Digital bodies, virtual communities: “What’s Left?” May 2011, MRR #336

William Gibson once replied to critics of his cyberpunk science fiction, of his portrayal of dark, dystopian futures, that he considered his early novels rather optimistic. At least he believed there would be a future. Given the Cold War standoff of mutually assured nuclear destruction, which generated so many apocalyptic nightmares and end-of-the-world scenarios among Baby Boomers and subsequent generations, the prospect of a future, no matter how bleak, is considered a plus.

Or is it? It’s oh-so-punk to proclaim “No Future.” Perhaps it’s more punk to acknowledge there is a future, but that the future blows. For me, a rather dismal future is right around the corner, because I never got my wish that “I hope I die before I get old,” to quote another great rock’n’roll band.

A central technological and cultural dynamic for the past sixty plus years has been the transformation of the analog into the digital. To date, this has meant the increasing use of digital recording methods over analog, and the switch from analog distribution methods to digital. As someone born in the ‘50s and raised in the ‘60s, I grew up with all sorts of analog media—records, books, comics, newspapers, photographs, movies—as well as a panoply of real world distribution options— record shops, bookstores, comic book nooks, newsstands, singleplex movie theaters. Daily existence, whether as artistic performance or real life, remains analog. Yet, in the last forty years, recording and distributing reality has shifted to the digital. Today vinyl, film, printed material, analog media of every sort is rapidly disappearing. Retail distribution for music, art and print is fast vanishing, and independent versions of such establishments are virtually extinct in huge swaths of this country, including major cities like LA and New York. The extant analog and digital media are distributed more and more online, via the Internet, which makes every computer a virtual store.

I don’t need to argue to readers of Maximum Rock’n’roll that analog media is better than digital. The qualitative superiority of music on vinyl over CDs is common knowledge to this crowd, and lets not even talk about that godawful crap called MP3. Less well known is the difference between analog and digital photography/film making. For instance, those involved in old-fashioned photography and darkroom photographic printing contend that the depth and nuance of black as a color cannot be matched currently by digital photographic techniques and printing methods. I might then assert that an art form like film noir is impossible using digital media, but my point is not to rehash all the endless debates over analog versus digital media. Much more important for me is the loss of the tactile world as a consequence of moving from analog to digital distribution of whatever media that exists.

But first, a confession. I am complicit in the destruction of analog media and analog distribution. In 1983, I tested whether an Apple Lisa could come close to matching CAD-CAM blueprinting systems of the day for a corporation doing government contract work. In 1984, I purchased my first Mac, upgrading to a Mac Plus in 1985 to learn PageMaker in particular, and desktop publishing in general. I’ve been a Mac user ever since. I published most of my zines and political propaganda, and formatted my first novel, on Macs. I earned my living as an Apple tech for nearly a decade and a half. At my last job, a book publishing company, the art department made the transition from Apple’s Classic operating system (OS 9) to unix-based OS X (10.2, Jaguar, to be exact). I worked with a particularly arrogant independent contractor to make the conversion, and I admit to being surprised when I noticed that Apple had changed its startup from a version of the colorful Happy Mac to an ominous grey Apple logo.

“Yep,” the asswipe consultant said when he noticed my shock. “It’s a whole new community now.”

I was even more appalled by his abuse of the word community. It was the first time I realized how thoroughly the term had been degraded. From meaning a group of people sharing everything—geographic location, work, play, raising children, creating local culture—“community” had been reduced to meaning a group of people owning or using the same kind of computer. And this grotesque, deforming reductionism is what is essential to the dynamic of transforming the analog into the digital. Clearly, as record shops, bookstores, comic book nooks, newsstands, and movie theaters evaporate, to be replaced by online, Internet shopping, consumption, and other sterile interactions, traditional, analog community is fast devolving into virtual, digital community. There is the loss of the sensuous, the tactile, the concrete.

And so we return to William Gibson. “The body was meat,” to be digitally transcended. Real life is to be replaced by Second Life, a collection of digital avatars pretending to community. A longtime friend, and fellow Mac aficionado, got so immersed in his Second Life that he would come home from work and plug into his computer, entirely ignoring his wife and his actual life. Finally, out of desperation, his wife joined Second Life in order to have some sort of interaction with her husband.

Now, that creeps me out.

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