Digital Restlessness and Something More Certain

If we've stretched into the "fourth dimension" of cyberspace, why does the world feel so flat?
Appears in Summer 2016 Issue: Our Built World: Some Assembly Required
June 1 st 2016
The Four-Dimensional HumanWilliam Heinemann, 2015. 272 pp.


Being trapped in cyberspace can feel like a bout of sleep paralysis. You feel threatened by a vague something or someone, a force all the more terrifying for its vagueness. And yet all strength has drained from your body; you should get up, you must get up, wakefulness is so near, but you struggle in vain. Once fully conscious, you try to name the power that has oppressed you: Information and communication technology? Cyberspace? The Internet? The World Wide Web? Social media? You look around for expert help. Who can tell you what kind of predicament had you in its grip? There are reporters like Nicholas Carr, social scientists like Sherry Turkle, and neuroscientists like Susan Greenfield. They give you a clinical assessment of what got you into sleep paralysis and what sleep paralysis has done to you. But they don't recall for you what it was like to be in the condition. There are, to be sure, firsthand reports.

Reporters, columnists, and essayists have mournfully described their inability to rouse themselves and read a book, engage in conversation, or tell their children stories. One remedy for sleep paralysis is simply to name its cause "technology" and to claim that its effects are on balance hugely beneficial and that, rather than plaguing us with sleep paralysis, technology allows us to dream of a wonderful future. Another cure is to ignore the issue altogether and talk about topical issues—the government, national security, the economy, income inequality. And then here comes Laurence Scott, who in The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World (2016), easily moves into and out of the condition that is haunting us and describes it all with Mozartean ease and elegance.

To the spooky omnipresence of Internet records corresponds an uncanny omniscience on our part. We can witness the dying of a person without being seen.

Could you come up with sentences like these? "In many of our text-based dealings, silence is a type of punctuation. It is often miscast, however, an ellipsis forced to gather itself up and play a full stop." First the astute observation, then the lure of qualification, the innocent turn to the language of theatre, and finally the full force of that language, exposing our casual fusion of indolence and violence. I know—I'm drifting along in the shimmering wake of Scott's prose. And it's entirely an accident of my upbringing (not a sign of virtue or merit) that I can also follow his references. Scott moves smoothly from Greek mythology, to early Christianity, medieval history, English literature, social theory, and more. There are cultural regions where, to the contrary and for whatever accident on my part, Scott is a guide to a terra incognita I only know from hearsay—television and social media.

Just to temper my praise with a little criticism, I note the occasional slip of expertise. In the sequence from Rudolf Steiner's mention in German of Mensch (person, human being) to English "man," Scott mistakenly goes back to German Mann and a needless apology for Steiner's "sexist language of the day." Perhaps you have to have lived in Chicago to know that the promise of "Klout, the controversial analytics company," is impenetrable to etymological analysis and can only be conveyed by example. Here's one of Mike Royko's: "Nah, I don't need a building permit—I got clout in City Hall." And mass, alas, is not conserved; energy is.

Energy in the world of physics, that is. In the world of digital sleep paralysis, energy increases. It's a nervous and unsettling squaring of velocity that has us collide with the inertia of three-dimensional reality. The book begins with a postcard Scott had written as "a thank-you to an acquaintance who, a month or so previously, had lent me his empty house." As the card is lying there and Scott is conversing with a friend, it generates "a general nervousness and sense of waiting." Why? It suddenly came to Scott. "Why hasn't he answered it yet?" The story reveals how the hyperenergetic craving for a constant feed of information has crossed the bounds of cyberspace and invaded the previously restful times of conversation.

It's the everywhereness of what Scott calls "the fourth dimension" that has eroded the here and now from under our feet. So the fourth dimension is his reply to the "general eagerness to find metaphors for the digital revolution." The Internet has given us the superior mobility and overview of the traditional three-dimensional world that a traditional three-dimensional creature has of Edwin Abbott's two-dimensional Flatland. In the fourth dimension, mass, you would think, dissolves into energy, and without mass there is no gravity or atmospheric pressure; humans dilate, tear into pieces, and drift away. Scott has taught me, however, that in cyberspace the force field of commerce solidifies humans. Without solidly identifiable customers there would be no selling and buying, no targeting of "adverts" as a British writer has it, and no exploiting of a person's particular desires. Still, the preternatural awareness that the fourth dimension has afforded us makes us unnaturally sensitive to the silences of cyberspace, the silence we suffer when we expect a reply from a particular someone or expect approval from a crowd. Scott's report from the acoustics of social media is one of the fascinating messages a stay-behind reader gets from an explorer of an exotic country.

A strange territory will have its own customs and its own language to convey them with. In social media, the supersaturated solution of messages, pictures, and videos every now and then crystallizes into a topic that takes its own shape. It's another of Scott's dispatches from the fourth dimension, conveyed by way of examples: "'Replacing the milk in your coffee with a stick of butter—is that a thing?' '"Virtual girlfriends" are a thing now,' reports a Telegraph headline to a story about people subscribing to online companionship-providers." The simple thing and the plain demonstrative that are drawn into the glare of cyberspace to mark fleeting points or orientation.

"In the olden days," says Scott, "a person's capacity for everywhereness went by the name of imagination." Imagination and memory merge when we recall scenes of the past. But neither is needed in all those cases where scenes of the past are on record in cyberspace and can be called up at will. Yet cherished memories turn up stiff and dry when unspooled before our eyes. Then again, scenes of the past we'd like to see fade from memory resurface mercilessly to shame and condemn us. As the past in the fourth dimension becomes an alien power, the present becomes an unruly mob of events that agree on omnipresence but defy moral order. The personal surfaces alongside the planetary, the trivial sits side by side with the epochal, the cute vies with the poignant.

To the spooky omnipresence of Internet records corresponds an uncanny omniscience on our part. We can witness the dying of a person without being seen. We know more about a person we meet in real life than the person knows we know. Sometimes our knowledge is gravely misled. Someone we envy for the thousands of accolades he is receiving is in fact the beneficiary of artificially generated acclaim. Worse, there is not only uncanny or deceived knowing, there is also unknown being known, and in the worst case, one can become the object of the insidious knowledge of a spy, a stalker, or a troll, someone who means to torture you and in some cases has driven persons to suicide. Blessed are the obscure.

Once in the light of the fourth dimension, is there a refuge of obscurity? Where is "The Cabin in the Woods," the title of chapter 7? This is also the title of a film by Drew Goddard and the unknown and overlooked getaway place of "five American college students." So it seems, but in fact it's a trap of ritual killing. The escape from surveillance becomes the plunge into rigorously managed horror. The rather harmless, if no less ironic, real-life analogues are the retreats organized by Digital Detox or Camp Grounded. Return to healthy simplicity amounts to an artificial cocoon of austerity whose structure and language are borrowed from cyberspace.

These are some of the major strands of the many-coloured fabric Scott spreads out before the reader. The brilliance of the colours may blind one to the tear that runs through the texture of the book. Sometimes the tear shows up as vividly as it does implicitly. In Scott's discussion of witnessing the dying of a person in the fourth dimension, we read: "Social media and blogs have allowed us behind the screen, and have given us access to the emotions and observations of the dying, which offers a lovely alternative to the traditional options of sequestration or a brave face." Similarly: "Here the disembodiment of the internet is an irreproachable asset, allowing people with depleted physical energies to have a robust presence alongside the most sprightly of users, and to find communities of others who share in their troubles."

But then also this: "It is certainly true that face-to-face engagement with a terminally ill person is demanding and rewarding in ways that cloaked online vigils cleanly evade." And a little later: "Social media can encourage us to think of people as a sort of casual entertainment, as something which we can dip in and out of, and sometimes flick to mute." You could actually tear Scott's book neatly in two, one book titled The Nightmare of the Fourth Dimension and the Vigour of Actual Reality, the other titled The Hopeless Drabness of Actual Reality and the Power and Pleasure of the Fourth Dimension. It's not in the spirit of Scott's book to divide neatly, nor does Scott ever acknowledge the tear that allows for a division. What he does see, however, is the tension between the pleasurable dreams of the fourth dimension and the nightmare of sleep paralysis, "the tension between our boomtown connectivity, our complex, prosperous fertility and the metaphoric desertification of online being that works toward an unproductive uniformity."

Scott sees no way of leaving the tension within the fourth dimension and of returning to wholesome three-dimensionality. There is no sturdy and secluded cabin in the woods where one can regain orientation. Digital detox is a disingenuous mimicking of fourthdimensional language and customs. There is at best a hopeless nostalgia for the innocence before the fall of social media. When Sarah Jessica Parker finds out that Jonathan Tisch doesn't tweet, doesn't Instagram, she says to him: "I envy you, there's a purity to you," and Scott concludes: "These technologies now occupy such a central position in our view of people that, if you're someone who appears to abstain from them, this innocence can trump your other claims at worldliness."

The lack of resolution of The Four-Dimensional Human is not a flaw. The book is a vivid and thought-provoking account of our predicament— sleep paralysis and glamorous dreaming. It reminded me of the account the Venerable Bede has left us of the advice a counsellor gave to King Edwin in 627 CE.

There is no sturdy and secluded cabin in the woods where one can regain orientation. Digital detox is a disingenuous mimicking of fourth-dimensional language and customs.

It seems to me, o King, that life, as it is on earth for humans, compared with the time that is uncertain to us, is as though, with you sitting at a banquet with your commanders and ministers in the wintertime, a fire lit in the middle and the dining hall warm, while outside the storms of rain and snow are raging, in comes some sparrow and most rapidly flies through the house; it enters through one door and soon leaves through another. At the time, when it is inside, it is untouched by the tempest of winter, but then, when the briefest moment of serenity has passed, it soon returns from winter to winter and vanishes from your eyes. Thus this life of humans appears for a short while; what however may follow or what may have preceded it, of that we're entirely ignorant. Hence, if this new teaching brings something more certain, deservedly it should be followed, it seems.

The story is so moving, even to an atheist like Steven Weinberg (in his Dreams of a Final Theory), because it prompts us to consider ourselves in an unexpected setting that reveals our precarious condition and our need for the consolation of "something more certain." Early in his book, Scott tells his own story of suddenly seeing himself in an unexpected light. On the second page, he mentions a door in the empty house that has been available to him in the owner's absence, the one door in the house that's locked. Letting our curiosity of what the door may conceal simmer for ten pages, Scott brings it to a boil: "Every morning I would walk by the locked door on my way to the office. The study where I worked could only be accessed through a tight passageway that connected it to the office."

One morning, he says, "something inchoate made me turn in my chair and run my hand across the wall of books behind me"—he found himself on the other side of the door and inside the locked room. In 2008, that was "a selfie before its time."

I found it sad that Scott's self-revelation collapsed into the flatness of a selfie. Still, it's a truthful picture of how people so often see themselves in 2016. The burden is on us and our tradition to show that there is "something more certain." In the history of Christianity, there have been powerful pleas to see ourselves in unexpected light. You find them among the burial practices of the Middle Ages and up into the nineteenth century. One is on the tombstone of Cardinal Jean de La Grange of 1403 and another on a tombstone in the Sebastian Cemetery in Salzburg of 1868. It's a call that says in Latin:

FUI QUOD ES
ERIS QUOD SUM
I was what you are,
You will be what I am.

If nothing else, the call is a reminder that at last we will be pulled out of the fourth dimension no matter what. In fact, we're drawn into the actual world when we have to eat and sleep and want to have children. But as Scott tells us, sleep is but an interruption of life in the fourth dimension, with a screen the last thing he sees before falling asleep and the first thing when he wakes up. Food is mere refuelling, and children—no children in cyberspace.

The tombstones that remind us of our mortality often bear in low relief a sculpture of a decaying corpse. So these are harsh reminders that today strike us as macabre. There is a gentler call in a poem by Eduard Mörike:

Think of it, O Soul!
A little fir is greening, where?
Who knows, where in the forest,
A rosebush, who can say
In which garden?
They have been chosen already,
Think of it, O soul!
To take root on your grave
And there to grow.

Two black horses are grazing
In the meadow,
They return to town
Cheerfully loping.
They will be walking step by step
With your dead body;
Perhaps, perhaps, before
On their hooves
The iron will come loose
That I see flashing.

Here are things—firs, rosebushes, horses— that are more than markers in the flimsy fourth dimension. They gather a world around themselves that includes our mortality. But ours is no longer the world of Mörike's nineteenth century. Things now stand in the penumbra of the fourth dimension. They are no less commanding in their presence for being so surrounded. On the contrary, when the noise and nervousness of cyberspace drop away, a luminous calm can settle about the focal things before us. We are reminded of the words of another poet, Georg Trakl.

There, in limpid brightness shine,
On the table, bread and wine.

In the breaking of the bread, we receive the strength to be awake to the world as it truly is; and truly awake, we can say at the end of the day with Simeon:

Now you let your servant go, o Lord,
According to your word in peace.

And we can conclude with the antiphon to Simeon's song:

Save us, O Lord, while we're awake,
Protect us while we're sleeping,
So we may be wakeful with Christ
And rest in peace.

 

Albert Borgmann is Regents Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Montana, Missoula where he has taught since 1970. His special area is the philosophy of society and culture. Among his publications are Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (University of Chicago Press, 1984), Crossing the Postmodern Divide (University of Chicago Press, 1992), Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (University of Chicago Press, 1999), Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology (Brazos Press, 2003), and Real American Ethics (University of Chicago Press, 2006).

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