Optimists and pessimists about the Digital Age are usually practical in their praises and fears of computers and the internet. We’re looking at either the potential for more technological wonders, for more creative endeavours and for greater control over our lives or else an emerging apocalypse, the end of life as we’ve known it and perhaps the conquering of our kind by our machines and totalitarian systems. There’s much to be said about the benefits and risks of digital technology, but we should also consider the existential revulsion for our virtual worlds. We’re amazed at the preliminary stages towards what many hope will be the Star Trek holodeck, these stages including computer animation, 3D movies, holograms, and virtual reality, and we’re addicted to the internet and to our handheld devices with their thousands of apps for every conceivable whim.
And yet there’s a philosophical cost of knowing that computers exist. During the Industrial Revolution, mass production already humiliated artists and craftsmen and depersonalized their creations, since not only did machines take over the role of production, if not yet that of design, but they showed that art and handiwork can be systematically copied, leaving only negligible differences between the copies. Implicit in mass production was the seed of digitization: the algorithm or recipe for generating inevitable effects by the taking of simple steps. (Rube Goldberg famously depicted the logic of mass production in cartoon form.) To live in the virtual world, then, the fruits of our imagination must be digitized, which means our pictures, songs, games, novels, and other such creations must be converted into the binary code of ones and zeroes. This is like saying that the price of entering heaven is that first you’ve got to be dead. Most people aren’t properly horrified by this conversion because of the magical aura surrounding high technology which steeps its users in blissful ignorance.
The revelation that’s nevertheless becoming harder to deny has crept up on us over millennia, ever since our ancestors indulged in artistic reproductions. There were warnings, as in Plato’s Republic, which condemns the falseness of art and the folly of producing mere copies within material copies of abstract reality. There are the legends that native cultures believe that a photograph of a person steals the person’s soul. But from the ancient cave paintings of animals and sculptures of voluptuous women, to the orally recited poems and mythical tales, to the written word and the Renaissance flowering of art in Europe, artists have nevertheless translated experience into other forms. The animals which our nomadic ancestors hunted became smudges of charcoal and of other pigments on a dark cave wall. The outpouring of the gods’ wrath in thunderstorms or diseases became tales of woe which were both venerated as scriptures but which also robbed the gods of some of their power, by allowing worshippers to manipulate the texts and the prayers like voodoo dolls. The essence of the gods itself was thought to be captured in a shrine or a statue which likewise trapped the dread supernatural forces and empowered the elders who knew the incantations to mesmerize them. As paintings became more and more realistic, the illusion of reality in the artistic rendering was uncanny long before computers, because you could always walk up to the painting and marvel at the brush strokes that somehow added up to the image of a building, a tree, or a person.