Thoughts on Elon, part 6

6. The cinesphere as electronic monster

This eventuality was to some extent anticipated in a little-known novel written in 1956, the year after I Live in Fear was released: the book, written by David McIlwain under the pseudonym Charles Eric Maine, is called Escapement (‘escapement’ is a horological term referring to a device that transfers energy to the timekeeping element in order to render time countable), published in the United States as The Man Who Couldn’t Sleep (the mediocre film version from 1958 is called The Electronic Monster). It postulates precisely the kind of brain-machine-interface that Musk envisions for Neuralink: in the novel, the builders of this fantastical device conjoin millions of users to just the kind of headsets (or ‘magic wizard hats’, as Tim Urban calls them) that Musk envisions, and provide them an endless procession of artificial dreams, or automated tertiary protentions, distributed across a vast global network, which they consume in an artificially-induced somnolescent state.

In the novel, this corporation, Cinesphere, bears little resemblance to what Musk intends for Neuralink, but it is motivated by a kind of maniacal ‘philosophy’ built around the concept of ‘unlife’. According to the four-page treatise that forms the centrepiece of the book, written by the philosopher-queen who is the corporation’s head, there are such things as ‘absolute concepts’, meaning elements of thought that are fundamental and indivisible. Among these absolute concepts, we are told, would be ‘life’, but the opposite of this concept is not ‘death’ but ‘unlife’, which is itself absolute: if life is ‘the instinctive drive to survival’, the author of the treatise contends, then unlife must be ‘the instinctive drive to non-survival’, a kind of amalgam of the death drive and escapism: consumption of and by unreality. Escapement techniques operate via an ‘entertainment medium’, but ‘complete absorption’ would require the ‘escape medium’ to be ‘injected directly into the brain’, through which its ‘reality-tone’ might not just be indistinguishable from ‘real life’ but potentially exceed it: reality is in any case nothing but this co-production between brain and medium, and it is for this reason that the opposite of life is not death, but unlife. Given the choice, audiences may prefer to dwell within this unconscious unlife escape mechanism for years or generations or lifetimes:

Might it not be the destiny of man, in the twilight of evolution, to apply his immense technical knowledge to the creation of synthetic life? To determine once and for all the pattern of his experience in the strange illusory world of the mind.

And so it is to the conquest of the mastery of this ‘direct’ medium, and to making it available to all, that the Cinesphere corporation is devoted, just as is the case in ‘real life’ for Neuralink (nor should we forget that Musk, too, subscribes to the ‘information is everything’ notion according to which it may be not just possible, but inevitable, that our whole universe is in fact just a simulation being run by beings with some vast superintelligent AI, beings who wish to create a cosmos less ‘boring’ than ‘reality’, whatever and wherever that may be). For succeeding in this pursuit, Cinesphere is accused of producing an ‘escapement mechanism that is allowing the mainspring of humanity to run down’, to the point that it threatens to ‘undermine every […] governmental structure’.

The limbic de-regulation (the drives unbound) that we are presently pursuing is itself a ‘crazy game’ that we are playing right now, not just with the gaseous composition of our geophysical atmosphere but with the noetic composition of our civilizational atmosphere. This experiment in human history is equally big and equally dumb, because it systemically produces dumbness, and it does so bigly. And, in so doing, it systemically prevents us from finding the thought, the care and the will to invent solutions to large-scale systemic problems. We are becoming dumb and numb, or else wild and desperate. This systematic production of stupidity and madness ought to matter to everyone, but in particular to ecological political parties constantly faced with ‘democratic’ parliaments and constituencies lacking the will to pursue effective environmental policies, and an increasingly deficient understanding of or trust in science. But it is this ‘ecological issue’, concerning the ecology of the production of stupidity and madness, that they mostly continue to deny, even as they descry the ‘denialists’. As do we all.

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