Share me, like me, tweet me, be me: the digital reincarnation of Narcissus

This article was commissioned for Onassis Foundation magazine “AΩ”. See here (Greek Translation). It is reproduced below in its original English version.

NarcissusLike in Byzantium there will always be iconoclasts; the breakers, haters and enemies of images. As then, now and forever: for the iconoclast of every age there is something deeply disturbing in the worship of the human image; he feels that humans ought to be humble, walk the earth with eyes pinned to the ground, and turn their gaze away from images – specially of themselves. For humans are made of spit and dirt. Indulging the senses with an image of a man, or a woman, is an insult to what lies beyond the corporeal, to that superior, finer and immaterial essence that has been known by many holy names throughout history, but nowadays is mostly referred to as “consciousness”.

In our post-religion world the iconoclastic bishops of Constantinople have reincarnated to the social critics of the rampant, near-universal self-adulation of the multitudes posting photos of themselves on social media, to be shared and liked. There must be something deeply wrong with self-worshipping, the contemporary critic  argues. The human race must have reached the apogee of collective moronity, for how can this global congress of nobodies pretend to offer quotidian trivialities that others should like, share, or tweet?

Unfortunately for the iconoclast Narcissus has risen from the graveyard of classical studies and reinvented himself as digital techno-hacker. Thus transformed he has embedded himself in Web 2.0. By becoming a series of command lines he instructs the massive creation and sharing of self-portraits on social media platforms millions times per day. Narcissus’ techno-consciousness copies itself, like a cybernetic virus, every time a smartphone is turned to face its owner and a digital echo of oneself becomes the ultimate affirmation of existence by the sacrosanct act of uploading. Narcissus has finally avenged himself. Realising this, the classically educated iconoclast shakes his head, twists his lips and eruditely reminds us that self-love leads to self-destruction with narrative precision, at least according to Ovid but also Freud. How can an empty image of yourself love you back? How can a sane person worship a simulacrum, and remain sane?

Perhaps we have indeed entered the era of collective insanity and digital homoeroticism. But, if we are, then this is just the beginning. For soon enough, our digital echoes will be given the opportunity to acquire physical bodies. Our obsession with ourselves, so systematically cultivated after decades of psychoanalysis and therapy, will reach its logical conclusion, as robots become more human, and as mindshare is coded in the architecture of human-machine interfaces. So here’s a prophecy from the digital oracle of Delphi: our digital icons will one day escape our newsfeeds and sit on our tables. Our android doppelgängers, genetically or mechanically engineered, will begin like toys for the few, but will quickly evolve to something for everyone, and will become our friends, brothers, sisters, and lovers. Self-destruction, if such should be the fate of a self-obsessed humanity, will manifest symbolically through the sexual union of the cyber and the physical “us”; as Narcissus finally invents and constructs the medium to love himself not only in mind but also in the flesh.

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Writing a cybernetic novel

The Island Survival Guide and narrative reflexivity

The Island Survival Guide and narrative reflexivity

I would like to define a cybernetic novel as one that writes itself, or one where the reader is also the narrator. A novel that possesses self-reflexivity. I made the sketch (see above)  some time ago while thinking about my novel “The Island Survival Guide“. When I say “I thought about my novel” I mean as a reader, not as a writer. In fact, cybernetic writing blurs the distinction between writer and reader, and finally break it down completely: the writer is the reader who is the writer, and so on. As it does so it also undermines and destroys a more significant dichotomy, the difference between the narrative (object) and the narrator/reader (subject). The two become one, one reflecting into the other. This is of course a logical paradox. Cybernetic writing is a logical paradox based on reflexivity.

The paradox of narrative reflexivity that defines a cybernetic novel is what makes it what it is; it is a paradox that creates an escape hatch, or a quantum wormhole, connecting two different universes that exist in different dimensions. The mind is free to travel between these two narrative universes. As it travels it transfers experiences and knowledge between the two universes. Thus, the paradox of narrative reflexivity becomes the act of creation. The novel is created as a dialogue between the 3-dimensional (+time) universe of the narrator/reader/writer (the terms cease to have distinct meaning in a reflexive narrative context) and the multi-dimensional universe of the novel.

DrawingHands

M C Escher’s rendering of reflexivity in narrative: cybernetic writing

As old meaning breaks down because of continuous feedback between the narrator and the narrative, new meaning is created.

The Island Survival Guide was my second experiment in writing a cybernetic novel (my first being The Secrets of the Lands Without).

The big bang of the human mind, and our desire to build artificial beings

The “big bang of the human mind” took place around 40,000 years ago, when our prehistoric ancestors developed general purpose language. The reasons why this happened are yet unclear, and probably involve a number of genetic mutations. We know that something changed because of the emergence of art, as well as dramatic changes in hunting methods, tool-making, and the systematic and ritualistic burial of the dead that suggests belief in an afterlife.

This presentation explores the latest findings of cognitive archeology in order to propose an idea: that ever since we developed our modern minds we have become dualists, i.e. we have become hardwired to assume other minds (the so called “theory of mind”) in other people, but also in animals and objects. Perhaps then, it is this faculty of the modern human mind that compels us to engineer machines “in our own image”: intelligent robots and androids that look like us, think like us, and behave like us.

For more on this idea, and how it provides a fresh insight to our technological quest for Artificial Intelligence, see my book “In our own image – will artificial intelligence save us or destroy us?” (Rider Books, 2015).