Reality is a Machine

by David Peak

with Many Moving Parts
I’ve got two browsers open, a half-dozen tabs in each. A link pops up in my gchat box—artforum.com—and I click on it, not thinking about it, a new window filling my computer screen with white. I go back to a different tab, burying the new window, not thinking about it.

And then a twist of sound as a video starts, somewhere hidden. I don’t catch the words at first, but then they start to stick with me. “…The devil manifests itself into the folder on my hard drive of 1,828 zip files…” I click back through my windows, searching for the source of the sound. “My dentist asks me if I was on Myspace…” More wash of sound. I find the video just as it’s coming to an end. It’s a blitz of images and movement, a time-lapse capture of a computer screen—a screen within my screen. “Fine art waterfall dripping off the screen.”

I spend the next five or six minutes watching the 50-second clip over and over again. It feels like a revelation. A line from a John Ashbery poem starts looping in my head. “The soul establishes itself.” I can’t remember what poem that’s from. How do I know that line? I watch the clip again. “The soul establishes itself,” I say.

I shut down my computer, which is weird because I almost never turn off my computer, and see myself reflected on the surface of the black screen. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” That’s the title of the Ashbery poem. I make a mental bookmark—bookmark it in my brain—to look it up later, to see if I remember it half as well as I think I might.

* * *

The video is a trailer for Petra Cortright’s e-book HELL_TREE. I’ve never actually gotten around to reading the e-book, but I’ve watched the book trailer maybe 30 or 40 times.

* * *

In 2010, David Shields released a book called Reality Hunger, which I’ve also never gotten around to reading. I have, however, read quite a bit about it. I’ve read reviews online and I’ve read the comments below those reviews. I’ve read people talk about how—and I’m literally plagiarizing this from someone’s Internet comment right now—Shields argues that fragmented narrative better reflects our contemporary experience. The same commenter later says that this is a “dumb idea.” He does not bother to support his argument because, really, who cares? Nobody is asking him to.

Nearly three years after Shields released Reality Hunger, the idea that our realities have become fragmented—and that the media we consume has subsequently become fragmented—already seems like a phenomenally old notion. But I guess somebody has to say something obvious to point out its very obviousness. I guess then, once the obvious is stated, we can all just move on and think about the next thing. What I’m writing here probably already sounds old. All new text will one day be read as footnotes.

* * *

When I was eight or nine years old, my mom gave me and my brother a 486 PC. I read an ad for a shareware bundle in the back of a computer magazine and sent away for it. A box arrived maybe three months later containing three 3.5-inch floppy discs. I started up DOS, entered the appropriate commands and installed the programs on my hard drive.

The first title I tried was a point-and-click adventure game. I honestly can’t remember the title but I’m guessing it was one of the games made by Sierra. By today’s graphical standards, the game screens might as well have been drawn in Microsoft Paint, but back then I thought it looked amazing.

In the game, I was stranded on a deserted island after a plane crash. At the bottom of the screen, I had a dozen or so commands I could enter to tell my guy what to do. I typed “Enter plane” into the text box. He did as I said. Inside the plane, I found some supplies that would help me survive on the island. I took all of them and went back outside the plane. And then I got stuck. Like, really stuck. I scoured the pixelated background for something I’d missed, maybe a trail into the jungle or a note telling me what to do. I couldn’t find anything. I went back into the plane to look around. Nothing. Hours passed. I was beyond frustrated. I typed all sorts of things into the text box but my guy would only respond “I don’t understand” or “I can’t do that.” Finally, rage-filled, I typed “Fuck you” into the text box and my guy turned toward the screen. He was looking out at me. “Same to you, buddy,” he said.

* * *

A recent article in the Journal of Sex Research claims that Internet porn can contribute to short-term memory loss. Apparently urges to masturbate interfere with our ability to retain new information. I’m fighting off the urge to jerk off right now. Masturbation helps ease boredom. Apparently it relieves hangovers, too. I read that somewhere.

Our physiological lives are further warped by our relationship with our screens. Memory is being rerouted—like something out of a William Gibson novel. Google is making is stupid. I read that once. Was it Google is making us stupid? Multi-tasking isn’t real; it’s just language created for job resumes. Sometimes I forget what I’m trying to look up because I can’t remember what I don’t know.

* * *

There’s that noise again—somebody is talking to me on gchat. They send me a message—“youll love this”—and a link to Vimeo, something called “Touching Reality” by Thomas Hirschhorn. I click on the link and click the PLAY button on the window.

The video is something like snuff. It shows a blurry, washed-out touchscreen boxed by blackness, two fingers hovering over its sick-blue surface. The fingers flip through images of carnage and gore, images of war, occasionally pinching at the screen to zoom in on some colorful detail: the deep red gorge of a man’s split-open skull. It’s impossible to miss Hirschhorn’s point: the way we skim over the surface of reality’s images. The way so much of our lives are relayed through screens, images buried beneath images, screens beneath screens.

It is awesome stuff.

In a separate window I have a YouTube playlist running, the mechanical grind of Swedish metal band Meshuggah. I stop the music and restart Hirschhorn’s video. This time, I listen to the static hiss of the recording and the images take on a new gravity. Everything changes.

* * *

I feel like I haven’t eaten in days.

* * *

William Gibson was writing about the Internet as a thing before most people could even wrap their heads around the concept of a network. In his 1984 novel Neuromancer, the realities of the flesh and the digital world overlap. The characters are able to connect into a virtual reality dataspace known as “the Matrix.” A person is merely a node. Human consciousness can be saved in code—stolen, reproduced. It might sound cliché now but that’s a testament to Gibson’s brilliance. He literally made cyberspace a household term.

Imagine if I could download your personality and take over your Facebook. Would your family even miss you or bother calling on Sundays?

By the time Gibson released his novel Pattern Recognition in 2003, his prophetic visions of the future had caught up to reality. Instead of jacking into the Matrix, the characters in Pattern Recognition were logging into web forums under anonymous handles, writing theories about the meaning behind a series of mysterious video files. The title comes from the idea of apophenia—or seeing meaningful patterns or connections in seemingly disparate data or information, the meaning hidden in the spaces we imagine between fragments.

The idea that our realities have become fragmented is only part of the puzzle. It’s easy to say that Google is making us stupid or that we can’t remember new information because we’re inundated with images of Lisa Ann getting gangbanged.

The truth is that our lives can’t simply just be fragmented. Memory has always been fragmented. Consciousness is a sequence of data and interpretation. Only now, our memory is being rerouted. The very fragmentation of our realities isn’t meaningful in and of itself. It’s the spaces between the fragments—the zones of interaction between our fingers sliding over screens and the digital waves rippling into the ether—that create new meaning. It’s this very newness that leads me to believe that we are already living in the future, that the present has now become the future.

* * *

A few days before I sat down to start writing this essay, I read an essay called “Mind Plus Machine” by Slate writer Will Oremus. The article is about “the future of the relationship between human and machine”—something called “brain-computer interface” or BCIs. While reading the article, I listened to a YouTube playlist for the black metal band Icon of Phobos.

Oremus’ article mentions many lofty goals of BCIs, namely restoring sight to the blind and helping the paralyzed walk again, both noble medical applications, or as he phrases it, “…restoring standard-issue human functions to people with disabilities.” He gives the example of using your arm to control the arm of a crane. It all sounds very pragmatic. But I can’t help but think of how BCIs could—and most likely would—bring in the real money. Virtual sex. Augmented athletics.

I mean, if you can play a computer game with your mind, if you could remove the act of sitting in front of your TV while playing a game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and just be inside the virtual world of Tamriel, then why would you ever bother to go back to reality?

Why bother with bodily fluids and emotional vulnerability when you can make all your fuck fantasies feel real?

* * *

The soul establishes itself. What is this supposed to mean? Stripped of the context of Ashbery’s poem, doesn’t it take on new meaning?

* * *

The present-future teaches you that in order for you to be yourself, you’ve got to separate from yourself. This is the schism of a flesh body living a digital reality. Your avatar is who you really are. And it can always be changed whenever you get sick of yourself. The sack of skin swiping its greasy fingers across the screen is not really you. You don’t look like you in the photos of you. You can always delete anything angled incorrectly, anything that doesn’t support the “idea” of yourself that you are projecting. Everywhere and nowhere—the void of a LinkedIn page that has had 0 people view it in the last 30 days. Who is the person who keeps showing up at that job every day?

* * *

After I first watched the trailer for Petra Cortright’s HELL_TREE, I couldn’t help but think of Ryan Trecartin’s videos. I have no idea if Petra and Ryan are connected to the same scene in any way, or whether or not one has influenced the other, because I haven’t bothered looking into it. That doesn’t seem important. The important thing is that they activate certain similar receptors in my brain.

When I think of Trecartin’s videos, I think of screens overlapping other screens, the de-familiarization of situational and social context all blurred and fuzzed-out with pop aesthetics. By all that, I mean nothing, really. His videos have to be watched to be understood. They are the purest use of image—a layered spectacle that plays out like a month’s worth of media distilled into a shotgun blast to the senses.

Here’s an excerpt from the description for Trecartin’s 2009-2010 video “Roamie View: History Enhancement (Re’Search Wait’S)” taken from Ubuweb.com, “Taken together, these videos embark on poetic, formal, and structural elaborations of new forms of technology, language, narrative, identity, and humanity, portraying an extra-dimensional world that channels the existential dramas of our own.”

It’s this idea of an “extra-dimensional world” that really interests me, whatever that might mean.

* * *

“The soul has to stay where it is,” Ashbery wrote. And again, this line is taken out of context and used here for no reason beyond my feeling that it takes on new meaning.

* * *

When we were in high school, my friend and I used to stay up all night, hanging out in his basement bathed in the sick light of his computer screen, obsessively playing the “life simulation” computer game The Sims.

It was fun to have so much control over “living” avatars. Unlike other simulation games at the time, you could watch over your avatars—or “sims,” as the game called them—for an entire day. You could watch them sleep, eat, use the toilet, talk to one another. You could even watch them fall in love. Back then, it was the first time I remember thinking that software code was starting to open up new worlds—extra-dimensional worlds—and that the algorithms of the game mechanics I grew up with weren’t quite so obvious. There seemed to be some humanity inside the game. Like my guy in the point-and-click adventure game who talked back to me, a game like The Sims seemed to be playing you as you played it.

And so what did we do with this new level of interactivity? We abused the shit out of the people—our sims—who lived inside our game. We purposefully upset them, made them fight with one another. At one point, in the early hours of an extended play session, my friend and I had one of our sims stand out in the yard before his house and we built a fence around him, confining him to a tiny space. He died a few days later, if I remember correctly. He starved to death, fenced-in in his yard, while everyone else in his life went about their daily routines, totally oblivious to his plight.

* * *

If you go to the Wikipedia page for John Ashbery and click on the link for his collection, Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, you’ll learn that the title comes from the painting with the same name. It shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who’s actually read the poem, yet somehow I’d forgotten this, most likely because I’ve seen too much Internet porn since I finished college.

If you click on the link for the page about the painting, you’ll see a picture of the painting. It shows Parmigianino as he saw himself at age sixteen, his hand in the foreground warped to a monstrous size by the mirror. It’s funny to think of this painting as a “selfie” that someone might post to their Facebook today, to imagine what comments might appear below: “LOL ur hand looks huge,” or “dude cut yer hair you look like a fag.”

And it’s funny to think that somewhere, some kid in his bedroom was reading those comments and thinking about them and how he might use them to write a poem about how the Internet, our new digital existence and all of its wild mutations, is turning us all into exactly the kind of people we’ve always wanted to be—ourselves. Purely ourselves.