard sell” idea is imaginary — one of those things people just say to the point where everybody believes it. Because he’s used so often to facilitate a plot (“I got attacked by some magical creature — better see what Doc Strange knows about this!”) he is perhaps doomed to be perceived as an eternal guest-star (same goes for Nick Fury, actually — he’s usually a guy who needs to be in a story for some reason but rarely gets to play jazz).

    Perhaps Marvel writers and editors have become too FAMILIAR with Doctor Strange? Like, to use your Indiana Jones example, I loved the movies as a small child, but I was totally unable to grasp WHAT HIS DEAL was, exactly (“Why is he allowed to shoot people and generally do whatever he wants? Wouldn’t you get in trouble? Is the jacket and hat like a secret identity for the college professor?”). But Doctor Strange is instantly understandable until you let all that How to Write a Screenplay in the 21st Century stuff get in the way and you start to become convinced that he’s not an interesting character, so you invent “What if Doctor Strange was a creepster?” out of well-meaning desperation.

  6. But perhaps my frustration by the half-a-conversation thing is the internet’s sneaky way of trying to make me sympathetic to surveillance culture? “Gosh, this sure seems like an interesting conversation. Bet you’d like to know what’s going on at the other end of it, huh? And maybe you’d also like to know their ZIP code, browsing history, the last five things they purchased on Amazon…”

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