2017年1月1日 星期日

THE FOUR-DIMENSIONAL HUMAN:Ways of Being in the Digital World

Ways of Being in the Digital World
By Laurence Scott
248 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. Paper, $16.95.
“The Four-Dimensional Human,” the first book by the British writer Laurence Scott, is a curious entry in the crowded field of tech criticism. The book nimbly ranges across the charged and vexing aspects of digital life — the gradations of online friendship, trolls, the allure of voyeuristically monitoring old friends — while also neglecting some of its most fundamental issues. Surveillance is mentioned in passing, privacy appears a dim concern, and there’s hardly a mention of any tech figure not named Zuckerberg or Page. You might finish the book without remembering that essential debates about power, speech and civil liberties are being hashed out not in public but in Silicon Valley boardrooms. At the same time, the economic and political conditions propagated by these companies — the tremendous income inequality, the progressive commoditization of everyday life and communications — seem to hover out of view, lending, like a distant moon, some gravity but not much light to the proceedings.
Now that we’ve established all the things that “The Four-Dimensional Human” is not, it’s important to emphasize what it is: namely, a considered perceptual and aesthetic tour through the digital sensorium. Clever, allusive, with a capacious sense of humor, the book sizzles with intelligence. Scott mixes observations of deep profundity and eloquence with some head-scratching notions about digital life. But through it all, “The Four-Dimensional Human” is sustained by such fine writing, as well as an eclectic palette of references, from Seamus Heaney to schlock horror films, that it’s hard not to be charmed. I don’t share Scott’s belief in “the miracle of connectedness,” but I do agree that the upheavals of our multimediated lives deserve critical assessment.
The book’s principal weakness may be its overarching conceit that we have all somehow become four-dimensional human beings. By this Scott seems to be referring to the many ways in which always-on connectivity, mobile technologies and various databases containing scattered bits of personal information have scrambled our relationship with the world. This proposition seems to call out for a dose of media history, say, by examining the ways in which previous communications technologies, from the telegram to television, contributed to a sense of disembodiment or of time stretching and unfolding in strange new ways.
Scott overlooks those kinds of comparisons and instead trains his eye on the modern individual’s relationship to the digital world, its bizarre new folkways and vast sense of possibility. Sometimes this causes him to slip into what feels like an unearned mysticism, marveling, for instance, at “the strange sorrow that Skype provokes” (by making us feel as if we’re in more than one place at once). His tone can become elegiac and airy: “The children of digitization will grow up expecting to occupy space robustly and to live prolifically in one another’s rooms. Their strength will be measured, like the density of muscle fibers, according to the knit of their connectedness.” It’s evidence of Scott’s writerly skill that these extended metaphors don’t collapse on themselves. The problem seems to be that Scott pulls off these dazzling analogies all too easily and that, consequently, he gets mired in this discursive mode in which symbols and interpretations pile ever more ponderously on top of one another. A chapter called “A Different Kind of Buzz” manages to draw impressive mileage out of the beehive and its numerous semiotic associations. Along the way, Scott invokes the influence of beehives on Western architecture, Hamlet, Dionysus (“born, like an accidental text message, of Zeus’ thigh”), the video game series Grand Theft Auto and Marcel Duchamp, to name a few.
Another chapter takes “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air,” Marshall Berman’s study of modernity, as a jumping-off point from which to consider how digital life, like capitalism, can seem immaterial yet ubiquitous and oppressive. The superabundance of content — endless parodies of cultural products that themselves are borrowed references to previous films, TV shows, jokes, memes or ideas we’ve all experienced a hundred times before — furnishes “the sense that life is a collection of likenesses, lived out elsewhere.” The endless categorizing, hash-tagging and liking we engage in is a way of making sense of a world that seems populated by mass-produced variations of familiar themes. We face, then, a “crisis of originality,” where “the pressure we feel when writing” something as simple as a Facebook birthday greeting “is the pressure of the artist. How do we make it new?”
One response might be to burrow deeper into the meta-realm of reference and parody. Scott makes an unexpectedly persuasive case for how, in the movie “Scream,” Wes Craven cleverly toyed with the very horror clichés he helped popularize. Stylized self-consciousness becomes a reasonable response to a lack of substance. Or sometimes the two are one and the same, as Scott finds in the “normcore” trend, in which the L.L. Bean-and-khaki wardrobes of white suburbanites were appropriated by urban hipsters. The point? Either to disappear into the urban masses or to signal a weary accommodation with a culture exhausted by the feeling that everything had been done before.
Whether any of this hangs together for you may depend on your tolerance for the sort of cultural analysis in which a clearly brilliant critic spends pages worrying over subjects that sometimes seem less than worthy of his full attention. This isn’t simply a matter of one’s brow, high or low. Scott’s consideration of Katie Price — Britain’s Kim Kardashian, an omnipresent media star famous mostly for being famous — has some interesting things to say about the nature of celebrity, particularly in a social media culture in which we are often encouraged to act like microcelebrities of our own. But he’s on shakier ground when marveling that Yo — an app whose function is limited to sending a simple “Yo” message to a recipient — “is an early example of style-resistant discourse, its willfully generic exterior containing an infinite variety of meaning.” There may be something funny and even defiant about Yo’s deliberate monotony, but I would pause before claiming that “this is a noble approach to the problem of continual novelty in a world composed of finite aesthetic possibilities.”
There are other points, too, where Scott gets lost in his thicket of interpretations. He revisits the public downfall of John Galliano, the chief designer for Christian Dior who was caught on video harassing some Jewish patrons in a Paris cafe. Galliano’s scene caused him to be denounced by the actor Natalie Portman, who at the time was the face of a Dior perfume. “The public violence of Galliano’s outburst,” Scott asserts, reminded the world of Galliano and Portman’s “positions as individuals in a corporate structure” and ensured that Portman, “as a cracked commodity,” could “no longer maintain the coherent illusion she was paid to enact.” On some higher analytical plane, this may be true, but it seems far more obvious that Portman, as a Jew, felt compelled to dissociate herself from someone who had made ugly anti-Semitic comments.
It’s possible to finish “The Four-Dimensional Human” with the feeling of having contended with a great intellect who hasn’t quite yet found his subject. Scott’s erudition is impressive, as is his ability to catch hold of a cultural reference and worry out the last drops of insight. But his metaphysical vision causes him to neglect the material reality in front of him — the craven hunger of tech giants for personal data and influence over our decisions; the ways in which today’s innovators have tried to prove their revolutionary bona fides by freighting their inventions with false myth and pathos. There’s little doubt that the internet, writ large, has changed how we live. But to say that we, as human beings, are fundamentally different seems to grant our new digital technologies a kind of sentience and autonomy that they haven’t yet earned.