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Tome On The Range

The Four-Dimensional Human: In Conversation With Laurence Scott
Michael John , June 14th, 2015 11:14

Michael John sits down to talk with Laurence Scott — author of The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of living in the digital world — about the erosion and universality of celebrity culture, economic claustrophobia, the nature of an ever-present digital past and the prophetic powers of The Simpsons. (Photograph: Jean Baudrillard — Saint Clement, 1987)

If the noughties was the decade in which the digital revolution liquefied before evaporating into clouds, so far this decade seems set on warning of brewing storms of discontent and the increasingly acidic rain trickling down the glass between our human and online selves. The catalogue of Cassandras decrying the digital is now considerable and so it is a minor relief to find Laurence Scott's debut book adopting the ambivalent, indeed almost mildly approving, tone of J.G. Ballard towards the technological zeitgeist.

A recent Ofcom survey found that Internet users aged 16 and over now spend around 27 hours a week online. With this kind of statistic in mind, Scott presents the view that the internet now saturates the contemporary world and the minutiae of our lived experience to such an intense degree that the digital has come to represent a fourth dimension. In a way, Herbert Marcuse's theory of the 'One Dimensional Man' as a blank canvas flattened by 20th century capitalism and scientific rationalism has been hoisted aloft by the centre pole of the hyperreal.

Scott is successful in capturing a bounty of incidental emotions and impulses that characterise the fourth dimension. He scrutinises the skeuomorphs of digital life, the banal neologisms ('VoiceChat', 'life hacks'), the resurgence of Gothic terminology (trolls, ghosts, stalking), and the unstoppable digitisation of the physical landscape by Google Maps.

The potency of Scott's associative thinking is what gives the book its vitality. He frequently engineers collisions between two ostensibly unrelated events that explode into new possibilities of interpretation. For example, in terms of contemporary perspective, James Lovelock's Gaia theory of equilibrium is taken as the macroscopic apocalyptic view of the world counter-weighted by the gossip columns of Katie Price as the microscopic celebrity non-event.

I met with Laurence Scott to discuss the ideas and themes — from Umberto Eco to The Simpsons that inform his new book, The Four-Dimensional Human...

Jean Baudrillard famously said ‘we live in an age of more and more information and less and less meaning’ – what I sense you are saying in your book is that this information takes on new meanings that can only have real resonance with those living within this four-dimensional realm. How far would you see your idea of the ‘four-dimensional human’ building upon Baudrillard’s ‘hyper-reality’ or Guy Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’, or do you think they are now quite outdated?

Laurence Scott: I think that all of those philosophers who were getting more and more aware of increasing mediatisation were really on-the-money; my book is just a hyperbolic version. Where I really love Baudrillard is in the image of the desert space, that is a great metaphor for this really strange blankness... he saw the desert space as a big projection screen onto which we, and America particularly, project an image of itself. The desert is one of the most potent images of contemporary life.

I thought that was a really interesting section... particularly regarding the Google Mapping of the desert. I read recently that they are now considering mapping part of the bottom of the ocean. They’re almost creating in reality that short Borges piece ‘On Exactitude in Science’ in which the professional geographers create a map to exact scale of the territory and cover the entire area.

LS: I think that’s a new lament now actually, but look back at the Romantics against the material brutality of industrialisation for the loss of the pastoral. In a world of service industries it’s enough for us to sense this in the categorisation and slicing up of everything; we see a marked increase in that in terms of our loss of the pastoral.

Throughout the book you adopt the ambivalent, almost celebratory tone of J.G. Ballard. In the epilogue though you worry whether you’ve been too ‘alarmist’ and are keen to ward off the ‘Demon of Melodramatic Prophesies’ – why did you choose this strategy?

LS: I was very cautious, as I mentioned in the epilogue, because I’m at the perfect age to be very nostalgic for a kind of ‘lost world’, writing this in my early-30s. But I think that’s been true forever and so I wanted to be careful not to create another predictable lament. But also, I hate the idea of generalising people’s experiences online, I couldn’t think of anything worse. I look around and tend to write perhaps more about the uneasiness and some of the strange anxieties mainly because that’s an easy thing to write about... ecstasy is a lot harder to grasp. But I also look around and see people really brimming with joy, connections, solace, comfort, and just pure wit... I know a lot of the stuff I read online really enriches me. So there couldn’t be one single moral guide and it isn’t even that interesting a proposition.

I suppose the success of the book for me lies in that you aren’t taking a firm moral standpoint. Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows as an example - a good book, but there’s almost the increasingly resurgent cry of the neo-Luddite about it. This leads to another question – the sensation of Google stifling particularity or the presumption of original thought. Do you see the creative arts as facing a real dilemma in terms of how they incorporate the digital dimension? Might we see (or are we already seeing) a heavy reliance on nostalgia and pre-Internet time periods?

LS: Yeah, that’s a really good question. There was a section of the book, which I didn’t end up including, looking at dramatic irony. I was thinking that you could define dramatic irony as something’s ‘being on stage’ and another thing’s ‘being off stage’, that are loaded with meaning. It’s all about the imbalance of knowledge; if everyone is disclosed how do you get these levels and that’s a big part of where we get tension from. I just wrote a review of Unfriended... I found it really interesting because what they did was to make the connectivity the drama, whereas people had been saying something like Romeo and Juliet would never have happened if they’d had cell-phones because they could’ve just texted each other! So digital life collapses a lot of dramas, but with Unfriended the horror was that everyone was being pulled closer and closer together and being forced to reveal things about each other. That’s been one of the first examples where I’ve seen a creative dramatisation of this claustrophobia and breathlessness. But it is a huge problem, you can write any line down as a writer, Google it and find out it may already have been said; it is the dictionary of absolutely everything!

From what you were saying about Unfriended, it just reminded me of a Japanese horror film from a few years ago, Pulse, which I found really intriguing... it reflected the generation of young Japanese becoming hermit-like and living entirely through, at that time, the very new technology of the internet.

LS: I think a commenter on the article mentioned that it was derivative of ‘Pulse’. Regardless, that hermitically-sealed room will be where the future drama will come from and the horror genre is really good at that because the big irony of [Unfriended] is that whilst they are apparently all together when, as it were, the blade hits the skin, there’s no one actually there to help. I’d say the artists of the present have to deal with the intense melancholy. But that isn’t altogether that new when you think about the 19th century emotions and the rise of modernity and people being gathered together in cities and the atomisation of that.

"The celebrity culture of the 90s and 00s was setting us up for this, teaching us what celebrity-dom means."

Just as the Camp Grounding slogans such as ‘the most important status we’ll update is our happiness’ would have meant nothing to the original boy scouts, my sense while reading the book was that no one born today as very much a ‘digital native’ would grasp its investigatory quality or forensic examination given that all this is just their world/their normal, would you agree?

LS: I’ve taught bits of this to students in their early-20s and they seemed to totally get the ironies of it... anyone younger, I’m not sure what they’d make of it, maybe it does rely on at least a 1980s-childhood just to get a sense of what we’re missing that they never had. Though they must have different fantasies about where they get their escape from or where they get their sense of peace, isolation or remoteness.

The book refers to the Savile et al scandals – ‘the broader cultural mood that feels the proximity of its past, its accessibility, a sense that it has been preserved for our moral re-evaluation’... do you see this as something that can only continue now, especially post-Snowden, in an age where anonymous apps are targeting young people under the auspices of offering privacy?

LS: That was quite a careful theory I put forward. With digital life there is the sense that nothing is ever really lost, things leave traces and old crimes deserve to be reconsidered and morally re-evaluated. The flip side of that, where there isn’t actually grotesque criminal activity involved, is this relentless presence of the past in peoples’ lives. All this tainting of Hollywood actors who you’ve quite liked and then you hear they’ve done something in the past; it’s almost as though this has been a piece of radiation at the bottom of the sea leeching stuff out. It does give a strange sense that we’re hauling our pasts behind us all the time and asked to be accountable, not necessarily in a sensational way, but the way nothing can be off-the-cuff, there can be no such thing as misspeaking. Remember that beautiful time when you could wake up feeling a bit icky about what you might’ve said the night before at a party, whereas now everything is on record. When I think about that too much that’s when I get dreams of desert-scapes..!

I get the impression now as well that this ‘haulage of the past’ is directly related to the imbalance of demographics, the ‘grey generation’ that have saturated our cultural lives with their produce... the Rolling Stones constantly on tour, that sort of thing.

LS: It is incredible. But that’s the real oedipal thing isn’t it? That’ll be the big affect to deal with, the simulacrum of everything being a copy of something else...

People like Umberto Eco and Baudrillard were writing about the Disneyland culture and the simulacrum of that... the problem is that this was perhaps only at one or two removes from ‘the real’ whereas now, like you say in the book, there’s almost this endless hall of mirrors of replication.

LS: I agree, and there’s a dreamy ‘wonderland’ quality to it, but at the same time, cutting through all that is quite a brutal solidification in terms of privacy and anonymity.

Early on in the book you touch on the internet’s early promotion as egalitarian realm free from hierarchy and property power. I wonder how you see that as having fared in light of the Occupy movement that you suggest was stalled by a lack of progressive movement. Also, the Arab Spring which was lit by the touch paper of social media but quickly dissipated under the very three-dimensional pressures of control, ideology and violence?

LS: We shouldn’t be too surprised when utopian visions don’t quite pan out how we wanted them to! It is quite stark that the manifesto was a kind of disembodiment, a move away from the corporeal self, and what’s happened is that it’s been literally incorporated. The students I teach and those younger are coming up with the sense that they’re mini-corporations who have their own publicity departments, PR departments, when they study abroad they have to be their own tourist board, etc. It feels as though the celebrity culture of the 90s and 00s was setting us up for this, teaching us what celebrity-dom means and allowed us to then transplant that. I wonder whether the idea of celebrity has been eroded because everyone has that possibility now...

I’m sure it’s due to the celebrity culture of the 90s morphing into the ‘celebrity of everybody’ in the 00s with reality TV as the vanguard...

LS: And everyone’s meeting in a strange middle where an aspect of celebrity is now revealing the domestic space, and I wonder at what point in the algorithm is it decided that this is where they’ll share a child’s birthday party or whatever...?

The economic claustrophobia you describe, whereby it seems you can’t do or buy anything without fuelling or legitimising forces we might otherwise object to... do you get the sense that this tacit knowledge exemplifies our personal insignificance and lack of power and influence to change and assists with the growing weight of apathetic inertia?

LS: Yeah, when the best expression of morality is an economic one it’s a very dreary state of affairs! Because it relies on the fact that there is a moral competitor all the time and that isn’t necessarily the case. So unless you’d rather not buy anything and just not participate in a consumer society at all, you’re stuck! Thinking about this in terms of just the morality of people’s ‘digital brands’, the culture of life which is its own currency – you have to get so many followers or so many ‘likes’ – there’s a real moral question to that because if we load that with value and currency then it has all sorts of ramifications on the examples I give, such as the ‘click farms’.

I found that quite astonishing. Those must surely be an incarnation of some kind of Marxian hell!

LS: It’s just so satirical! Its sweat converted to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and that constant jubilation. That’s one of the awful things about it all, this cynical commoditisation of smiles.

Reading that section reminded me of a friend of mine who worked a few years ago on helping produce an independent film. He told me that one of his tasks during the marketing stage was to sit on YouTube and refresh the trailer over and over again just to ramp up the viewing figures.

LS: Exactly. We’re living in an age where almost every technological breakthrough has been already imagined. When you were talking about the stifling older generation – even our innovations have a retro quality to them and datedness. Captain Picard had an iPad in 1989! I remember watching The Simpsons in the 90s and them joking about picture-phones and Skype, so it’s one thing to say it’s hard to write a story that hasn’t been done before but now even our gadgets have a slight passé feel to them.

There is certainly the sense though that we’ve seen all this before isn’t there? The oppression and control metamorphosing into new forms, like Edward Bernays and his ‘happiness machines’ which was all about engineering positive thought to keep the masses docile and happy through consumption. Now we have moved on to charity as a commodity in itself with things like the ‘ice bucket challenge’ and ‘clicktivism’...

LS: Yeah I meant to write about the ‘ice bucket challenge’ actually, and the sense that other charities then had to compete to come up with something equally gimmicky to capture the viral imagination like that. It does us a great disservice I think, there’s a lot of anxiety, the idea that we won’t be able to engage with anything unless it’s instantly amusing or we’ve already seen it before in some variation.

Charity activists might almost become pastiches of themselves...

LS: Don’t you think that absurdism of pouring the ice over the head does come at times when it seems increasingly oppressive? There’s a Sartre novel [The Age of Reason] - WWII is approaching, the Spanish Civil War has just begun, France is in complete paralysis. It’s a very melancholy novel, two lovers, in a very Sartre way, meet in a bar and they have a game where they stab each other in the hand. There is a sense of the ‘ice bucket challenge’ being like that; this shock to the system as the purer form of sensation that we were craving in some way, or something that hadn’t been done before, having to turn to the body. I’ve not read much of it but the book My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgard... the first few pages are these descriptions of the innards of the body and imagining the organic life of the body as this vast Russian landscape... so there’s no real space anymore, even at the cellular level you had to magnify that up to get the vistas.

Do you foresee a gradual rise in wilful ascetism, a rejection of the ‘fourth dimension’? Or, as you touch on, has ascetism as a ‘thing’ or lifestyle choice already been colonised by the digital, with mindfulness podcasts and meditation apps, etc.?

LS: That’s one of the big terrors of the claustrophobia, even the exodus choice is also somehow internalised. I think there will be, it’ll be interesting to see what people tolerate, there’s these two quite mutually exclusive strands where there seems to be this complete reliance – what would my social life be like without it? What would my business be like without it? – especially since people are becoming freelance and not embedded within the mechanisms of an institution, to survive in that milieu we’re forced to have this digital presence, even for romance. At the same time it’s hard to find people with a pure sense of enthusiasm for it and that’s putting it too mildly – it’s hard to find someone without some degree of panic or weariness or a sense of ‘get me out of here!’

Which is amazing after something like the Snowden revelations, which were met with just a chorus of shrugs...

LS: It is about what you can bear and it’ll depend upon the next generation to see how weird they think this kind of interaction is and whether they can put up with the ghostliness of it or whether they won’t even notice.

The Four-Dimensional Human is released 18th June, published by William Heinemann

Michael Brooks can be found at http://www.doveswillrust.blogspot.co.uk.

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