The Augmentation of the World

I am in Tokyo, on the balcony of my 30th floor hotel room, looking down on the bustling city after dark. I am trapped beneath the black night sky, surrounded by glass skyscrapers, bright neon lights and the endless city. Two hundred and twenty miles above are astronauts aboard the International Space Station, whose night-time photos of the earth tell a similar story: From space, the earth’s surface is covered in a web work of snaking lights. Cities like Rome, Cairo, and New Orleans are bathed in an eerie white glow. The earth has put on its finest sequined gown and it shimmers in the eyes of mankind, its narcissistic lover.

1. THE TECHNO-PLANET IN THE ANTHROPOCENE

The days pass and our world is undergoing a radical modification. This modification is often referred to as the age of the Anthropocene, the point where the behaviour of human beings is so significant that it constitutes a new geological era. Much of what is novel about the 21st century is nested into the notion of the anthropocene, our ongoing era that is increasingly determined by and for the will of human beings.

Our greatest challenge today is to come to grips with and understand our techno-planet. In order to do this, it is necessary to put aside the Wired magazine you might be scouring, and spend a few minutes with philosopher Martin Heidegger’s seemingly enigmatic assertion that “the essence of technology is nothing technological”. Knowledge of the various devices and processes that comprise our techno-planet are necessary, but insufficient: We need to think more broadly, for example, locating the essence of our techno-planet not in the tapestry of iPads, 3D Printers and Smart Phones, but rather against the horizon of the anthropocene.

2. THE WORLD AS A REPRESENTATION FOR MAN

So, what about Heidegger’s claim that the essence of technology is nothing technological? This means that our technological activities are evocative of a particular orientation to the world. Using this claim one can link specific technological instruments to a non-technological factor that develops through history, such as our fascination with increasing speed. But just what is the central factor at the essence of our technologies?

Heidegger understood the present age as one that forces “the world [to] appear as a re-presentation for man.” Well before Heidegger’s pronouncement, Friedrich Nietzsche commented on the “metamorphosis of the world into man”. We strive to transform the nebulous complexity of the world into something that suits our will and reflects our own image. As such, Nietzsche wrote that “as a ‘rational’ being, [man] now places his behavior under the control of abstractions. He will no longer tolerate being carried away by sudden impressions, by intuitions. First he universalizes all these impressions into less colorful, cooler concepts, so that he can entrust the guidance of his life and conduct to them.”

Note that we did not always think of matter as a lifeless, neutral substance that exists for us to impose our will upon. Aristotle (and the ancients more generally) understood matter as connected to cosmic processes and as having a “desire” of its own. The modern meaning of the natural world produced a specific type of person, the subject, who stands over and against the world. There could be no modern subject without a particular understanding of the world, or object. In his “Age of the World Picture”, Heidegger explains that “as the world is transformed into picture… man [is transformed] into subiectum”. In other words, the Modern condition is marked by the humanization of the world.

3. THE WORLD AS A CANVAS

Our cutting edge technologies are, conceptually, not unique to the present day. Nor need we think of them as necessarily machine based: they are technologies of subjectivism. For well over a century commentators, such as the terribly neglected Julian Benda, noted with trepidation the “curious desire of moderns to yield to subjectivism”. This subjectivism, this desire for Man to impose himself on the world, by no means occurs exclusively in 21st century minds. Seen from a height, our contemporary desire to yield to subjectivism is the culmination of an extraordinarily long historical narrative dealing with the aestheticization of the world, the will to make the world in the image of Man, the transformation of reality into a gigantic portrait.

…Compare the cave walls in dark Lascaux to the luminous metropolises visible outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Compare the Paleolithic Venus of Brassempouy, carved from the ivory of a long extinct species, to the present day geneticist who dreams of carving and cutting away at the ideal genome…

What if the clue as to what drives history lies in our ever increasing and ever complex will to subjectivize and aestheticize: the will to design cities like Masdar and our will – since the Romantic days of the anti-Enlightenment – to carefully carve up the canvas of the universal into particular volksgeist (i.e. all those particular gendered, cultural and religious knowledges battered into the heads of wide eyed postmodern undergraduates). Modern day cities, from this point of view, are immense living canvases where we are free to engage in the largest, and most intricate, portraiture the world has ever seen. History can be understood as a story of increasing technology, but technology can be explained as the story of art and an ever increasing aestheticization.

4. THE HUMANIZATION OF OBJECTS

One does need not look far to recognize that the world has become saturated with standardized products. Nearly all the objects that we find around us in the present day are coming to be constructions, or instantiations, of standardized three-dimensional models. Objects will have been designed by the manufacturer using 3D modeling software, and then, based on that model, instantiated in real life.

The objects around us, even though they seem to be only things, are first and foremost only data. That is, they are only physical instantiations of virtual 3D models. We are entering an age of serialized objects for the reason that serialization refers to the process of “saving an object so that it can be re-created”, and that serial production refers to the production of large amounts of standardized products. The object is ‘saved’ as a .CAD file by Ikea, for example, and can be created and re-created in large numbers when there is demand. (This is also, for those versed in the history of thought, the age of a revived – albeit rejigged – Pythagoreanism or Platonism:The mathematical Form of our virtual objects exists in the realm of code; the Matter of our physical objects exists in the plastics and metals that instantiate it.)

This means that our sense of the world, our sense of our objects – is ripe for a gestalt shift. Objects have, hitherto (in the age of craft objects), been somewhat of a mystery. In the past, objects may have had agency – no one could probe into them or know their secrets in advance – there was always the chance that a Lamp possessed a genii, a Sword was a sacred heirloom, or a green Rabbit Foot was really lucky. The age of serialized objects removes this cloud from the world. The world is divested of its genii’s, its sacredness, its good luck charms. Isn’t that what we’ve been attempting since the Enlightenment: A desacralization – an end to anything mysterious, anything non-rational, anything unasked for by the will of human beings? It is no coincidence that the age of serialized objects has come into its own in the Anthropocene.

5. AUGMENTED REALITY & OVER-HUMANIZING OF THE WORLD

According to the technocrats, a change in our reality is underway. They call this change the “augmentation” of reality, which ought to assuage our persistent fears of a degradation of reality, a phantasmagorical and schizophrenic unreality. In contrast to this Virtual unReality, Augmented Reality (or AR as it referred to in the pages of Wired and co.) signals precisely the opposite: a new robustness of reality.

We tend to breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect of a future reality that will be Augmented rather than Virtual, however it is imperative we take a deep breath and ask ourselves whether our sighs of relief have been premature. After all, even the desire for health and robustness can become pathological, as the newly minted diagnosis orthorexia nervosa (the obsession with healthy eating) attests.

There are no shortages of dystopian or apocalyptic analyses purporting that technology is mashing our subjective and emotional qualities into a pulp. By fixating on the End of Man brought about by the world of high technology we ignore dystopian and apocalyptic analyses based on the opposite phenomoenon, namely the over humanizing (or over anthropomorphizing) of the world. So typical to the 21st century, we worry about the anorexia of the human subject, but never about the orthorexia of the human subject. And we do so at our own peril.

What if it is not that the meaning-less Object that is consuming the Subject, but the meaning-full Subject that is consuming the Object? What if, rather than being de-humanized (becoming un-human), we are being over-humanized (becoming all-too-human)?

Might this not suggest something curious about our contemporary urge to “augment” reality? The term “augment” means “to increase”, “to make stronger” and/or “to be more effective”. Thus, AR overlays and deepens the physical world with digital information. For instance, Google claims that its new AR “Google Goggles” will be able to identify a species of tree based on a camera phone photo of one of its leaves. But it is important to recognize that this strengthening, or increase, to reality is engineered by and for human beings. The world that emerges through our “Google Goggles”, or our eventual AR fitted contact lenses, might be understood as the apotheosis of the modern world picture and the acceleration of the humanization of the world. Rather than a post-modern interrogation of the binary between subject and object or culture and nature, technologies such as AR might be understood as encouraging a hyper-modern and entirely subjective world picture.

The end point of AR seems to have been anticipated by philosopher Paul Virilio’s warning about automating our perception of the world. What will happen, he wonders, when in hopes of expanding and augmenting reality, we create an apparatus that “directly stimulates the retinal rods and cones of our eyes”? It is not for nothing that he begins his book Open Sky with the curious epigraph: “One day / the day will come / when the day will not come”. Perhaps Virilio is cryptically suggesting that the sun will continue to rise notwithstanding our perception of it, but once vision is augmented digitally we will see only the geometric outline of a sun, data from NASA about solar flares, a link to Sun Microsystems and a CNN video about soaring afternoon temperatures in Bangkok. The sun will have disappeared beneath the dimension of information.

Instead of the usual claim that the technologies of the future are moving us into uncharted waters, we should consider whether we are in fact bringing the world, and indeed the very notion of reality itself, into the orbit of human will.

About Dustin Cohen

Dustin Cohen would, in an earlier era, have been referred to as a cultural pessimist. He doesn't usually go with the flow and wishes he lived in a remote, drafty, castle somewhere in France. Other PP posts by Dustin can be found [here] & You can read his blog [here]