James Poulos’ “Human, Forever”: An Excerpt
Panic, despair, desperation, overriding hunger for one something vast enough to master the everything that now swarms our world beyond human measure: these feelings are understandable. They are the essence of what we take to be the catastrophic attitude — and in our ‘Western’ civilization, the philosophy of catastrophe is of a piece with the eschatological temper of our religious sensibility. In other words, Western reason has characteristically led us in the same direction as its purported opposite, revelation, toward an ever more complete account of the end times.
Some would say that, if true, this is the fault of religion. Some consider it irrational to say there is truth in poetry or insist the miraculous exists. Yet revelation is ultimately a philosophical concept, the abstract category of ‘that which is disclosed to us’. Our words apocalypse and detective derive respectively from Greek and Latin terms whose roots have the identical meaning of to uncover. Untethered from worldly and human nature, the logic of reason must insist that reason alone is sufficient not just to uncover everything concealed but to lay bare the true or rational meanings of coveredness and uncoveredness.
What’s more, reason must demonstrate the reasonableness of an expectation that it can eventually ‘deliver the goods’ on its claim to sole competence in defining all about what it is to be covered and uncovered, and all about how, tied only to our untethered reason, we must stand in relation to covering and uncovering. Inevitably, such a demonstration can only make good on such an expectation by perpetual explanation — forever accounting for how it is that all can, and will only be, uncovered through the instrument of unaided and independent reason. On that account, the infinity of probity will actually culminate, much sooner rather than later, in a crescendo of singularity, in the simultaneous onrush and arrival of everything.
Apocalypse, therefore, is good; but because detectives, constrained by the limits of inductive reasoning, cannot bring it about, the ultimate power and authority to do so emanates only from the experts who best can create the best explanations. “We have been trying to see,” said the founding computer theorist Alan Turing, “how far it is possible to eliminate intuition, and leave only ingenuity. We do not mind how much ingenuity is required, and therefore assume it to be available in unlimited supply.” As Stewart Brand told John Brockman, “we are as gods,” so we “have to get good at it” lest the weight of our all-too-human catastrophe will catch up with us and crash down upon us. Optimizing for divinity becomes the height of responsibility; emergency becomes the ultimate authority. Suddenly the imminent threat of catastrophe sounds like the best thing that has ever happened to us…
And it’s true, the Greek roots of katastrophe don’t spell complete disaster; but, instead, less ‘apocalyptically’, they refer to no more than a sudden overturning of what was. By the end of the Middle Ages, this sense was refined to mean the consummation of a story’s plot through an unexpected stroke of reversal. In other words, the ‘end time’ revealed that the logic leading to it was only ‘rational’ in light of what the logic itself could not disclose. We know this disclosure at its most unnatural as the deus ex machina. More deft variations still depend on the rational planning of the human author. Yet unlike even the best or most natural of stories, human life has no, and needs no, knowable point of end. Nor, strictly speaking, is there any rational or religious basis to conclude that we should live as if an unknowable ‘end time’ might occur at any imminent moment: living properly or well is its own justification, whatever the measure of the just. Preparation for responsibility is preparation for judgment — this is the implication of every rite of passage for those who would come of age.
The difficulty is that today no single measure of responsibility is sufficiently shared to produce or evaluate preparation in a universal way. The collapse of the pre-digital electric world has shattered the Whole Earth imaginarium crafted by the likes of Brand or John Lennon: even as the dominance of the digital has shown that associations can stretch across the world, it has destroyed the plausibility of a global community. The supremacy of machine memory implemented by the digital swarm makes it technologically impossible for any person or faction to electrically engineer a unified human imagination or consciousness. This simply means that no person or faction can deliver the global us from the digital catastrophe wracking America and the rest of the world. Under digital conditions, any plan for a single figure, movement, organization, or other human entity ‘winning’ world authority and control over the swarm (and us all through it) is delusional. Although our ruling factions may wager everything on their ability to prove their plans to this effect are not only possible but inevitable, it is in vain. The digitized world is irreducibly plural, built only to disenchant their greatest, most desperate dreams.
Nevertheless, some people and factions must fare better than others as the digital age unfolds. Those who best understand that the digital catastrophe has already happened, and who therefore stop trying to manifest electric-age dreams and nightmares of superhumanity or post-humanity, will distinguish themselves amidst the return of profound plurality by their wisdom in matters of making our humanity robust again.
In beginning to sense how the digitized age will produce this kind of leader, we will let go of the ‘generational’ sensibility that practically tyrannized the closing generations of the electric age. It’s true that even not so robust human beings are likely to keep producing new generations. But even now the despair produced by digital disenchantment is enough to make us test that proposition. A general, deterritorialized terror has spread that we no longer remember, and can no longer imagine, any sufficient answers to why our offspring should bother living out their lives, or how exactly they ought to do so.
This sudden comprehensive disillusionment that wracks the world’s young is now much more global than any regime’s projection of power. In America, ever more deadpan reactions — millions of voices muttering about boomer or millennial cringe — greet ever more desperate motivational speeches from officialdom’s HR managers to save the earth, follow your passion, be a part of something bigger than yourself, or simply to just do it. In China, the new youth culture is expressed in the tang ping or ‘lying flat’ movement. “I will not marry, I will not buy a house or have children, I will not buy a bag or wear a watch. I will slack off at work,” runs the tang ping catechism. And in Taiwan, as good a representative as any for the civilizational gray zone between the U.S. and China, the hot new semi-autobiographical novel is Leave Society. Its protagonist, Li, hopes to bail on New York and run away to Hawaii with his love interest, “but his ultimate goal is to leave his body,” as the New York Times explains. “He believes that the human species, if it survives enough, will ‘disincarnate’ and upload into a mainframe called the ‘imagination.’ He’s not sure how we will get there, but he thinks ‘crafting a planet-sized art object, a context lasting and magical enough for greater magic to appear,’ might do the trick.” Constant hallucinogenic dosing, plant medicine, DMT trips in search of encounters with cosmic entities — people who recoil at the thought of bearing and raising their own descendants now grasp like children at anything intense enough, insanity most certainly included, to still promise the relief of escape into fantasy from the responsibility of being human.
At the same time, the digital catastrophe has already brought to a halt the electric-age pattern of generational turnover, according to which each successive generation was bound to spawn a new culture alien to the previous one. Take the absurdity of Generation Z, a supposedly coherent culture-bloc encompassing (per a leading research center) “anyone born from 1997 onward.” This useless demographic exemplifies just how prone are people and factions who came of age under pre-digital conditions to hallucinate singularities. From the standpoint of today, where the digital catastrophe has already happened, the inarguable divide in generations is marked somewhere ten years later — in 2007, when the first-generation iPhone was sold. In the blink of a generational eye, smartphones were commodified to the point of market saturation.
Or, to put it in more viscerally human terms, we all became cyborgs.
Those who will come of age in a world where we have crossed this immense Rubicon, where the smartphone and our digitized life predates their own life on Earth, are of course already alive — well into the age of reason, when a child begins to separate fantasies from reality. They already have much less in common with those born in the decade before the iPhone than they will with those born after them. Yet, crucially — no matter how right David Bowie was when he insisted the internet was not just a tool but “an alien life form” — they do not inhabit some alien world separated from ours (i.e., their parents’) by a yawning, impassable gulf. The new generation will not be defined by a span of years within which its members are born. Whether fifteen or five hundred years hence, everyone born into the cyborg age, the world of smartphones and everything after, will face one consuming, ruling challenge: recovering a robust and common sense of their humanity in an irreducibly plural world swarmed through with digital tech. The natural, given affinity and continuity among generations will be restored. It has to be. Difference and diversity will manifest more within generations than across them. Yet the first people to be born into the digital world do occupy a pivotal place in the witness and testimony of the human race. They are the inflection point, the first to know in their bones how their elders’ obsessions with waking dreams of utter doom or godlike totality will be obsolete and inapplicable to the task of living well.
So within the distinctive generation coming of age amid the digital catastrophe, some will distinguish themselves further. Different individuals and intimate groups will find themselves devoting their identities to different wagers concerning the ultimate questions human beings face and concerning those questions’ ultimate answers. The most decisively distinctive will be those who best understand the truth of the digital catastrophe — that it has already happened — and live out that understanding. They will grasp that, in the wake of the digital catastrophe, rebirth and renaissance require an end to apocalypticism and utopianism alike; an end to universalist ambitions of earthly rule as well as of cosmic unification; an end to the quest for both perfect knowledge and a perfect language through which to express it. “A renaissance,” as Doug Rushkoff reminds us in Team Human, “is a retrieval of the old. Unlike a revolution, it makes no claim on the new. A renaissance is, as the word suggests, a rebirth of old ideas in a new context” — and, we can add, a rebirth of old people. “A renaissance without the retrieval of lost, essential values” — and of lost and essential people, and of their memories, and of the stories and biographies we use to return them to us and us to our progeny, age upon age — “is just another revolution.” This is the wisdom we will need to return human robustness to a digitized world and to preserve it as long as we may.
Those pivotal men who arrive first at this wisdom, and through it set enough of us back on our feet in the needed way, will see themselves rightly as the first generation — the founding generation — of the digital age. Some might refer to themselves as the first new cohort (from the Latin for infantry company) to come of age on a new kind of campus (from the Latin for battlefield). Or, as we can do now, they might look back for inspiration to their point of origin, to the first-generation devices that made present the ‘coming age’ in which they came of age.
Even right now, still a few years before the new rites of passage that will bring them into responsibility and maturity, they can find shelter and strength under the sign of the First Generation. Their opposites — those in our ruling factions who reject and oppose the digital wisdom we need to live lives worth living in digitized times — are already hard at work manifesting Generation One’s great enemy: Year Zero.