Fear of Technology: Being Alone Together in the Machine

…we are in a sort of bubble of irreality: spurious world generated by— the plenary powers, astral determinism, whatever the fuck that is.

—Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis

John Dewey once said that the “serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity and dependence upon The Leader… The battlefield is also accordingly here– within ourselves and our institutions.”1 Of late I’ve begun to see Erich Fromm’s point that what men fear is what drives them to escape into tyranny rather than freedom, and it is autonomy and freedom above all that humans fear most.

Couched as his work was in Freud and Existentialism Fromm would seek an understanding of why humans feared freedom or, as he’d suggest – aloneness, isolation, independence. In his simplistic diagnosis he’d discovered over time that people choose two paths of escape from aloneness. The first path was a positive acceptance of autonomy and separateness, and these individuals would confront themselves and the world in such a way they can relate themselves spontaneously to the it in love and work, in the genuine expression of emotional, sensuous, and intellectual capacities; each can thus become one again with man, nature, and themselves, without giving up the independence and integrity of their singularity. (Fromm, 120) The other form would take a darker turn, one that would force such individuals who suddenly awakened intto aloneness, freedom, and autonomy to feel anxiety, panic, and ultimately run scared,  leading them to seek complete surrender of their unique and singular lives, and the integrity of the self,  to an external authority in total self-abnegation of their former freedom and autonomy. (Fromm, 121) As he’d remark of this second path of escape, such persons “show a tendency to belittle themselves, to make themselves weak, and not to master things.

Quite regularly these people show a marked dependence on powers outside themselves, on other people, or institutions, or nature” (121). They seek security, safety, and protection even to the point of becoming ensnared and enslaved to authoritarian rule and regulation in every detail of their lives. Passively accepting even the most atrocious forms of discipline and control over their minds and bodies. (Think of such tyrannies as North Korea?) In fact, Fromm like Karen Horney would come to the conclusion after years of case studies of his patients that both the masochistic and sadistic strivings within individuals tend to help them to escape their unbearable feeling of aloneness and powerlessness, accepting the most heinous existence under unbearable conditions if they no longer have to think or be at risk in the world. (129)

Being Alone Together

I believe that in our culture of simulation, the notion of authenticity is for us what sex was for the Victorians—threat and obsession, taboo and fascination.

—Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

In one of his interviews J.G. Ballard would remark that there would come a time in the near future when it would truly be possible to explore extensively and in depth the psychopathology of one’s own life without any fear of moral condemnation. “Although we’ve seen a collapse of many taboos within the last decade or so, there are still aspects of existence which are not counted as being legitimate to explore or experience mainly because of their deleterious or irritating effects on other people. Now I’m not talking about criminally psychopathic acts, but what I would consider as the more traditional psychopathic deviancies. Many, perhaps most, of these need to be expressed in concrete forms, and their expression at present gets people into trouble. One can think of a million examples, but if your deviant impulses push you in the direction of molesting old ladies, or cutting girl’s pigtails off in bus queues, then, quite rightly, you find yourself in the local magistrates’ court if you succumb to them. And the reason for this is that you’re intruding on other people’s life space. But with the new multimedia potential of your own computerised TV studio, where limitless simulations can be played out in totally convincing style, one will be able to explore, in a wholly benign and harmless way, every type of impulse – impulses so deviant that they might have seemed, say to our parents, to be completely corrupt and degenerate.”2

In J.G. Ballard’s last trilogy of novels, Cocaine Nights, Millennia People, and Super Cannes he explores this sense of the psychopathology of aloneness and how it touches base with technology, sex, and death. In each of these novels we see this sense of simulation become activated, as if Ballard were already enacting in the pages of these works the cartography of a new psychopathology arising out of our bankrupt culture of young executives whose lives must be activated by voyeur parties based on extreme forms of sex and violence. Extreme decadence has always been aligned itself with perversions of technology and nihil, the psychopathology and the sensual inroads of death and desire have always found themselves close to the moneyed classes whose extravagantly luxurious lives are privy to boredom and suicide. But in our time the true magus of psychopathy is the chameleon and mime artist of emotion, lacking all emotion he can call it out of others like a puppet master in a carnival of dark mirrors. Peoples lives are so drained that to exist in the 24/7 world of automation the new knowledge worker must expose herself to the rape of psychopathic troubadours who become guides into the closing circles of capitalist desire.

Remy de Gourmont once likened decadence in its original meaning as the “idea of natural death,” but that in 1885 under the auspices of Stephen Mallarmé and of the literary group in his circle, the idea of decadence has been assimilated to its exact opposite— the idea of innovation.”3 He’d speak of the modernist as decadent, as one who produces “a poetry full of doubts, of shifting shades, and of ambiguous perfumes”. In a humorous aside he would speak of decadence as style or fashion, or as he delighted in saying, “an intellectual epidemic”:

It was said long ago, considerably before M. Tarde had developed his theory of social philosophy, that “imitation rules the world of men, as abstraction that of things.” This law is very evident in the particular domain of art and of literature. The literary history of decadence is, in sum, nothing but the chart of a succession of intellectual epidemics.

The influence of decadence on many of Ballard’s own stories and novels is apparent to the aficionado. As one interviewer suggested:

KRICHBAUM/ZONDERGELD: Up to now we still haven’t mentioned your Vermilion Sands stories. It seems as if there the influence of decadent literature makes itself felt, of the fin de siècle.

BALLARD: You’re thinking of Huysmans here? Yes. You know, Vermilion Sands corresponds to my vision of the future. It will not be like Nineteen Eighty-Four, but rather like Vermilion Sands. If one goes to the Mediterranean coast in the summer, one sees the future there already. Half of Europe finds itself in this linear city that runs from Gibraltar to Athens. A city that’s three thousand miles long and a hundred metres wide. And that is, in my opinion, the future. (Extreme Metaphors, KL 1912)

This is a dense world, a world in which the city as megacity has forever naturalized the artificial and decadent, where nature has disappeared into the artificial worlds of our Human Security Regimes (Land). In another interview the interlocutor would liken decadence to a “guilty pleasure”. Ballard would respond, saying, “The guilty pleasure notion isn’t to be discounted either, the idea of pursuing an obsession, like the black theme in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ A Rebours, to a point where it is held together and justified only by aesthetic or notional considerations, beyond any moral restraints. A large part of life takes place in that zone, anyway.” (EM, KL 3236) This sense of life beyond good and evil, lived in a realm of aesthetic innovation where reality takes on the fascination and glamour of a simulated universe of play. It’s this movement into the cyberdrift of our network society, where anonymity spawns the unbidden power of sadomasochistic desire unchecked by the normal restraints of social relations and instead allows the anonymous multitude to explore those guilty pleasures which in our time have awakened certain psychopathological disorders and perversions in the machinic realms of our technoutopian apparatuses. The city itself has become a desiring machine, one that offers in its hologrids and Google glassed adverts a continuous flux of sex and violence, ghosts in the shell of time floating through life not at living artifacts but rather as robotic toys in a dreamland of corrupt desire.

As an optimist and libertarian Ballard’s notion of freedom is both exploratory and experimental, speaking of Baudrillard’s notion of America as a simulation of itself he’d remark,

I think America, as a Baudrillardian image of itself, is far more seaworthy than the notional original that most Americans believe in. But I think the old Conradian notion of immersing ourselves in the most destructive element is still true. That’s why I’m a strong libertarian – within the constraints of the law – and believe in exploring all the possibilities open to us. I think the logic of the late twentieth century, and certainly the twenty-first, if I’m around to see any of it, is so governed by our information and communication systems that an ever-greater freedom is inevitable. As people have said, once they invented the Xerox machine, totalitarianism – certainly, Russian totalitarianism – was doomed. (EM, KL 5114)

This sense that replication, mimesis, simulation were antagonistic to systems of closure, to totalitarianism – which in his sense was a false totality with no outside or inside, but rather a doomed venture in a maze of terror and pure freedom, where technological innovation and reality modeling afford each and every person their own private hell.

In his last three novels he would simulate an extreme scenario in which he’d toy with the psychopath as mediator of the brave new world we’d be facing in the parametric spaces of the computational 21st Century. Each of the novels would be based on an investigation of this new world of psychopathology, allowing Ballard to uncover the dark desires at the core of our technocommercial society of High Finance and technological sophistication. This notion of our accelerated world of simulation was a new form of mimetic self-sacrifice, of a birthing process in which humanity was rewriting, rewiring, and reprogramming the very notions of culture and society, and that as he said of Baudrillard’s America and his own Hello, America!: “America is an imitation of itself – its imitation of itself is its reality – which I think is true. But he takes an optimistic view of America, and I would do the same about the world as a whole.” (EM, KL 5110) It’s this notion that reality has become simulation, that the artificial has replaced the natural; or, that artificial has been naturalized (i.e., denatured). This sense of reversal, of living a world turned inside-out, as if Plato’s Cave had given way to a deeper world of shadows in which the copy of a copy had become more real that even our projections on the screen. That we’ve entered the screen or terminal zones of our computational existence, allowed ourselves to fall forward into the simulated universe, become mathematical or abstract entities, sigils or programs to be called forth from our zombiefied existences by Psychopathic Thereapeutics.

In his recent book Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide Franco “Bifo” Berardi reminds us that in the last few decades, “artistic sensibility has been paralysed by a sense of paranoiac enchantment: psychic frailty, fear of precariousness and the premonition of a catastrophe that is impossible to avoid. This is why art has become so concerned with suicide and crime. This is why, very often, crime and suicide (most of all suicidal crime) have been modelled as art.”4 It’s this sense that our lives have taken on the simulated quality, that we play at the notion of committing terror, atrocities because they are no longer real to us in the old way. That they are mere simulations and we are but programmed entities in a simulated world, an unreal world. A need to create an aesthetic of the unreal, of death. To become the living embodiment of entropy and decay, to resolve the world into that pure moment of zero intensity. Absolved of guilt, the pleasure of calling down the moon of violence in an orgiastic deluge, an apocalypse of spasms.

As Berardi would ask, the question now is to see what’s left of the human subjectivity and sensibility and of our ability to imagine, to create and to invent. Are humans still able to emerge from this black hole; to invest their energy in a new form of solidarity and mutual help? The sensibility of a generation of children who have learned more words from machines than from their parents appears to be unable to develop solidarity, empathy and autonomy. History has been replaced by the endless flowing recombination of fragmentary images. Random recombination of frantic precarious activity has taken the place of political awareness and strategy. I really don’t know if there is hope beyond the black hole; if there lies a future beyond the immediate future. Where there is danger, however, salvation also grows – said Hölderlin, the poet most loved by Heidegger, the philosopher who foresaw the future destruction of the future. Now, the task at hand is to map the wasteland where social imagination has been frozen and submitted to the recombinant corporate imaginary. Only from this cartography can we move forward to discover a new form of activity which, by replacing Art, politics and therapy with a process of re-activation of sensibility, might help humankind to recognize itself again. (Heroes, KL 106)

This sense that we’ve become copies of ourselves, mere simulations, ghosts. Speaking of the ghosts in his life, the late Mark Fisher talking of Rufige Kru’s ‘Ghosts Of My Life’ remarks,

I’ll always prefer the name Jungle to the more pallid and misleading term drum and bass, because much of the allure of the genre came from the fact that no drums or bass guitar were played. Instead of simulating the already-existing qualities of ‘real’ instruments, digital technology was exploited to produce sounds that had no pre-existing correlates. The function of timestretching – which allowed the time signature of a sound to be changed, without its pitch being altered – transformed sampled breakbeats into rhythms that no human could play. Producers would also use the strange metallic excrescence that was produced when samples were slowed down and the software had to fill in the gaps. The result was an abstract rush that made chemicals all but redundant: accelerating our metabolisms, heightening our expectations, reconstructing our nervous systems.5

It’s this feeling even in our music that we are in the midst of a mutant transition, that we are being rewired by the futurial forces of some far flung intelligence that is luring us forward into a brave new world in which we as humans are accelerating ourselves out of flesh and blood and into the very technical modes of existence of which our simulated worlds are made. The impact of this is producing in some a breakdown rather than breakthrough, causing havoc and chaos at the edges of sanity. Fromm in The Sane Society suggested that the Liberals, since the eighteenth century, have stressed the malleability of human nature and the decisive influence of environmental factors. True and important as such emphasis is, it has led many social scientists to an assumption that man’s mental constitution is a blank piece of paper, on which society and culture write their text, and which has no intrinsic quality of its own.6

In our own time we speak of plasticity or the sense of mutating identity, of becoming other than we are, migrating from mask to mask, personae to personae. As Catherine Malabou in her The Ontology of an Accident remarks “We must all of us recognize that we might, one day, become someone else, an absolute other, someone who will never be reconciled with themselves again, someone who will be this form of us without redemption or atonement, without last wishes, this damned form, outside of time. These modes of being without genealogy have nothing to do with the wholly other found in the mystical ethics of the twentieth century. The Wholly Other I’m talking about remains always and forever a stranger to the Other.”7

It’s this sense of becoming not only someone else, but of becoming something else that has entered our contemporary moment of the posthuman or non-human. The notion of a mode of existence in becoming technology, of merging with the machinic systems of which we’ve been so enamored. A feeling that humankind is breaking down the dyad of self/screen which will eventually dissolve the distance between human/machine so that our flesh will become machinic in an absolute mechanosphere outside the genetic markers and trace worlds of flesh and blood. A Transcendence-in-immanence, a movement from kind to kind. We speak of the technological singularity as a sort of event horizon beyond which nothing human gets out alive (Land). A moment when the future implodes on the present and we suddenly transcend within the immanent fields of force that are organic and anorganic, vibrant and inert matter reverse poles and enter the double gyre of a time-machine absorbing us into machinic becoming. Fantasy? Reality? In a simulated world such as ours do such notions even matter? In such a world the human body will vanish, and the traces of its disappearance will only be indexed and registered in the digital avatars and dividual data sets of virtual world become actuality, where life is calculable in 0’s and 1’s. In that time of no time humanity will have forgotten itself and become totally other…

  1. Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge, 1942.
  2. Ballard, J.G; Sellars, Simon; O’Hara, Dan. Extreme Metaphors (Kindle Locations 2322-2331). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
  3. Gourmont, Remy de. Decadence and Other Essays on the Culture of Ideas (Interesting Ebooks) (Kindle Locations 1547-1548). LONDON GRANT RICHARDS LTD.. Kindle Edition.
  4. Berardi, Franco “Bifo”. Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide (Futures) (Kindle Locations 2815-2818). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
  5. Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Kindle Locations 517-523). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  6. Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society. Holt Paperbacks; Reissue edition (October 15, 1990)
  7. Malabou, Catherine. The Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity. Polity, 2012.

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