by Erik Davis
Perhaps the manic enthusiasm for information, for producing, packaging, transmitting, and consuming scattered fragments of a coded world, is partly motivated by an unconscious desire for a totalizing revelation, an incandescent apocalypse of knowledge. After all, the word apocalypse simply means an uncovering or revealing; as a literary genre, the apocalypse presents itself as a kind of visionary freedom of information act, with God granting the seer a glimpse of his multimedia, literally all-time book of the world. All apocalyptic writings are shot through with the desire for the transparency and fullness of knowledge, a yearning for that time when all will be revealed, when a truer Torah will emerge, when light will come to the hidden things in the dark. In Matthew 10:26, Jesus even sounds like a pundit for the open surveillance society, promising that, in the last days, "there is nothing covered up that will not be uncovered, nothing hidden that will not be made known." But of all prophetic intimations of the information age, the most suggestive remains Daniel 12:4, at least in its squirrely and much-loved King James translation. After proclaiming the future resurrection of the dead, when the "wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament," the messiah tells the exiled prophet to seal up his book until the time of the end, when "many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased."
Now there's a vision that most of us can get behind. Today we are drowning in an information glut, and the faster we move about, in meatspace or cyberspace, the more ferocious the flows become. In this sense, our high-speed information overload is itself generating an ersatz apocalyptic buzz, though not quite the way that Daniel envisioned. As we wire ourselves into the buzzing networks of information exchange, we give ourselves over to a time-splicing, space-shrinking, psychic intensification of the whole giddy and heedless rush of Progress, its hidden eschatological urges laid bare at the moment they become the most profane. We can no longer even keep time with the modern sense of history, because its sprung rhythms were very much a product of books and material memory, both of which are now evaporating into the sound-bite, quick-cut, self-referential "now" of the ever-forgetting electronic universe.
In one of his apocalyptic theoretical tracts, Jean Baudrillard called this mediated rapture "the ecstasy of communication." He argues that the "harsh and inexorable light of information and communication" has now mastered all spheres of existence, producing an omnipresent system of media flows that has now colonized the interior of the self. Passion, intimacy, and psychological depth evaporate, and we wind up "only a pure screen, a switching center of all the networks of influence." No longer subjects of our own experience, we abandon ourselves to a cold and schizophrenic fascination with an infoglut he likens to a "microscopic pornography of the universe."
Though one suspects that Monsieur Baudrillard might do well to cancel his premium cable service, his dour prophecy has its place. Many of us have indeed enclosed our nervous systems within a vibrating artificial matrix of cell phones, beepers, voice mail systems, networked laptops, and ever-present terminal screens, which monitor us as much as we monitor them. As we micromanage this onslaught of sound bites, emails, temporal disjunctions, and media memes, we lose the slower rhythms and gnawing silences of the inner world. We lose the capacity to speak and act from within, and communication is reduced to a reactive, almost technical operation. And so we drown, believing that to drown is to surf.
The problem with the totalizing pessimism of Baudrillard and other technological doomsters is that humans remain protean beings, blessed with enormous elasticity and a profound potential for creative adaptation. Indeed, I suspect we will hack this phase-shift in our own tangled way, and that part of this adaptation may involve moving the ecstasy of communication to a higher ground, where we might grab the visionary bull by the horns. Along the multiplying planes of information and communication, we may learn to move like nomads, becoming errant seers despite ourselves, just to grapple with it all. And in the periphery of contemporary perception, where all the networks intersect, we may glimpse the outlines of some nameless Matrix emerging, some new structure of being and knowing that undergirds the merely material real, a vast webwork of collective intelligence within which we are at once on our own and one with the immense ecology of a conscious cosmos.