Amusing ourselves to death, circa 2010
The future has always interested me, even when it scares me to death. I wrote a doctoral dissertation that spent a good deal of time examining our culture’s ideologies of technology and development, for instance (and built some discussion of William Gibson and cyberpunk into the mix). I once taught a two-semester sequence at the University of Colorado in Humanities and the Electronic Media, where I introduced the concept of the “Posthumanities” to my students. A few years back I talked about the future of retail and described the smartest shopping cart that ever lived. I’ve written about the Big Brother on Steroids threat that advanced technologies represent for people who care about their privacy. And here in a couple of weeks, I head back into the classroom at DU to teach a course in environmental scanning, where I will try and help my students figure out how to use the technology at their disposal to understand the present so that they might strategically position themselves and their companies for the onslaught of the future.
At the same time, I’ve grown more and more concerned about what Andrew Ross calls the “technocolonization of the human body,” and even beyond that, the ways in which our culture has become irreversibly cyborged. Jim Booth and I were arguing back in the late ’80s that our species is no longer human, per se – instead, we have, as a result of our technology, taken a distinct evolutionary leap ahead. This leap, we suggested, was on a par with the transition from Cro Magnon to homo sapiens roughly 10,000 years ago. And we were putting this position forward before the explosion of personal computing, then the Internet, and now mobile and social media.
My entire life, for at least the past 20 years, has been dominated by technology. Education. Job opportunities. Personal life. Literally no corner of my identity is free from the silicon tendrils of Technopoly. Most of the literature I read is in electronic format (and now that I have a Kindle, I don’t buy hard copy books anymore). Even my own poetry is defined by the wires. I submit to journals online. I compose on the computer these days, and McLuhan was right about that “medium/message” thing. You can see it in the language and themes of my writing. Look at the vocabulary of “X,” a poem I published in Wilmington Blues a few years back.
We are the New World’s 13th generation, first citizens of the Next World: whiners, malcontents, slackers, bitching at the taste of boot; blind-stepping teledonnas, our avatars more human than human. Dark little rooms, catatonic terminal glow. We’re vagabonds, rummaging through the machinery of our parents’ high towers, ruthless tribes of marionettes jacked in the trance, the cult of computerized dance, a spasm of youth sizing up the desperation of middle age: slit the Master’s throat or waste away. Here is the ruin left to us: purple haze from the factories acid rain and CFCs we make more money, but we don’t know why ‘scuse me while we fuck the sky We are the age of insubstantiation, a generation of digital bells, loose change on the sidewalk. Our days are loops, our nights tight spirals, and if the virtual is even better than the real thing it’s only because the real thing is so goddamned empty.
I used to say that I sometimes long for the feel of solid oak furniture, because it has a tangible life to it. I still do. And after reading Affluenza last year, I became even more conscious of the ways in which I had lost touch with the real world and given in to the plague of consumerism, the hegemony of disposable culture, the corrosive logic of stuff.
This is the context into which the following video arrived, sent along by two or three friends and colleagues who predicted, quite rightly, that I’d be mightily interested in what Jesse Schell had to say about the future of games. It’s the better part of 30 minutes long, but I think you’ll enjoy it. Not only is it prescient and utterly mindblowing, it’s also really, really funny.
At no point in Mary Shelley’s epic saga of technology run amok could Dr. Frankenstein have been much more terrified than we ought to be right about now. In 1994 my good friend and former professor, the University of Colorado’s Michael Tracey, characterized the rhetoric of Internet development as emphasizing a shallow and short-sighted obsession with “the market not the society, the consumer not the citizen, the want not the need, the quantity not the quality, the price not the value, the globe not the nation…” As we look at the game-driven nightmare described by Schell bearing down on us, we might be struck by Dr. Tracey’s relative restraint, and nothing Schell said was more personally chilling to me than the point where I found myself thinking “hey, experience points instead of grades? That might be worth trying.”
Why am being so negative about all this? I mean, look at what Schell says at this end. The Gamepocalype might have a bright side. It might make us all better people, right? The problem is that games aren’t the first new technology in human history, and throughout the centuries – nay, the millennia – we have seen this exact dynamic play out over and over again. Tech advance leads to breathless euphoria and a consensus that these new technics – be it games, the Internet, social media, the PC, cable, television, railroads, the telegraph, electricity, and so on – will once and for all solve the various pathologies afflicting the human condition. (Don’t believe me? Go back to the top and click on the link to my dissertation. It’s all documented in ways that will probably shock you. Pay attention, for example, to the sections on FDR and the Utopian vision of “Power” on p. 136 and then again from pp. 163-165.)
And yet, today billions lack adequate health care. Frightening numbers of children starve to death each day. Poverty is rampant and the rich/poor gap widens with passage of every new law. We remain at war. We’re continually at the throats of those who worship the wrong gods. And while the brightest of the bright get smarter and smarter, cynical politicians in the pay of large corporations continue to enact policies that make the population at large less and less capable of the kinds of critical thought needed to see through the endless series of dog and pony shows.
How to make the classroom a more effective place? Replace grades with experience points. The only thing scarier than that is the possibility that it might work, because if it does, what does that tell us about how deep the hole really is?
There’s no arguing the brilliance of Schell’s presentation, though. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more gripping portrayal of the dynamics that are shaping our future, and I can’t find too many flaws in his reasoning. This is the future, and I’m not sure what could be done to stop it. It will be fun. It will be exciting. It will be stimulating. And if you’re lucky enough to be a stockholder in whatever ventures Schell is behind, you’re probably going to be rich.
But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a better world. What was Postman’s term? Ah: amusing ourselves to death.