Are we spending so much time plugged-in that we are no longer ourselves and now perceive the world differently? Author Laurence Scott posits that digital technology has shaped a fourth dimension.
We inhabit it, become it. The big question is: What does this mean? But just as one click online leads to a series of clicks, this breaks down into a number of questions.
- What new senses are available to someone who is such a concentrated blend of matter and media?
- What happens to the nervous system when it is exposed to the delights and pressures and weird sorrows of networked life?
- How does time pass in this dimension?
- What dreams begin to prey on a four-dimensional mind?
- What are the paradoxes and ironies of owning a four-dimensional body, with its marvelous new musculature?”
Laurence Scott observes: “We have an everywhereness to us now that inevitably alters our relationship to those stalwart human aspects of self-containment, remoteness and isolation.” Paradoxically, this everywhereness can make us feel both crowded and solitary.
But the solitary-ness we experience now is different. It’s not like it was for the characters in a Henry James novel, for instance.
Gone is the “…rich, virtual world in the solitude of her drawing room, a world made possible by the absence of external stimuli. The presence of other people has traditionally barred us from the deep labyrinths of the mind.”
The fact that he discusses Portrait of a Lady in the first few pages goes a long way towards making bookish folks, who might not think they are all that involved with technology, want to burrow into his ideas.
Laurence Scott has clearly spent a lot of time in that proverbial drawing room, if not as much time as he has spent with a screen of late. His observations are often those of a reader or, at least, an ink-and-paper sort.
For instance, he considers immateriality in the context of e-readers. “The immateriality of digital life has always been one of its explicit promises, evident in the dream of the paperless office, or the queer possibility of bookcase after bookcase dissolving in the liquid screen of an e-reader.”
Those readers who spend an inordinate amount of time shuffling the books on their shelves (lining up the green-spined Virago classics or arranging them by publication date) will appreciate the discussion of categorisation too (the off-the-shelf type).
“In our digitized habitat the instinct to categorise, to name, is cementing.” But ironically, the “weird logic of hashtags means that although there are no one-of-a-kinds, everything is a collector’s item”.
Once we gathered around the television set to watch the evening news. “For as long as I can remember, the news has often been a brochure of ways to die, and its instinct is to feast on both the rare and the epidemic, the two extremes of sensationalism.” (He observes his own tendency towards nostalgia and aims to keep a balanced view.)
When we consider patterns of behaviour like trolling, it’s clear that “[d]igital life is inherently suited to a language of the macabre and the monstrous”. However, he is clear to explain that there are positive and negative effects. (He discusses this in interview with The Quietus too.)
The pace of life is altered in the fourth dimension. Consider: “Although Twitter dates each tweet, the overall effect of a timeline leaves little room for solemn pauses.”
He contemplates an earlier practice, evident in stories like Treasure Island, in which dates are severed, so as to place the date in a century but leave something to the imagination, as though the exact date would allow readers to peer through the fiction to the truth beneath and, presumably, go digging for treasure in all the wrong places.
“There’s something both dangerous and peaceful in that dash, a relinguishing of transparency and revelation” in this severed date, he notes.
At times it is as though the concepts with which he is preoccupied are too complex to settle into words on a page.
Which, perhaps, is the point. That our usual ways of understanding are changing so dramatically that our thinking selves cannot absorb the transformations.
Passages like this one require re-reading but, more than that, they require re-thinking.
“In the spirit of this refreshing two-mindedness, we might foster moments when we lose sight of each other, moments when two opposites seem simultaneously possible, a spacious habitat where the unknown parts of ourselves and others are allowed to shimmer in their uncertainty, a humane, unmappable multidimensionality, in the free fall between here and there.”
Longing for that quiet drawing room of Henry James’ characters to give this a good think? Or, you could check GoodReads instead.
Have you read The Four-Dimensional Human? Do any of these observations resonate with you?