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David Bouchier: All that is solid melts into air

SMARTPHONE2.jpg
Tochka Alnoff
/
Wikimedia Commons

Some things will get larger in 2022, like SUVs and the national debt, but others will continue to fade away in a slow vanishing act that has been going on for years. For the first time in American history, less is more.

The view from abroad has always been that this is a country of big, solid things: big cars, big refrigerators, big steaks, big houses and big people. This is still true, but there is a powerful current pulling in the opposite direction, towards a world that is less solid, less material and that, in some sense, scarcely exists at all.

Consider the Word of the Year, according to Collins Dictionary. It is not even a word but an acronym: NFT. Before it was squeezed down to three letters NFT stood for Non-Fungible Token. This is a gimmick that allows collectors and art speculators with a lot of money but no sense to “buy” a digital art product which then becomes an NFT. If I understand it correctly this means that nobody except the “owner” can look at it. Millions are spent in this market but, fortunately, not in real money. The buyers use a kind of Monopoly money called a cryptocurrency, which does not actually exist. So, we have crypto-art paid for in crypto-dollars, which seems (again if I have understood the conjuring trick correctly) like claiming ownership of art that exists only in thin air based on a payment made out of thin air. This seems so bizarre that it could only be true in a kind of crypto-reality that also does not exist, but we should be familiar with that by now.

In the computer world, small is always beautiful, and invisible is even better. The first computer I ever saw filled a whole basement in the university. Now it is a little gadget that you can put in your pocket, but probably shouldn’t. This is the domain of the microchip, the nanosecond calculation, the ultrafast 5G connection that can bombard us with advertising messages faster than we can think.

As the machines got smaller, so did everything else. You can carry whole picture galleries, concert programs and libraries of books in your hand. The cultural world, and a significant part of the social world, are in the process of being digitalized, shrunk out of existence and sold back to us in the form of computer-generated images, deep fakes and other dematerialized illusions. What we see is most definitely not what we get.

Nothing is immune. A church in London has compressed the 2,000-year edifice of the Christian religion into a smartphone app to simplify and speed up the business of worship — no physical church, preacher or bible is required, let alone any theology. The app is all you need.

This assault on reality is celebrated as a triumph of technology. Mr. Mark Zuckerberg has already gifted us with hundreds of imaginary friends, although those friends have been shrunk to postage-stamp size on Zoom. Now he promises to remove us from reality entirely so that we can live in his computer-generated “Metaverse” where we will be like cats pawing at pictures of fish on the TV screen, believing that what we see is real. In the Metaverse (which is really a Microverse) everything will be as simple, mindlessly happy, and meaningless as a TikTok video, with all the ambiguities and limitations of the real world deleted. Perhaps it will be an improvement, after all.

Copyright: David Bouchier

NOTE: The title All That Is Solid Melts into Air is borrowed from a book by Marshall Berman published in 1982, and in turn from Karl Marx. Both authors were concerned with the ways that new technologies and ways of seeing could destroy traditional cultures and human experiences. Neither could have imagined the lengths to which this would be carried in the 21st century.