Automating Reality

To dwell within the digital ambience is to slowly become the minority in the new programmed reality.

Text Matthew Donovan
illustrations Poorspigga
Published 29 Dec 2023

In previous eras, simulated reality had cracks: fissures in the film, graininess, discoloration. These elements kept us from falling straight into the image. Today, not only has the simulation arrived at a higher resolution of life, it feels more real. Baudrillard’s paranoia that reality had already disintegrated in the 1980s unleashed an ensuing theoretical abyss with no triumphant successor. Yet, in retrospect, it seems he didn’t quite grasp  the pace at which life, the image, and perception would merge, such that individuals must navigate a new tension between these opposing forces.

We are currently wrestling with the surfacing of an automated surveillance culture, marked by identity fragmentation and privacy erosion due to online platforms and new technologies like omnipresent sensors, biometrics and ambient intelligence, a phenomenon this essay terms the ambient self. Simultaneously, there exists a nostalgia for a seemingly simpler past. However, this past was not without its complexities, as exemplified by Edward Bernays' 1947 concept of "the engineering of consent." This historical notion mirrors today's scenario, where consent is often manufactured through work created by computer science engineers, reflecting a continuity in the manipulation of public opinion. This period is contrasted with the present, where, as Arthur and Marilouise Kroker notes, the process often involves "rendering marginalized bodies as accidental roadkill on the way to a technological future," (1) indicating a shift towards a more precise, integrated, and individual level of social engineering.

In our time, we often unknowingly dwell within the digital ambience of anonymous avatars, bots, spiders, and deepfakes that will slowly make us the minority in the new reality that is being programmed. We are slowly moving into the ambient background of a digitized, non-participatory communicative environment. It is an environment where the illusion of connection belies a deeper solitude, reflecting Sherry Turkle's notion of being "alone together" as we rely more on technology than each other or our shared public. This is aside from the emerging  omnipresence of predictive algorithms slowly supplanting the very desires they attempt to imitate. In the future, there will come a time when we will lament our present psychological apathy, which surrenders itself to emerging aberrations, including accelerated manifestations of digital drift. Our psyche, even if once vibrant, may ultimately decline into a mere archaeological site, a relic or ruin of what previously was. Gradually, we find ourselves disassembled, our most  valuable components displaced and redeployed.

We are condemned to fight from within the very machine that wields this power to comprehend us better than we comprehend ourselves, rather than being able to maintain ourselves as distinct from it. The digital, like Nietzsche’s mask, is now experienced as a relief, since taking it off for too long in today’s online-centered world would alienate us from our dreams and everyone we love.(2) However, contrary to Nietzsche, God died not in the 19th century but in the 20th and 21st centuries, when the intrusive thoughts the previous culture ensured no longer resonated and gave birth to a new technology of the self. We can now announce that the self, the psyche, or as Kroker says man itself as previously congealed is dying in the 21st century, to be replaced by androids in the future. (3,4)

In Paul Virilio’s 1994 book The Vision Machine, both his era and, speculatively speaking, today’s too, was characterized as one dominated by synthetic vision, the intricate digital image processing inherent in computer-aided designs, and the deployment of surveillance cameras in public spaces.  In this contemporary period, the foundational concept revolves around the notion of ambient intelligence, which is predicated upon the construction of comprehensive intelligence with the ultimate aim of establishing a ubiquitous network of intelligent apparatuses, encompassing smart devices, nanotechnology, and sensors, integrated seamlessly into every facet of existence and within the very fabric of all existing objects. Life, under these conditions, morphs into an ambient state, characterized predominantly by its integration with and processing through peripheral sensors. This shift signifies a profound transformation in the nature of life itself, where living is perpetually under observation and analysis, blurring the lines between the self and sensor. (5,6)

In today’s world, psychological and linguistic researchers who scramble to preserve a prior sense of reality find themselves in the center of a new universe defined by the screen. (7) Like Kroker before them, contemporary criminologists call this digital drift, where highly-online youth and other second-generation digital natives increasingly blur material and virtual reality until they become criminalized, overcome by what Virilio might call an emerging glaucoma reality. (8) The screen, in essence, interpellates them into these anemic prisons, from the perspective of the architectural mirror to that of the internet data center. Now, the future as a whole is becoming consumed by the logic of the image.

In the past, we had never imagined normalizing this degree of biopolitical pleasure; the latest aberrations expressed now as the digital death drive, or as vlogger Zach Willmore meta-virilizing their HIV status. Another committed suicide after his exchanges with an AI chatbot in police reports referred to on a first name basis as “Pierre”. Payton S. Gendron, for example, livestreamed themselves performing a mass shooting, while still yet another unnamed person, who offered their life for sale online and took it for money they couldn’t spend in the afterlife. (9,10,11)

While we may think this technology won’t turn on us, companies are spending millions on the bet it will happen to many now reading this. For those up-to-date with the current media landscape, it is not difficult to imagine oneself on a screen in Times Square, exposed as the newest criminal-victim, watching deep fake pornography of your friends like a popular gaming streamer. (12,13) No one will want to go viral when a new start-up mass markets blackmail, should those investing in the development of these technologies succeed. By manipulating our digital twins into potential criminals, they will be able to hold us ransom in a world where accusations outpace evidence. (14) Something like the film Minority Report, it could become a “precog” world where committing a crime is already an established fact when it isn’t, but nevertheless waiting to be revealed by the next data breach. In this absurd double reality, you are being murdered, you are murdering someone else, while many other impossible scenarios and timelines coexist as well.

Our glaucomatous reality appears then, as a post-mortem jumble of “headless positions” where truths and rational theories becomes arbitrary choices of the flavor du jour. (15) In this context, language inherently possesses the qualities of partiality and clarity–evident in the variations of language across different cultures and it’s inability to capture the full complexity of reality. (16) Arguably though, the ambient technological context emerging in more fragmentary, layered, and remote registers is no different than the medieval serf who often couldn’t speak beyond an isolated village tongue. (17) It’s not digital neoliberalism, but the ongoing churn of heterogeneous cultures homogenizing into a new meta-form of localization, governed by whatever new technology suddenly arrives on the scene, rather than through relational negotiation and collective cultural emergence. It’s a kind of neomedievalism where we may have conflicts between our lord, our faith, our king, or our family, a level of contradiction in our loyalties and beliefs throughout the whole chain, the stack of unseen difference. (18)

During the early 1990s, the grunge documentary "The Year Punk Broke" included an anecdote from a fan who coined the term "Thurstonitis" to describe the headspace of Thurston Moore. It referred to a condition where one loses complete control of their mind and walks around in a dazed state. Like how Cobain’s last moments caught on tape show him going out in a state of headlessness.(19) I’m talking about the moment in the film where he is introduced as Kevin Costner, then spirals out of control, throwing a champagne bottle across the room. The bottle crashes so loudly that when I watched it, I could barely process the reason for the senseless violence. I lost my mind watching it for the first time on a copied tape I procured from local record store Dead Pan Alley. The story reverberates in a more tragic tone even than those of Mark Fisher and Kurt Cobain. This counterculture rerun was ritualized and mythologized on platforms like LiveJournal, Tumblr, and MySpace, paving the way to parasocialize cultural critics into over-saturated caricatures of themselves.

I also thought about the Challenger space shuttle, a peak of human intelligence and failure in which blood and burnt hydrogen fuel soaked the air. In my own traumatized headspace, I watched that tape as my brother’s eyes fell into the back of his head, much as mine did. Blood and burnt black tar heroin polluted the air with sirens in the background of both scenes. Cobain, the star of the first wave of opioid epidemic faced by the marginalized, the dropouts, those who lose custody of their children, those thrust into premature death by falling completely off the screen. From his perspective, they would witness the collapse of this fabricated reality, which, for some, represents a voluntary choice. In contrast, for others, particularly those marginalized, the offline, inherited reality persists as an unwelcome imposition. In this inherited reality, many, especially those on the fringes of society, have long experienced and continue to feel a profound sense of powerlessness and lack of control.

This digital world of hyper-realism is constituted by a social structure fractured by fake virality and multifocal arousal bringing forth a new culture marked by the  unprecedented addiction and loneliness. The human psyche in this environment finds solace in identities as vaporous as a gas or fog. We now stand on the precipice of a truly post-reality era unlike any Baudrillard could have imagined, a simulation we keep trying to prolong, a pervasive game of a new kind.

At best this would trigger grief, but it’s unlikely we would register the moments in our own past of such glaucomatous phenomena, where Poe’s Law induces gender dysphoria and digital drift induces transracialism a no man’s land where Cobain and Costner are indistinguishably fused characters. Our persistence, however, the human instinct for survival and purpose, is also tied to our ability to die faster and harder collectively because there is no final defense. Even if we detox from drugs or overcome internet porn-addicted childhoods, we find ourselves grappling with the bifurcation between the criminal-victims of our stolen reality and the perpetrators and the casualties of its destruction and commodification.

Acknowledgements: I want to thank J.M. Adams, Jacqui Lucente, Guy Mackinnon-Little, and Corrine Ciani for helping edit this essay as well as input from Jak Ritger, Keaton Slansky, Scott Litts, Brandon Avery Joyce, Gardiner Hallowell, Samuel Eagleton, Matthew Binder, Stefan Kostic, Ben Dreith, Nicolas Sanchez, Charlie Yates, and many others who collectively helped bring this to this advanced stage.

(1) Kroker, Arthur, and Marilouise Kroker. 2021. “Technologies of the New Real.” University of Toronto Press. October 2021. 21.

(2) Friedrich Nietzsche. 2010. The Gay Science. Book One, Part 36. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. New York City. Also see Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Andreas Georgallides. 2016. Tractatus Logico - Philosophicus. Athḗna: Ekdóseis Íambos.

(3) Kronic, Maya B. “Readthis.” Maya B. Kronic, 2023. “Did Land really claim that he had come back from the dead? Did he really think he was an android sent from the future to terminate human security?”

(4) Foucault, Michel, Luther H Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H Hutton. 2014. “Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault.” 2014.

(5) Virilio, Paul. Indiana University Press. “The Vision Machine,” June 2, 2020.

(6) van. 2023. The Situated Self: Identity in a World of Ambient Intelligence. Tilburg University Research Portal. Wolf Legal Publishers (WLP).

(7) Zhihong Zeng, M. Pantic, G.I. Roisman, and T.S. Huang. 2009. “A Survey of Affect Recognition Methods: Audio, Visual, and Spontaneous Expressions.” IEEE Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence 31 (1): 39–58.

(8) Goldsmith, Andrew, and Russell Brewer. 2014. “Digital Drift and the Criminal Interaction Order.” Theoretical Criminology 19 (1): 112–30.

(9) “TikTok Creator Zach Willmore Is Vlogging His Life Living with HIV.” n.d. NBC News.

(10) “Livestreamed Crime.” 2023. Wikipedia. August 14, 2023.

(11) Xiang, Chloe. 2023. “‘He Would Still Be Here’: Man Dies by Suicide after Talking with AI Chatbot, Widow Says.” March 30, 2023.

(12) Criminal-victim concept based on the plot of the Korean psychological mystery Decision To Leave, where the plot between the detective and suspect fall in love and invert roles.

(13) Chatterjee, Bela Bonita. 2019. “Child Sex Dolls and Robots: Challenging the Boundaries of the Child Protection Framework.” International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, April, 1–22.

(14) Hildebrandt, Mireille, and Bert-Jaap Koops. 2010. “The Challenges of Ambient Law and Legal Protection in the Profiling Era.” Modern Law Review 73 (3): 428–60.

(15) “Headless position” from Dean Kissick tweet.

(16) Ludwig Wittgenstein. 2009. Philosophical Investigations. John Wiley & Sons.

(17) Burridge, Kate. 2012. “Euphemism and Language Change: The Sixth and Seventh Ages.” Lexis. Journal in English Lexicology, no. 7 (June).

(18) Holsinger, Bruce. 2016. “Neomedievalism and International Relations.” Cambridge University Press EBooks, February, 165–79.

(19) Rephrase of “Headless position” from Dean Kissick tweet.

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