Essay for Tashkeel, Dubai, June 2008
Die Hard 4, a Hollywood blockbuster from 2007, starts with several people being assassinated at home in front of their computer screens. The procedure is always the same. We are shown a young man. He is staring intensely at rows of cryptic text scrolling across the screen. Cut to the baddies, also in front of computer screens. They have apparently gained access to the young man’s system, and hit a button. A large message appears: Uploading Virus. Cut to the young man. His screen flickers, as if someone held a magnet to an old fashioned vacuum tube TV. He frowns. The computer doesn’t seem to respond any more. When he hits the Delete button, the room explodes in a ball of fire.
OK, we understand: The boundaries between virtual worlds and reality have become thin. Disembodied bits of information determine real life and death.
We know that we’re watching a Hollywood movie, a piece of fiction. It’s a laugh. Surely that’s not possible. But with techno fiction there’s always a nagging uncertainty: It may just not be possible yet. Who knows what they’re going to come up with. Does anyone understand how computers do what they do?
Well, there’s fiction and then there is physics. Open any computer and look at its parts. Integrated circuits and diodes and resistors. Nothing in there has the capacity to violently release great amounts of energy. (A condensator might pop under excess voltage. It smells bad, that’s all.)
Some things can’t be done. There are physical limits. Not everything is quantifiable, computable information. You can digitize music, turn images into JPGs, you might even be able to remotely feel someone if you both use one of those cyber-sex gloves. But along the line something is lost. Things do have a physical reality.
I don’t know where this story is from, but I love telling it: Apparently spiders don’t think they’re the same size as the fly they’re trying to catch. They feel they’re as large as the web that they use. The web becomes an aesthetic prosthesis. It plugs directly into a highly evolved and specialized spiderweb/neuron interface and thus is able to transmit perceptions similarly to nerves. (A spider’s experience of its body is radically different from what is visible to us!)
A car becomes a part of the body in the same way, or a hammer, or a scalpel. The boundary between hand (another highly evolved interface) and instrument becomes blurred. Presumably this sensual relation to an instrument is essential to excellence in any craft. Bodily sensation is a prerequisite for the creation of meaning. Understanding, really grasping something is inseparable from one’s corporeality.
My insight into a piece of work, as a body among bodies, must necessarily be different from yours. Hurray to this unbridgeable triangular distance. One needs distance in order to see clearly. Not everything should be part of the same web.
Back in the film, two nerds have been killed, and the third one is about to hit the delete button. Enter Bruce Willis, old-school muscle. He doesn’t understand anything about computers, and saves the hacker’s life, and the world.