Media Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Environments and Digital Life
Abstract and Keywords
This article gives ecocritical consideration to digital media. It discusses Elizabeth Kolbert’s work which highlights how a technological society is destroying itself. It suggests that while humans have the power to modify their surroundings to suit their needs, they do not have the wisdom to suit their needs to their surroundings. The chapter considers the possibility that digital media have less environmental impact than their analogue predecessors, and that, conversely, such media dangerously insulate us from contact with nonhuman nature.
Ecocriticism has never not been a crisis discipline. Anyone who thought, “Aha!, here is an academic Green Zone for safe and wholesome discussions about birds in texts and their counterparts at my feeder” missed the point altogether. Ecocriticism is a conversation in a trench along a collapsing front, and ecocritics must shout over the roar of the tanks, bulldozers, and flamethrowers. Blood-on-the-ground is the ur-trope for the ecoliterate text: nothing praiseworthy can be registered without the deep foreboding of its pending annihilation. Behind every paean or even casual nod to nature is the dreadful knowledge: “there is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better” (Adorno 25). In this perverse realism, textual signifiers refer not to the things themselves but to the void where things once stood. One cannot fall back to the old salients of formal autonomy or well-wrought urn because such concepts have been blasted to pieces: they no longer hold water, let alone calm the panicking imagination. We would love to keep the beautiful objects apart from the rest of the shite, but the poem cracked and in oozed a greasy leachate from the chemical plant upriver. The blackbirds have scattered from the trees or, rather, stumps; the jar in Tennessee was removed, along with the mountaintop upon which it was placed. All ecocritical interventions are eulogies to the dead and the doomed: places, species, cultures, natures.
The planet on the table.
Elizabeth Kolbert throws up her hands at the end of her Field Notes on a Catastrophe, which investigates the whys and wherefores of global warming: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technological society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing” (187). That we would choose self-destruction is a datum in great need of explanation by anyone who styles himself an ecocritic. Literature, the lodestar of ecocriticism from its inception, helps us understand what sort of creatures we are to knowingly immolate ourselves (p. 488) and the planet. Amongst many other functions it serves as a medium of storage: poems, though they cannot take the place of a mountain, bear “some lineament or character, / Some affluence, if only half-perceived, / In the poverty of their words, / Of the planet of which they were part” (Stevens 532). Literature, taken as a whole, is the human pageant distilled—and equally the transhistorical rap-sheet of a sad and furious primate. Passed through the interpretative lens of ecocritical theory, literature reveals instance after instance of our utter failure to project, limit, and abate our inborn corrosive effect on the ecosystems in which we live. In simple terms, the price we have paid for the complexity of our lifeways is the decomplexity of Earth’s. As a species, we have the power to modify our surroundings to suit our needs but not the wisdom to suit our needs to our surroundings.
Let us drink a toast to literature’s magnificent rendition of our tortured history while casting a cool ecocritical eye toward the future. Though literature has ploughed long and truly the broad fields of human ignorance and conceit, ecocritics must now look to our newer mediums of record: television, film, computer-based media and, more broadly, the digital datasphere (first imagined in Dan Simmons’s science fiction novel of 1989, Hyperion) that is growing over the earth like a new mantel. Making predictions about the future of digital media is a mug’s game because tomorrow seldom unfolds as the present believes it must. But what seems safe to say is that if the world as we know it survives a little longer, the mature datasphere will allow us to query the air and have answers whispered into our ears, or make gestures and cause holograms to fill the room. Our lives will be led in this thick broth of information and we will drink from it deeply. Billions of us will be telepresent around the same virtual campfire sharing stories, the apotheosis of Walter Ong’s secondary orality. Via ubiquitous computing, this planetary information cloud (or fog) will connect every human with every human artifact; it will link us to natural geophysical structures using GIS [Global Information Systems], to animals equipped with RFID tags [Radio-Frequency Identification], and to sections of the atmosphere and oceans seeded with various monitoring instruments. The whole earth will be able to observe itself and track its vital signs: summer/winter cycles of CO2 inhalation and exhalation, rising sea levels and temperature spikes, crashing of waves and glaciers, songs of birds and groans of whales. Data is everywhere, just waiting to be mined. From our listening posts we planetary (mis)managers will be able to monitor the life and death of Gaia in this, our terminal epoch, the Anthropocene.
Goodbye Maldives, it’s been nice.
NASA’s Eyes on the Earth 3D is a desktop tool that allows users to access the latest telemetry from a host of Earth observation satellites. Jason 2, for example, keeps track of ocean heights using a microwave radiometer, which bounces a beam off the surface of the water and measures its return time. This altimetric record is one of the most precise ways to follow sea-level fluctuations, which occur for many reasons, including planetary wobble, ocean circulation, thermal expansion, wind and storm surges, seasonal runoff, El Niño and La Niña events, seiches, tsunamis, tides, a great many bathers entering the sea all at once, and polar ice-cap melting.
Where’s my noosphere?
Are new media adding yet more layers of distraction and diversion to our already thick-coated sensorium? Sometimes these new media seem to (p. 489) provide merely sexier packaging for the same old bad news, like the doctor on The Simpsons who tells Homer’s worried family, “we can’t fix his heart, but we can tell you exactly how damaged it is”—to which Homer replies “What an age we live in!” (“Homer’s.”). On the other hand, perhaps the playgrounds and battlefields of cyberspace will provide healthier outlets for our restless energies, which in the real world continue to go to work on the planet as if it were an endless frontier and business opportunity. Might there even be ways that new media can revive our fading connection to the Old Holocene?Well, there are a few hopeful notes. Some ecocritics argue that digital media technologies are qualitatively different from earlier technologies that ran on or were made from petroleum. They think that the information gusher is lighter than the old crude, that the datasphere will substitute wireless for pipelines, information highways for asphalt, knowledge commons for the tragedy of the commons. They hope the datasphere will outmode and replace so much of that dirty, energy-hogging infrastructure that we will be ushered out of the industrial into a new ecotechnic (Greer) or ecocosmopolitan age (Heise 10). Digital media appear frictionless, as though causing things to happen through the application of thought, not energy. Perhaps they can help us live on the planet smartly. Thus, with respect to ecopsychological health ecocritics hope that digital media are to the mind what wind power is to the atmosphere: carbon neutral. They hope, as well, that the integrative propensities of the datasphere will not draw us into a social media echo chamber but, indeed, will restore (or perhaps for the first time create) a healthy rapport with the natural world. In this view, new media could foster awareness, transparency, compassion; they could put us in touch with the unseen things; they could show us the way the world is ending and empower us to save it. For ecocritics, the immediate task is straightforward: “it behooves us to discover what imaginative and conceptual resources we need to construct ethical and healthy relationships between digital and material worlds, just as ecocritics have been working to establish such relationships between textual and material worlds” (Ulman 345).
Puslinch, Ontario. Summer, 1995: they were housed in a converted barn at the back of the pasture. There were six of them, barely out of college, the leader a precocious high school dropout, and they were writing code to make Earth a safer place for Ranacatesbeiana. That worthy amphibian, to the tune of millions a year, was being pickled in formalin for biology students to dissect. Digital Frog International would make that classic lab activity obsolete: using its CD-ROM-based, virtual anatomy lesson, a student could tease apart the lungs, heart, and kidneys of a frog without ever leaving the desk-station; with a mouse click she could spark its dead thigh muscle to life, so to speak, just as Galvani had done 200 years before. Moreover, the disk would contain enough leftover space for other items of educational value: lessons on ecology and frog distributions; a dictionary of terms; self-tests and quizzes.
If one pages through a lab supplies wholesaler’s catalog, one comes away wondering where all those preserved bullfrogs—4–6 inches, 6–8 inches, in bulk bags or pails, as you wish—come from. And given that all over the world frogs are dying off like … frogs? … one could rightly suppose that in the near future the digital frog will be the only anatomy kit practicably obtainable. But, in the absence of the real animal, will savvy about (p. 490) amphibian anatomy still have cash value? Or will it be like knowing that the diplodocus possessed eighty tail vertebrae? In point of fact, such knowledge is, like most knowledge of low creatures, usually just scaffolding to an understanding of the mammalian anatomies—of the rat, the fetal pig, the rhesus monkey—that are closer to the human. Indeed, biological education sometimes seems designed merely to move students stepwise toward that question of singular importance at least since Francis Bacon: How can nature be made to divulge her secrets so that we humans may live longer and healthier lives? That this question has been answered in part through ongoing violence toward our animal cousins is exactly what the programmers at DFI were trying to address: by rendering obsolete animal sacrifice for the purposes of education, they were pointing toward a future in which science and medicine could be modeled and extended by digital means rather than animal suffering.
The most powerful moment in Kubrick’s oeuvre occurs in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the first killer hominid weaponizes a thigh bone to the strains of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. This scene symbolizes the fortunate fall: the first man exteriorizing his mind into a tool and so initiating the technology-assisted ecocide that is leading to the last. In “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” Wendell Berry avers that any new tool should be demonstrably superior to the tool it succeeds. In his view a benign tool is one that does “not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists” (172), a standard to which we can all bow our heads. Yet this is not the way we killer apes have ever done things. Like chimps puffing up their fur before battle, we feel bigger and safer inside our technological swaddling. Artifact evolution is driven by the desire to get ever more power quicker to hand. The ideal tool would be a titanium magic wand or perhaps a death-ray with a built-in Pez dispenser. We want godlike power in a slick package. The concentration of many digital capabilities into a single mobile device is exemplary: apps for all contingencies—and heavy on the fun-factor. The switch from continuous (analog media) to discontinuous information representation (via the digital computer that Berry rejects) makes this matter-symbol convergence possible. Digitalization permits our representational systems—speaking, writing, telephony, recording, broadcasting, and so on—to manifest anywhere and everywhere across the screens and portals that connect us to the ethereal infrastructure of our world. Already wearable, very soon computers will be embeddable, etched into our very bones, silent, invisible, potent. We will radiate tool-power; indeed, we will be the tools we wish to use. But the question must be asked: Has there ever been a tool that did not lead to an increase in human pride and arrogance?
Fish in water.
Marshall McLuhan liked to say that he didn’t know who invented water but he knew it wasn’t a fish. Literary critics, after spending a couple decades gasping on the shores of digital media and imagining they were evolving into something else, are soon to become fish again, and when they do they will, thankfully, stop obsessing about digital media. For the same reasons that few bother to theorize the word processor or the hypertext novel anymore, literary critics will stop noticing new media: the latter will just be the water in which they swim. The gnashing of teeth over the death of the paper-based book or the virtualization of the library—this too shall pass. As Katherine Hayles points (p. 491) out, “So essential is digitality to contemporary processes of composition, storage, and production that print should properly be considered a particular form of output for digital files rather than a medium separate from digital instantiation” (Electronic Literature 159). But while paper books are now digital media’s stepchildren, content is still king for literary critics. The text, not the delivery mechanism, bears the important secrets.
One group that might linger a bit longer on the beach are ecocritics, whose relationship to media has always been dicey. Ecocritics are ever mindful that prior to any medium are the mediated entities themselves—the moose, the sandpiper, the toxic event, the white squall of reality. Not to say that other critics do not find so-called nature compelling as well, but ecocritics claim a special regard for the premediated world. They are less likely to insist (if anyone ever has) there is nothing outside the text. Some even wish to hold a place in the queue for this nothing. Although they hope otherwise, they fear the digital ecology will become too seductive, its pictures of virtual entities too vivid, for the rest of us dullards to maintain our already feeble grip on the environmental real.
Ecocritics should probably come clean: they have a reality bias, which is only to say they believe the red-cockaded woodpeckers in the pine forests of southeastern North America are realer than the characters in Super Mario Galaxy 2. Gamers could rightly reply that there are hundreds of millions of copies of Mario and fewer than 15,000 copies of the woodpecker; Mario himself is a character beloved worldwide, but most of us will never see the red-cockaded. Still, there is something about flesh-and-blood fauna that to ecocritics remain more compelling than software entities. Gamers, deep down, probably feel the same. Yet they might be correct in a certain way were they to opine, “The human world would be more diminished by the deletion of Mario than the extinction of one little-known, maladaptive species.” No doubt this formulation proposes a false choice, one we need not make, as false as claiming Stone Age man had to pick either the Irish elk or the cave paintings of Lascaux. But in this regard there are significant differences between old media and new, differences that help explain why ecocritics prefer their students to read more Emily Dickinson (e.g., “His bill an auger is, / His head, a cap and frill. / He laboreth at every tree,—/ A worm his utmost goal”) and play fewer video games. The poem, ecocritics would say, points back to the bird; Mario points only to more Mario.
Our growing alienation from the environmental real is partly the result of radical dematerialization, which owes its early theorization to Dr. McCoy on the old Star Trek series, who said of the ship’s matter transporter, “I signed aboard this ship to practice medicine, not to have my atoms scattered back and forth across space by this gadget” (“Space Seed”). But more to the point is the extraordinary degree to which everyday life is being incrementally disembodied, the mind hurled into cyberspace and the meat left behind to keep the chair warm. “However incompletely the new media have been implanted, however faltering is their present state of interconnection, the modal conversion of the human has sensibly begun” (Massumi 132). What does the conversion bode for our relationships to that which, like the woodpecker, is not “beamed up”? Granted, we have long been creatures of media and, as McLuhan argued in his summation, Laws of Media, what any medium—any technology, any idea, in fact—gives by enhancement it (p. 492) eventually takes back through reversal. The automobile heralded unprecedented mobility and Fahrvergnügen but its very success resulted in traffic jams and road rage. Yet for McLuhan media were more or less discrete entities and so could be understood from within as if from without. It seemed to him that “if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens to us and what we can do about it, we can come through” (268). (To which McCoy might reply, “How do you study a process at the very moment it is rendering you a collection of particles in a pattern buffer?”) There was, too, McLuhan’s deep and abiding humanism: “I expect to see the coming decades transform the planet into an art form; the new man, linked in a cosmic harmony that transcends time and pace, will sensuously caress and mold and pattern every facet of the terrestrial artifact as if it were a work of art, and man himself will become an organic art form.” It is exactly this knee-jerk faith in our cognitive virtuosity, in mind over media, that has some ecocritics worried. Conventional literary humanists want to view biophysical reality as a toy boat on a sea of discursive regimes, tossed about by waves of ideology, mass media distortion, hackneyed scripts, bureaucratese. We can get the vessel to safe harbor by learning to speak the storm. Ecocritics, by contrast, believe the real storm will fill our throats with brine.
Ecocritics should recall that theories of media determinism all find their backstory in Plato’s Phaedrus, in which the god of writing, Theuth, champions his gift as an aide-mémoire while the Egyptian king, Thamus, scorns writing as a pharmakon that will actually destroy memory by anchoring it outside the mind in written characters. True truths can be known only by committing them to onboard, living memory (anamnesis); writing is the realm of falsity, rhetoric, and dead memory (hypomnesis). Every new medium puts us on the horns of the same dilemma: what part of our mental life shall be outsourced this time? For ecocritics, the digital dilemma can be posed this way: does the hyperimmediacy of the digital environment poison or enhance our relationship with the natural one? More baldly: if a boy spends much of his waking life inside Facebook or the World of WarCraft, how fares his nascent attachment to the non-virtual, that portion of existence unresponsive to mouse clicks?
Bill McKibben developed one answer to the digital dilemma through an experiment in comparative phenomenology. He watched over 1,000 hours of the television programming from one day in 1990. He then spent twenty-four hours outdoors hiking, swimming, making supper, and stargazing. McKibben discovered what most ecocritics will have suspected: a media ecology that features The Simpsons and The Shopping Channel as keystone species is stunningly impoverished. Notwithstanding the density of information in this ecology, McKibben believes our era is one of “deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment” (Age 9). In McKibben’s view, a duck paddling in a pond is a far richer source of quality information than television because it links us to “A realer world, maybe—certainly an older one” (248). “Each day,” as ducks and other organisms are extinguished or are replaced in our consciousnesses by screen-based entities, “information leaks away—some branch of life that evolved for millions of years is gone, and the next day two more, and six the day after (p. 493) that. The world grows stupider, less substantial” (85). The new media ecology roars in to fill the void left as old nature exits. If McKibben revised his book to account for the rise of what Mark Bauerline dubs the Dumbest Generation, that is, the info-saturated youth of today who are “fabulously autonomized by digital technology” (234), he might be forced to pronounce the world now effectively brain-dead. (On the other hand, perhaps not. Later in his career, McKibben used the power of the internet to mobilize climate actions and applauded the democratizing effects of digital media and digital networks: “The Internet may be precisely the tool we need; it’s as if it came along just in time, a deus ex machina to make our next evolution bearable,” [Eaarth 196]).
Of course, the “missing information” argument has been dismissed on a variety of grounds, not least of which are its unfashionable, rather icky sentimentalism and high-culture bias. John Parham complains that “there is a damaging discrepancy between McKibben’s impressive relaying of ‘information’ about the natural world and threats to it and his ill-tempered, lamentably researched media criticism” (118). H. Lewis Ulman provides further corrective by noting that virtual spaces are simply another type of mental modelling, and if they are “leading us into unhealthy relationships with our environment, then we need to change those models, not fantasize about abandoning virtuality” (355). Hypermediation should not be construed as unique to the digital era but rather as the latest moment in a long technological continuum (which includes books and television, for example, but equally clothes, farm implements, cannons, and chewing gum) that has always blended matter and information. For time out of mind humans have lived in richly composed semioscapes, retoolings, and retellings of the unadorned earth that preceded them, and “the virtual is always embodied in the real, just as the real is always mediated for us by the virtual” (348).
In this view, highly immersive spaces like 3-D movies and computer games stretch us in ways that are different in scale but not in kind from, say, cooking in a medieval castle kitchen or attending an opera in Vienna in 1913. We are always already working not just with things but with information about things, moving effortlessly between data patterns and data sources. What digital media do, then, is extend our capacities to compile, separate, sort, and reintegrate data in fruitful new directions. Steven Johnson posits a “Sleeper Curve” (after the future envisaged by the Woody Allen film in which cigarettes are considered healthy), whereby oft-derided media forms such as television shows and video games turn out to be good for us, part of a “progressive story: mass culture growing more sophisticated, demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year. Think of it as a kind of positive brainwashing: the popular media steadily, but almost imperceptibly, making our minds sharper, as we soak in entertainment usually dismissed as so much lowbrow stuff” (xv). Moreover, as Hayles puts it, “today’s media have tended to move out of the box and overlay virtual information and functionalities onto physical locations and actual objects,” thus creating “environments in which physical and virtual realms merge in fluid and seamless ways” (“Cybernetics” 148). This emergent mixed reality promises to its users (which will eventually include almost everyone, if only by default) no less than enhanced consciousness, for what appears to be in play is not just the Sleeper Curve but a bona fide “coevolutionary dynamics in which computational (p. 494) media and humans mutually modify, influence, and help to constitute one another in a phenomenon known as technogenesis” (154). McKibben’s diatribe against information smacks not only of Luddism but looks downright antievolutionary.
However, what confounds those who wish to satisfyingly refute McKibben’s crude experiment is the fact that it is repeatable and verifiable. One needs only inspect one’s own experiences to confirm McKibben’s thesis. These days, all but the most committed media ignoramus can claim to know more facts about ducks than la famille Simpson. The pharmakon of always-on, ever-present media poisons—or, if one prefers, cures—the human relationship with so-called nature (and much else besides), sending the ducks packing and replacing them with the dried husks of media-manufactured memories: streets of San Francisco and Coronation Street, Mr. Whipple and Colonel Klink, the morning zoo and what’s behind door number three. For many children in the media-narcotized West, the only extant ducks are Donald and Daffy. On a happier note: because this process of estrangement has been going on a long time—long before the advent of digital media—at least the bitter pill has been well-coated for easier swallowing. Ernst Cassirer memorably stated what many others, from Plato onward, had already noticed: “Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself” (25).
That we are dealing with an age-old problematic, however, does not negate but rather confirms its continuing relevance. And the new, distinctive feature of the datasphere is that it will have the genuine capacity to at last replace in a sense with in fact. With media penetration complete, the virtual will become the default, and whatever information might have transited unmediated from the environmental real will now have to pass through digital codecs. Those moments of startling rawness, when the tang of unprepared experience hangs in the air, will be fewer and far between, and difficult to recognize when they are offered. Anne Dillard’s much-anthologized essay, “Living Like Weasels,” epitomizes this rerouting of all experience, even that of untrammeled nature, through media. “I tell you I’ve been in that weasel’s brain for sixty seconds, and he was in mine. Brains are private places, muttering through unique and secret tapes—but the weasel and I both plugged into another tape simultaneously, for a sweet and shocking time. Can I help it if it was a blank?” (124). In locking eyes with the weasel, Dillard encounters the absolute Other, a pure wildness immensely attractive precisely because it smacks of nothing human—yet to cognize the experience she requires the metaphorical intervention of a recording technology.
From new transmitters came the old stupidities.
The boys were at the Brecht Creek Nature Centre, and the naturalist explained the game. “Each team will be assigned one GPS handheld. Press the menu button, then cycle through to the stations you must find. Once the screen gives you a distance and direction, you can start walking. It should beep when you’re close but keep looking around because we find these devices are accurate to only about five meters. When you get to the station, search for the sign and copy down the symbol you see on it. You need to be out from under the trees for best results because you want at least three satellites to triangulate on your position. You can try the digital compass if you want but you probably won’t need it, and keep in mind it points in the (p. 495) direction you’re going, not north.” Then they were off, and there was a lot of shrieking and general fun; we could hear them all the way back at the firepit where we were getting the marshmallows ready. As it turned out, my son’s team completed the circuit first. I asked the boys if they had seen any wildlife during the geocaching activity. “Wildlife?” one of them said, puzzled. “Were we supposed to look for animals?”
Quintessence of dust.
Conventional literary and cultural critics—humanists, for the most part—have yet to appreciate the debilitating nature of their anthropocentricism when it comes to confronting environmental challenges like climate change and species loss. They are insensate to all but that which warms them to their favorite subject, man, as though in viewing the Arcimboldo portraits they did not notice the faces were composed of fruits, vegetables, and creatures. The critiques they are wont to produce are rooted in the powerful conviction that all reality, insofar as that reality is filtered through discursive and cultural systems, is best understood as a social construction. “Yes, yes,” they seem to say, echoing Wallace Stevens’ solipsistic Hoon, “we are the world in which we walk, and what we see or hear or feel comes not but from ourselves” (65). Their fixation on humankind’s lavishly constructed Umwelt insulates them from its dodgy footings. True, every organism lives in its own world, and the rest, for good or ill, is of no account. (The fly, according to Von Uexküll, specifies a fly-world, though this is no defense against the intersecting reality of a fly-swatter.) It is as if these critics have planted themselves at a peephole in a tall hoarding; squinting through they see a titanic building site where workers, overseers, craftsmen, machines, tools, and materials are all being mobilized to erect a grand, rambling edifice. Architects and engineers race around shouting directions, often contradicting one another, calling for Byzantine structures built one minute to be demolished in the next. Mesmerized by this glorious crazed intricacy, the critics fail to notice that beneath everything are the rotten pilings and black, sucking mire that will soon swallow the entire folly, including the ground beneath their feet.
I don’t understand. Why aren’t more humanists tearing out their hair over the passing of their subject, as if their own lives hung in the balance, which maybe they do? Could the answer be that ecocide looks to be the business of the other professions (e.g., “Sure, I know the oceans are dying but my gig’s Shakespeare.”) Or maybe it’s because this niggling detail, the crash of man, if considered too closely, overshadows the triumph of man, which is the controlling motif, as though by institutional fiat, of every humanist analysis of every human production. Therefore, constant forgetting and comfy provincialism are required to keep the talking points on the human pageant forever fresh and spritely. What are humanists, after all, if not the tribunes of culture? And who needs them if they can’t stick to the script? Not only are they disinclined to talk about collapse but they have been superbly incentivized not to.
Perhaps such conventional critics have learned all-too well the lesson that the medium is the message and so assumed they could dispense with the message altogether. It is all very well to yammer on about ecological catastrophe, they seem to say, but its representation is what we are here to discuss! Unfortunately, the cataclysm is not waiting on the minutes from this colloquy: it moves forward without our consent—though, of (p. 496) course, with our full participation. Rush Limbaugh, declaiming against global warming on the basis of selective evidence and outright lies, does scarcely more damage to our future prospects by active malevolence than does the flimsy constructivism of cultural critics who wish to make warming a metonym for other controversies that hold more human interest. Andrew Ross, in his early 1990s take on the matter, wrote “These theories [of climate change] draw their power in the world from an elite culture peopled by those accustomed, by education and an inherited sense of entitlement, to see the globe as part of their dominion, a territory that exists to be rationally surveyed, itemized in a cost-benefit analysis, and protected by political action that further regulates its natural economy” (219). While his criticisms bear eerie similarity to the pungent right-wing rhetoric used against high-value enviro-targets like Al Gore, Ross did not necessarily deny global warming, instead cagily keeping to the constructivist high ground that cultural studies folk like to occupy. But he did spot opportunity in the “crisis” (his scare quotes) to expose the aggrandizing machinations of those wielding expert power and knowledge. In retrospect, his sublimation of the climate emergency into an object lesson in global class struggle reads like yet another example of the arrogance of humanism. What one prefers of critics is to first get the facts on the ground before looking down at them from 10,000 feet.
The forecast calls for rain.
“Media determine our situation” (xxxix). Do they? So says Friedrich Kittler in the catchiest bit of media phrasemaking since the Northern Magus himself. But it depends on what is meant by situation. In situ, in place, on the ground, media determine nothing about record rainfall or brushfires in the canyon. Yet media shape the constraints and affordances of our psychic and social systems, and when we speak of rain and fire we do so from within the extant media programs that run on those systems. Kittler writes, “What remains of people is what media can store and communicate. What counts are not the messages or the content with which they equip so-called souls for the direction of a technological era, but rather (and in strict accordance with McLuhan) their circuits, the very schematism of perceptibility” (xli). Another way to put this is to say that although at one time our brains were attuned to the cycles of moon and season, planting and harvest, more recently they were grooved by phonograph needles and cathode rays. Currently, according to Bernard Stiegler, we possess a cinematic consciousness, tutored by the moving picture to perceive the flow of reality as a montage of flickering, disposable images, with predictable corollaries: “Controlling the temporal flow of mass consciousness allows the culture industry to control behavior, for instance, to guarantee the consumption of products that the process of permanent innovation (the principle underlying industrial production) constantly releases into the global market” (76–77). What looks to come on the heels of the cinematic consciousness is the fragmented, saccadic drift of the Internet mind, open to the lure of personalized Google ads and one-click ordering buttons. Broadcast gives way to narrowcast just as the assembly line gives way to neo-bespoke production, flexible labor, and on-time delivery. So-called nature, correspondingly, is now all about patchworks and fluxes, variable resilience regimes, and adaptive cycles. The climax ecosystem is a thing of the past; only succession is permanent.
(p. 497) Well, what of it? We are all Heracliteans now. The old networks die, the new ones are born. Departmental colleagues who have never spoken by phone have exchanged hundreds of emails. Students once daydreamed and doodled in class, and now they text and tweet. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The crux for ecocritics is, again, the dematerialization of everyday life. The social network fills all space and time. Yesterday, the solitary daydreamer gazed out the classroom window at passing clouds; today, the screen-based student is jacked into his device, whether indoors or out, clutching it like a talisman, alert to distant events and urgent communiqués, such as WRU@? The clouds: they are passé. And crossing bare common is the interval between wi-fi hot-spots. This is not to suggest that the content of the alfresco experience ever mattered much: like all animals, humans have no pressing stake in any particular feature of their environment unless it threatens or is of use to them. (The fact that many humans do exhibit a sustained biophilic response to natural environments and entities seems a wonderful aberration.) Instead, the issue is medial: our frames of reference are now almost fully interiorized, anchored in built environments and, increasingly, virtual ones. The external world, the one over which human command and control is minimal, coarse, and clunky—that world is now obscure, mostly irrelevant, and, when sensed at all, sensed remotely. Reality, the original heads-up display, is off behind a screen. (For some—what a relief! If you don’t like the show, the footage of killer mudslide or oil-drenched pelican, turn the channel.)
But ecocritics cannot go too far along the road with Kittler or Stiegler toward the media-determined situation. That is, they can go along the road until it slams into a brick wall: biophysical reality. They must continue to insist that biophysical reality forms the most profound determination of all. “True,” they say, “the Earth is now cloaked in layers of virtuality—but it is not armour!” For them, to adopt a Kittlerian perspective would mean conceding that a mental infrastructure acclimatized to tv weather reports is more determinant than the weather itself. It would mean conceding that media are where humans live—not on a planet but on a represented planet. Instead, ecocritics maintain that massively intransigent, frequently punitive biophysical reality will not yield pride of place to any media technology or cultural wrapping, however vigorously applied. For instance, not climate change but the politics of climate change is currently consuming most of the oxygen in the room. But ecocritics believe that even politics must bend at last to the environmental real, for we cannot grow food without water, cannot breathe superheated air, cannot live on a planet with soda-pop oceans. Always privileging the facts on the ground, ecocritics are willing to take the linguistic turn but not the relativist off-ramp. Ecocritics, to remain ecocritics, must place their bets on the determining force of so-called nature, knowing full-well that they may be accused of naive realism.
Digital media are the veils between us and an environmental real already well veiled and at the same time the means by which to observe and understand that environmental real all the better. We live at a moment of lucid myopia, when our optics, our sensors, our means to create and disseminate representations of the natural world are overwhelming our Paleolithic brains. The passionate eye sees how massively our techne has eroded that natural world. But the retina cannot hold the image for long. (p. 498) Like forensic pathologists at a global crime scene, we have found our DNA everywhere but we just know it wasn’t us that did the deed. One would think that the more media technology revealed the truth, the more our social system would be outraged by the damage technology has caused. Yet more information does not necessarily lead to effective action. In fact, the opposite may occur. Paul Virilio describes this state of affairs as “dromospheric pollution,” by which the planet recedes in direct proportion to the media prostheses that enhance its visibility and our sense of control. “Has Mother Earth become humanity’s phantom limb” (66; italics in original)? Media zoom us in close and give the illusion of mastery, but at the same time they distance us, making their subjects ever more peripheral to our quotidian frames. We see the Patagonian glaciers melting—so exotic, so remote—yet right alongside are the reporters and the scientists, documenting everything, apparently taking charge—we are reassured that something is being done (Doyle 294). The equipment itself engenders the false conclusion on which we have pinned all our hopes: that what technology has broken more technology will fix. It is a feature of observing systems that they cannot observe their own observational distinctions: the price of insight is blindness to insight’s conditions of production. What you must keep in mind, in other words, is that when at long last you capture the flitting red-cockaded on your Sony HD video camera, what the bird sees are your wings, spread out to infinity behind you, the human horde harrying it to extinction.
Allegory of the CAVE.
In another experiment in comparative phenomenology, Lee Rozelle spent many hours playing Oddworld, a video game in which a benign alien “ecoactivist” named Abe is pitted against a ruthless industrial opponent in a dangerous, predator-filled gamescape. The challenge is to guide Abe on a quest to save his “green friends” before he is killed—as, of course, he is, frequently and graphically (110). The question hovering over his experiment was simple: “Can video games like Oddworld in any useful way permeate simulation and provide the player with a genuine sense of agency? Can manipulating virtual place bring one any closer to environmental action for the millennial planet?” One fear is that such games are little more than enormous time sinks. But the greater fear is that MOOs, MUDs, automatic virtual environments, synthetic worlds, and the like will eventually become so alluring, and come to absorb so much time and effort from so many people, that by comparison the real world will seem cheap and tedious. Human agency emigrates from the real world to take up residence in the game world, where quests and challenges are more captivating and, in certain respects, personally uplifting. Edward Castronova writes “if all crew members are in the holodeck no one will be running the ship. If you put a holodeck on every starship, no starship would ever report back to base; indeed, no starship would do anything at all” (Exodus 4). The holodeck, claims Castronova, has effectively arrived in the form of the massive multiplayer online environments, like WarCraft and Second Life, where players pursue entire parallel fantasy lives, often more uplifting and purpose-driven than their offline counterparts.
While Castronova, an economist, believes that to compete with the virtual the real world will have to become more gamelike, socially conscious game designers argue that immersive games have the potential to save the world. They believe positive behaviors (p. 499) and problem-solving strategies learned in virtual worlds can migrate across the digital divide, empowering individuals and collectives to apply those game skills to real-world issues. To be sure, billions of man-hours are spent in video game environments, and it would be of some comfort to know that all that time was not going to waste. In Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal writes that in fact more, not less, of our time must be invested these fledgling holodecks. While some see alternate reality games as entertainment, McGonigal believes they provide all the ingredients of productive, satisfying, and meaningful work. In part her argument depends on a certain interpretation of Herodotus’s history of the ancient Lydians, who rode out a decades-long famine by linking fast-days to dice play, thus fostering social cohesion and shared risk in the face of scarcity. More importantly, her claim is based on research derived from analysis of games like World of WarCraft (“without a doubt one of the most satisfying work systems ever engineered” ) and her own games, World Without Oil, Superstruct, and Evoke, which challenge players to take on real-world problems and game the solutions. Extending this model, she envisions a pan-national, pan-generational, universally subscribed “Long Game,” in which the stakes are no less than the salvation of Earth. As with the Lydians, our real-world and game-world goals would align, with moves in the game space leveraging positive actions in normal space. The upshot of this extraordinary “new scale of cooperation, coordination, and cocreation” (342) might be “humanity’s next epic win” (353) Would it not be pretty to think so? Rozelle, however, gets the last word:
Players … experience the vague heaviness of history and experience reenactments of cultural struggle, but the cloying disquiet of information never surfaces to make Abe’s fatality the ground for reprieve. This is the awe and terror of simulacrum, the absurd waste of the media age; the simulated life suppresses human desire for ecological contact and offers glittering images that divert as they bore. Activists who spend hours inside, designing green games and websites (not to mention writing scholarly books), often fail to differentiate the language and image that seek to provide environmental education and the outdoor teaching-in-action that supersedes discourse. (111)
My ape nature ran off.
The report to the academy should note that the world is teeming with hybrids, material-semiotic actors, quasi-objects, assemblages, and, soon, synthetic lives and intelligences. Translation: there are bears rooting in the dumpster and they are wearing radio collars. First nature and second nature combined, and tertiarily fused with information. Disclaimer: nature actually ended; it died, kind of. (But never fear: there can be ecology without nature, just as blood still circulates even if pumped by the Jarvik-7 heart.)
Well, whatever we are dealing with, it looks unruly: lots of scraps, cast-offs, and loose ends. The tools we carried didn’t stay in our pockets. We hoped they would help us, and voilà they did. But they also messed things up. Profoundly. Probably they are going to keep messing things up because we cannot put them away. They changed us, too. We are the artificial ape: “Not only have we invented all technology, from the stone tools to the wheeled wagon, from spectacles to genetic engineering, but that technology, within a (p. 500) framework of some 2 to 3 million years, has, physically and mentally, made us. The result is a new, symbiont form of life” (Taylor 198).
The answers we seek are beyond us, but the questions are simple: Can the chainsaw also raise a tree? Can the girl touch a flower through the screen?
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