Photo: William Bradberry
How is “digital” transforming the way we live?
Imagine the abode of the future – house, apartment, hotel room, log cabin, prison cell – equipped with a “plasma wall” incorporating all the telecommunications interfaces that enable social and cultural activity. Each wall would integrate computer screen, television, telephone, surveillance system (security and emergency), art and photo gallery, digital concert hall, memory and other personal devices.
M. Forster’s futuristic short story, The Machine Stops (1909) begins:
“Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk – that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh – a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.”
George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) features “telescreens” – television and security cameras used by the ruling Party in Oceania to keep its subjects under constant surveillance in order to forestall conspiracies. Telescreens regularly broadcast fake news about Oceania’s military victories, economic production figures, and bulletins from the Ministry of Truth.
In The Republic (380 BCE), the Greek philosopher Plato describes a large cave inhabited by prisoners chained up since childhood. Not only are their arms and legs bound, but their heads are held in place so that they are compelled to gaze at a wall in front of them.
Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway along which people carry “figures of men and animals made of wood, stone, and other materials”. On the wall in front of them, the prisoners see shadows cast and they hear distorted echoes of noises from the walkway. The prisoners take the shadows and the echoes for real since these are all they have ever seen or heard.
Is this an image of society today? Chained to screens from childhood and linked to “friends” through social media, today’s prisoners take digital images and sounds for real, digital acquaintance for live encounters, digital gossip for genuine exchanges of meaning. The will to be in communication is being sapped, enfeebled, enslaved. What will become of us?