Friday, December 11, 2015

Upgrade Now (Recommended)

Have I mentioned I'm really into Serial Experiments Lain? Well. I finally watched Serial Experiments Lain for the first time in September and I'm really into Serial Experiments Lain. (You can be too! The good people at Funimation have put the the whole series up on YouTube.) Doubtless it was a contributor to my late preoccupation with Dr. Marshall "Electricity Makes Possible An Amplification Of Human Consciousness On A World Scale" McLuhan.

I recently persuaded my roommate to run through the show with me, so we've been watching an episode every other night or so. From what I can tell, he seems to be into it. (He's not very emotive, so you have to watch and listen to him carefully.) For my part, I'm relieved that Lain holds up to a second viewing. It's definitely less bewildering and wrenching than it was the first time through, but I've been having a good time twigging all the stuff I initially missed because I couldn't have known to look for it. (The show doesn't really begin cluing you in on what's actually happening until episode nine or maybe ten out of thirteen).

There's other stuff I've noticed too, and that isn't necessarily related to Lain's abstruse plot or its psycho-theological-technobabblical-existentialist textures. Take Lain Iwakura's inscrutable tech enthusiast father. My having a somewhat better idea of his relationship to Lain brought a modicum of clarity to his early exchanges with her, which are mostly one-sided speeches about computers and connectivity:
You're in junior high now. Your friends are leaving you in the dust, right? I keep telling you that you should use a better machine.

You know, Lain, in this world, whether it's here in the real world or in the Wired, people connect to each other, and that's how societies function.

Even a girl like you can make friends right off the bat, Lain. There's nothing to be afraid of. I wonder why your mother can't understand that...?

You can't keep using that children's Navi forever. For communication you need a powerful system that will mature alongside your relationships with people. Understand, Lain?

I was reading him a little more attentively this time, perhaps because I wasn't so perplexed by the eerie impersonality he shows towards his daughter. For me, that last proposition of his struck a chord.

Lain's inscrutable tech enthusiast father surfs the web Wired.

I've said a few times before that I don't own a smartphone. Today I can state with all confidence that I am the only one of my extended social circle carrying an all-purpose digital device with them at all times of the day. Back when the iPhone began taking off, I didn't give this much thought: I mean, by all accounts, those people who decided they'd rather keep their record players than switch to compact discs back in the day weren't hampering themselves in any broad social sense by doing so.

Maybe I would have been better advised to take Mr. Iwakura's admonition to heart.

At their most basic, the issues are of mistaken assumptions. I tend to forget that when Gchat shows a person online at three in the morning, they might not necessarily be (and in fact are more likely not to be) awake and in front of a computer. People send me verbose serial texts because it is a given, in 2015, that my phone has more than twelve keys and I can type and dispatch messages as swiftly and easily as anyone (everyone) with a fifty-plus-key digital keyboard. People ask me if I use this or that app, and I remind them that I can't use any apps. It is always assumed that I have a GPS on my person at all times, and I get on friends' nerves by asking them to give me directions.

Not long ago had a chat with a friend who, like me, is in her early thirties, and it was that chat, the one that everyone in our age group has to indulge in at least a few times a year: "do you remember?"

My household took the ramp onto the information superhighway when I was twelve years old. By the time I graduated from high school, I and many of my friends were regular users of LiveJournal, an early (and perhaps unsung) predecessor to MySpace, Facebook, Wordpress, Tumblr, etc. By our late teens and early twenties, all of us were carrying around and calling each other on mobile phones. The thrust of these thirtysomething chats is that we will be the last generational cohort to remember life before the digital revolution, to share an experiential appreciation of its magnitude.

And we also talked about Young People. Teens. Twentysomethings. We have a hard time relating to the kids these days. I would say that this is nothing new—but that actually isn't true. Can you imagine generational divides and misgivings between people born ten to twenty years apart in the "closed" and culturally stable tribal societies into which humanity organized itself during the better part of our species' history? But at any rate, it is to be expected today. Those of us in our thirties were we were programmed, sculpted, trained, catechized, whatever you please, by a world with a very different arrangement of its contents than the one our younger peers found themselves dropped into. A result of this can't but be discrepancies in our attitudes, assumptions, norms, mores, expectations, values, and so on.

Someone in his fifties today, who got by for decades without subjecting his being as a social animal to digital augmentation, is going to have different ideas about human interactions and relationships than someone whose earliest memories include being handed an iPad by her parents. He can adapt, of course, by adopting and attaining a fluency in these technologies—though he'll certainly communicate with a  perceptible accent to those who learned to use a device and surf the web as easily and naturally as they did their first spoken language.

But what if he doesn't adopt?

A cool piece about Lain on The Artifice that explores the relevance of a late-nineties miniseries with decidedly Web 1.0 sensibilities to a post-Web 2.0 world touches on this:
Lain is occasionally teased by some of Alice’s friends for being ignorant about the on-goings of the Wired and told by her father that she ought to learn how to use the Wired to keep in touch with other people. In a sense, Lain is being left out because of her ignorance concerning digital communication. As the series continues and Lain becomes more adept at using the Wired as a means of communication, she is shown to be both bolder and more social. She ultimately becomes more knowledgeable of the Wired than any other character in the show. By learning to utilize the Wired, Lain has become more socially savvy, more connected to everyone else. This is something we see very often on the internet nowadays, people who use social media are up-to-date with all the little trends and social happenings while people who do not are left out of the loop. A person’s online presence and awareness of the on-goings of the internet have become a large factor of their social standing in the modern world.
I kept pace for years. I did. Video games: they're no longer The Next Big Thing, they are The Big Thing. I got an NES when I was four, and two decades of upgrades followed: the Genesis, the SNES, the N64, the PlayStation, the PlayStation 2, the Xbox, the Xbox 360. I used a desktop computer with a floppy disk drive, then a desktop computer with a CD-ROM drive, and then I switched to a laptop. My household swapped its 28k modem for a 56k, then plugged in through an ethernet cable, and then connected to a home wireless network. And so on it went.

Lain's desktop.

Around six years ago I stopped keeping up. I gave away the Xbox 360 and never upgraded to a PlayStation 3, an Xbox One, or a PlayStation 4. I never put aside using a laptop in favor of a smartphone or tablet. I have no interest whatsoever in adopting a VR or AR device. Like I said, at first I figured this wasn't much different than the vinyl collector saying no thanks to a CD player. I didn't realize these were fundamental lifestyle decisions I was making.

My first clue was that when I stopped playing video games, I had less and less to talk about with the circle of internet friends I'd cultivated for the better part of a decade. After a while I began to notice the growing regularity with which I'd find myself at a social gathering or outing, staring at my friends while they all poked at their phones for five minutes at a time. When I was newly single earlier this year, Tinder was not an option. During my recent job hunt, I kept finding promising gigs that I couldn't apply to because of a smartphone requirement.

And did I mention I don't have a Netflix subscription? I DON'T HAVE NETFLIX (nor can I chill). I've become that kid from elementary school (maybe you knew him?) whose parents didn't own a television, so he never knew what anyone was talking about when a TV show came into a discussion, and he was just kind of weird besides (or rather because?).

Not upgrading to a smartphone or a new video game is turning out to be a bigger deal than I thought. It's one thing to switch to a vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free diet. Maybe you're not eating the same dishes as everyone else, but you can still go out to dinner with friends and sit down with your folks at Thanksgiving. It's another thing to, say, find that your digestive system has been transmogrified to something more similar to that of a planktonic cyanobacterium, requiring you to periodically immerse yourself in water and bask in the sun in order to produce your means of subsistence. There would be social challenges, certainly. You'd very quickly find yourself rather out of synch with the rest of the world.

Actually, in my case it's more like everyone else has signed on to photosynthesis and I'm the only one left in my neighborhood finagling with a stove and kitchenware and proposing trips to restaurants. By not upgrading I was declining a normal (the new normal) social existence.

Lain's desktop (a few upgrades later).

It is like clicking the "No Thanks" button when a program asks permission to download and install an update. I should have expected compatibility issues with new and updated programs. I am not just out of sync with the kids, but with people my own age.

A conceptual cornerstone of Lain is a hard interpretation of the "consensus reality" argument. For instance, in Lain's world, a person might die—but if everyone forgets that she died, and is made to believe that she is still alive, that person is effectively a living, breathing human being again (and "again" doesn't even apply). This is fun to imagine, but I doubt that if everyone on Earth woke up tomorrow believing the sun revolved around the Earth, our solar system would have the courtesy to rearrange itself for us. (Yes, yes, we can protest our way into an ontological Ascending and Descending Stairs trip, but I tend to reject anthropocentric solipsism on principle.)

But I can more easily and willing swallow a soft interpretation. Somebody, for some reason, might look up at the sky and see that it is green, green as the grass and the trees. But everyone else sees the sky as blue, and so the person who sees green is wrong. He is crazy; there must be something wrong with his brain or his eyes. After all, what are madness and delusion at their most basic but the assertion of perceptions that that crowd does not experience, or the egregious or chronic exhibition of non-normative behaviors?

As the crowd outers more and more of its senses to an evolving line of devices through multiplying pathways and modes, the crowd's perceptions will contort, expand, and deform. Does the person who opts out of that evolution consign himself to a kind of madness?

It wouldn't be so much that I've become less sane, but that everyone else has grown more sane, according to new agreements on the coordinates of sanity and normalcy.

I still don't want a damn iPhone. Maybe I'm already nuts.


  1. Easy, get a Samsung Galaxy Note, not in iPhone. Who wants one of those stuntedly tiny things anyway?

    Joking aside, it's a really interesting reflection. Perhaps the more important part is the unstated question "how much longer can you 'opt out' before it starts affecting your continued survival?" Being disallowed to apply to certain jobs already seems like a worrying sign.

    1. At some point between 1920 and maybe 1960 there was definitely at least one person who, after years of resistance to getting a telephone installed (he just hated that ringing noise, maybe), acceded to Progress after weighing his distaste of the device against the social costs of not being on the network. Same thing happened with an email account and a cellphone, surely. The smartphone is just another spike in the line.

  2. I only recently "upgraded" to a smartphone. I had my old phone for five and a half years until it finally died. During that time, I had similar problems getting a job - I'm a programmer, and the last job I had was developing an Android app. People wanted to see it, but it wasn't on an app store, and I couldn't show it to them since I didn't have a smartphone. There's something about an app developer without a smartphone that people mistrust (maybe for good reason). The only callback for a second interview I got was for a job that had nothing to do with app development.

    So I finally bit the bullet and got an Android phone, pretty much so I could write my own apps for it. I still haven't installed any apps (besides my own two). My niece was flipping through it the other day and was very confused by seeing empty page after empty page. It's definitely not necessary to get a smartphone. My life has not been altered at all. I use it to make calls and send text messages, just like I did with my old phone.

    I didn't even want to get a cell phone in the first place. By the end of high school, everyone I knew had one, but what did I need one for? Phones at this point could barely send texts, so what was the difference between that and a land line? Obviously once you leave your parents' house you need a phone, and at that point, you might as well get a mobile one. But anything beyond that is far from a necessity.

    My video game collection also stops at the PS2. I only very recently got a Wii U, and that was exclusively to play Mario Maker, so it's basically like I was buying an expansion pack for Mario 3.

    It's like whenever some new piece of technology comes out, people realize how shitty their lives have been without it. PlayStation 4? How could I have ever enjoyed myself with this shitty PlayStation 3? Cell phones - How did I ever get by with my land line? Smartphones - My life was meaningless with my regular cell phone; only now have I achieved true consciousness.

    I'm not against technology. You should have whatever level your lifestyle demands. You just shouldn't let technology dictate what your lifestyle is.

    1. Technology doesn't dictate what your lifestyle should be. The social consensus regarding technology and the expectations it germinates fulfill that function.

      Also: I will never own a Wii-U and will never play Mario Maker. It makes me sad, but that's how it's gotta be. (And yes, thank you, SMB3 is indeed the pinnacle of the series.)

  3. It is better to light a candle than to philosophize in the dark. ;-)

    1. I'm not sure if I understand your meaning. Are you advocating that I get the excutaneous chip installed?

    2. Ah, that was just me being pithy, I think.

      But I was thinking about smartphones more specifically. I used to want to resist them to the death, but one day I just caved in. Now the phone discreetly rearranged my DNA and all is well with the world! Kidding aside, I really do think smartphones are wonderful. I used to have an alarm clock, a watch, a calendar, an agenda notebook, a camera and road maps. Now I have a smartphone. And they're so small too. Consider all the materials saved. Progress!

      I'm sure the naysayers complain about planned obsolescence and waste, but I wonder if they take into account everything else not being used up.

  4. I would also argue that these technologies make certain intuitive human qualities and senses less accessible. The crystal lattice structure of our connective tissue is itself a transmitter and receiver of electromagnetic current. In proximity, we can clearly transmit our intentions to other attuned bodies, from telegraphing our movements and wants to communicating conceptual realities. At a distance, different facets of our environment like mycelium, minerals, and water can help augment and carry our intentions over long distances. Though the information is much more subtle than a tweet or PM, it is still a means of communication that we can access with discipline. Even the processes of honing and manifesting our intentions get lost in the wake of profiles and likes, but there are still popular notions of "the law of attraction" and "subtle manifestation."

    These new technologies elevate a certain definition of the material world and our means of interacting with it and each other. They externalize and augment intrinsically human capacities in an efficient, rational manner, but they are only one possibility that has risen to prominence. We could have gone many ways in our metaphysical evolution, and we still have many ways to go. Though our new technologies exist in and enforce a dominant, hegemonic culture, other ways of being are also available and not without their own support. We will see the centralized control of our self-determination and survival wrested from the hands of these watch-maker corporate gods. Our histories will not be deleted by these modern media moguls as they have been through other inquisitions. We shall emerge as teachers as the hegemony crumbles to the woes of resource depletion and systemic failure in the face of this new mass extinction event. As the thermohaline currents of the seas shift and our agricultural avarice reduces large swathes of arable land to desert, we shall mimic our mycelial forebears that have carried the building blocks of life through the depths of space, holding the code to remake life.

    Think I got that stuff from the internets somewhere...


      Actually, Serial Experiments Lain touches on what you're talking about here in quite a lot of detail, and it starts taking off in episode nine. We're talking about the collective unconscious and the digital grid getting plugged into each other. Wild stuff.