- the conscious experience of being human (individually and socially) will be a matter of creating and using new technologies, supplemented by trying to analyze and critique these changes in consciousness as they occur, to ensure we own the technology and the technology doesn’t own us
- this cycle of creating the new thing, then learning the new thing, then becoming the new mind in a new community adapted to the new thing, and ultimately trying to compose a bigger critical picture of this new mind/new community will be an unstoppable game of musical chairs.
I can’t exaggerate for someone reading this 10,000 years from now the difference between not taking this for granted and taking it for granted. I can’t exaggerate the difference between the simple envy and greed that once distinguished families who didn’t have color TVs from families that did, and what we have now: the admonitions that not owning an iPad excludes me from a shared consciousness. Not taking this for granted makes me an enthusiastic reader for Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget. Lanier helped pioneer virtual reality, and was winning round after round of musical chairs before most people knew the game had started. It’s too late, apparently, to put a stop to the game, but it’s just the right time to destroy our identities as winners or losers in the game.
The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits. Since people will be inexorably connecting to one another through computers from here on out, we must find an alternative.
Lanier proposes a peculiar humanism that would move me past submitting to being what a computer needs me to be, into a deeper and stranger realm where computers contribute even more to our human irreducibles. Deep meaning and personhood are still viable conditions in Lanier’s world, where bits are illusions but also the elements of the inexorable way of things. From here on out myself and everyone who follows me will connect with each other through computers. (“‘Eternity!’” said Frankie Lee, with a voice as cold as ice.”) Lanier’s book offers a chance to renew the humanist verities of individualism, inimitable consciousness, and meaning that can’t be quantified. And we renew our humanism with digital tools that enrich consciousness and connection.
I think this kind of humanist prophecy has to come from a Jaron Lanier, someone so far into the machine with all their cylinders of consciousness working, that they can see it for what it is and not a dream. “Don’t go calling Paradise that home across the road.” I get that this is home now. Do I still feel left out? It’s too late not to be: I’m already a creature of my world, I may have already internalized the idea that consciousness will remain ineffable in my lifetime, and it will also become the competitive work of adapting to technology, and I might not keep up.
But there’s something else, and I can’t resign to it. History to Jaron Lanier is what got us here. History is map and vehicle. If somewhere in his manifesto he conceives of history as singular and invaluable sites of consciousness that can be reclaimed–I don’t find it. I’m starting to believe that the work of this reclaiming is not less frightening or exhilarating than blazing trails into futures outlined even as reliably as someone like Jaron Lanier can outline them. Reclaiming in our terms the consciousness that both desired and created the Rosetta Stone, and making from that consciousness something concrete and self-sufficient, is a kind of humanism I would like to get behind.
I brought all this pondering to the Gagosian Gallery on Saturday to see The Asia Series. By now the fur is flying–the paintings are copied from other images. The accusations are correct. The paintings are copied from other images. The response interests me more than the paintings do–the volume of disgust and disillusionment. Now, it would be hard for anyone to walk through the gallery and take it on face value that this artist painted these scenes from life. A robed Emperor? A silken demimonde reclining in an opium den? Kimono-clad women strolling through an exquisitely blooming forest? A peasant and his laden pack-animal lumbering along a road beneath a snow-capped mountain? How many more cliches of Life in the Old Orient can you name? The most casual and uninformed viewer should wonder how just about any of these images could have been painted–in 2009 and 2010–from contemporary living life.
It took little work in little time to uncover and broadcast Bob Dylan’s deception or laziness. What kind of hoax or betrayal is revealed so quickly and so easily? Is all the disgust based on presuming Dylan’s utter indifference to his counterfeits being outed immediately? Is the problem the belief that Dylan doesn’t care to offer art that matters the way he has apparently taught many thousands of people to care about art? (If you are among the few who are deeply and personally outraged on behalf of Henri Cartier-Bresson, then your moral compass differs from those whose deep and personal offense is directly bound to Bob Dylan’s breaking faith, period.)
The stink of indifference bothers me, and it’s an abstract stink, since the paintings themselves are not careless or indifferent. For the most part, the execution is confident, and the colors are spirited. The way the fleshtones are handled on the Cartier-Bresson knockoff are bold and interesting. The Heian scene is sylvan and inviting. Which doesn’t relieve the stink, and doesn’t answer any question of originality, but complicates our disappointment. What if the Gagosian handed visitors a statement from Bob Dylan affably letting us in on the whole thing: I’m trying to learn new techniques in acrylic and oil painting, and I practiced by copying images by artists I admire? That would relieve all the tsuris? We would be cheerfully saying Bob Dylan has quite a confident way with a brushstroke? And why? The object changes when the stink of indifference is sweetened by transparency?
No, it doesn’t. Our relation with the artist changes, and here is an artist whose audience constructs relations to him fraught, fraught, so fraught with values and ethics and feelings. I happen to share the ignorant persistent nightmare that a consciousness may emerge in a computer and humankind will lose the musical chairs game forever. But if that awoken computer will be fluent in ethical and emotional conflicts and anxieties like the ones that sprouted immediately in response to Bob Dylan’s paintings, then for the love of god, may the poor digital thing have pity on itself. And to someone 10,000 years down the road, I say, This mess is what humanism looked like. And many of us wouldn’t have it any other way. If we’re lucky, you’ll care enough to reclaim our messy consciousness and make something of it.