Thursday, July 3, 2008

Bubble Culture

As man is converting his entire lifeworld, the boundaries between products and organisms are rapidly blurring. We want our machines to be more human, social, and emotional and our animals to be more controllable and customizable.

The rather extraordinary Dutch artist Tinkebell reflects these trends and "researches the issues of contemporary populist movements, including animal rights activism, and their strategies." She shows in a very honest way how silly postmodern culture is in trying to make everything easy and pleasurable for people, and makes it obvious, almost in a caricatural way. 

A recent work of hers, called "Save the Pets", is really interesting since it clearly shows how the distinction between 'animal' and 'product' has already disappeared. By putting each of 100 hamsters in a separate plastic ball and releasing them in a home-setting, our use of pets as toys is clearly exaggerated. The animals, each products of millions of years of co-adaptation with a complex environment, are reduced to mere motors for our shallow enjoyment based on what our senses seem to find interesting. And how can a better shape represent this than a brightly colored ball, reminding of childhood experiences in the ball pit of McDonald's, which undoubtedly has unconsciously contaminated Western culture with shallow ideas about pleasure and happiness. Ideas that only get uprooted out of you after a slight tad of intelligent thought, possibly catalyzed by the fact that originally, ball pits were developed to comfort the mentally less-abled.

So is this what we have become? A self-proclaimed handicapped species? Well yes, I would say so, though it is the only way for us to realize we are actually quite dumb and have no clue as to what we are really doing. Ironically, in our evolution we started to become dumb when we began to think. Let me expand a little bit on that.

When man started growing a neocortex, he started to symbolize his world and with the symbols hence created he confined his world to an abstraction in which he and his fellow-men, through social symbolic communication, could resort instead of having to be connected to the unpredictable wild nature 'out there'. Man became a mental being, disconnected from the larger whole, but reconnected to a new realm, created by himself. The problem is that this realm is created purely by our consciousness, which is inherently short-sighted and biased. Apart from creating language, man also started to embody conscious concepts into technological artefacts. Slowly, he started to build his own world based on ideas mainly derived from concrete conscious observations, and not on an unconscious, empathic and somatic understanding of the world as a whole. Instead, the ideas underlying technology design had to evolve bottom up too, just as the rest of the world. We started with the thought "I want to eat - let's make a sharp thing to kill a boar" and now are at "I want to have fun - let's put a hamster in a ball" or "I want to listen to low-quality music and look cool - let's make a white plastic box with buttons and cables and isolate myself from the rest of the world". A few centuries ago a tipping point was reached that marked the height of conscious transformation of the lifeworld: mass-industrialization. We were now able to sustain in ourselves the thought that we could control nature and live in an abstraction, an incubator, in which our needs could be met with a snap of the finger. Without many people understanding what was actually happening.

This technicization, and Tinkebell's work as an illustration of it, also is linked to the notion of freedom. Heidegger already warned us that technology restricts our lives rather than expands it, and that instead it should reveal more of the larger process that we stem from. I agree on that, though any polarized view is based on a bias; there is also a good side to this restriction. In general, we feel we lost touch with the whole, but on the other hand we also uplifted our mode of being to one that at least meets our basic needs. We form cultures based on ideas, like sanitization, and hence create a temporary bubble that keeps us happy, according to ideas of happiness predominant in the particular culture we are in. The technicization of our lifeworld makes us feel more free, and while we are free from nature, we created now our own restrictions by steering people to think and act in certain ways through for example the media, a law, and our technologies. Freedom is always an illusion and more an experiential feeling than an objectively measurable parameter. You are always guided by your environment and internal configuration of your brain and body, which seek for ways to resonate with each other. Consciousness is then a mere side effect of this process, imbuing us with all kinds of illusions that are temporarily practical, but fairly useless in the end. Personally I do not feel very free; my brain is very habitual, and while the hamster is clearly restricted, I am too in the same way: somehow my interactional intentions are most often limited by my 'bubble of buttons'. I spend much of my time being consciously engaged with a display and physically coupled to the plastic surface of some electronic device. Technology has put me in an incubator that optimizes the fulfilling of my desires, but keeps me from a real understanding of the whole of which I am an active part.

That having been said, I think the obvious development is a complete merge of nature and technology, so technology provides a 'natural' interface to everything around us. One that doesn't just invite us to think in terms of meeting desires, but also has us live in the moment and unconsciously understand everything that goes on around us, so we can feel one with the whole again whenever we need to. And we must not be biased towards either natural or technological entities, since all will rapidly change when the key enabling technologies start to converge. So I share my dislike of animal rights activism with Tinkebell; we need to accept that it is not spiritually sustainable for us trying to keep the world the way it is, with its still all too clear division of animals and products, and that we need to accept that the world as we now know it will fundamentally change, possibly leaving not one biological species as we now know it behind.

And that this is the only way to go, unless we genetically engineer ourselves to not grow neocortical columns anymore and revert to full animalhood again: a life based on immediate, localized, physical survival. But that would just be simplistic and easy, and ignoring the beauty of evolution of which we are still part, wouldn't it.

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