Coyne (Technoromanticism) – A quimera da unidad digital

Clearly the unity theme presents in various forms. In some cases, it presents as a simple numerical description: one whole (unity) and many parts (multiplicity). In some cases, it presents as a matter of the unity between elements, as in the parts of a system working as one, people united as community, or distinct categories of things such as humankind, nature, and machines working in harmony. In some cases, the unity theme also suggests the dissolution of the boundaries between categories, as in the unity between organism and machine, or body and mind. Sometimes unity is revealed as something one participates in experientially as a place, a state, a time, or a condition that one enters, as in cyberspace. Sometimes unity implies a state of freedom, or freedom within bounds, belonging in the past or in the future, or residing in another place. Or the unity state may transcend what is normally accessible to the senses, as an idea, or an ideal.

The technologies that support virtual communities, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and artificial life also imply a certain self exaltation or conceit on the part of humankind, a presumption that we can have total control or omnipotence, play God, by simulating, mastering, redefining, manipulating, and controlling space, time, community, thought, and life. This presumed omnipotence can imply hierarchy, control, suppression, manipulation of others, delusion, and other manifestations of fragmentation and multiplicity. But it also implies an innocence, a return to a primal unity, to a state when we were truly omnipotent, our will was suffused with that of nature, and there was no differentiation between our demands and the whole, which, according to some commentators, is the state of early childhood. So the audacity and presumption of digital narratives also invoke the unity theme.

Digital narratives do not present on the theme of unity in isolation, but unity contrasted with multiplicity, particularly as understood pejoratively as fragmentation or disintegration. The fragmentation is either outside the world created by the technology or within it. Virtual communities are posited against the fragmentation of current social forms, or the failure of conventional mass media to realize the goals of producing an informed and active citizenry, a truly civil society. Virtual reality presents a world where you can be yourself, against a duplicitous world in which you have to conform to the expectation of others: a fake and fragmented world of similarly disconnected individuals. In a virtual world, you have instant access to any coordinate in data space. You can be here, there, or everywhere, unlike the limited, spatially, and logically constrained world we usually experience with its discontinuities and fragmentations. The new AI and AL present a holistic order, against the fractured methods of formal systems and hierarchical control. But these technological narratives also acknowledge the potential for fragmentation within their worlds: uneven access to computer systems, alienation from normal interactions with people and things, an imbalance in priorities, a privileging of objects and issues that are amenable to computer representations, the reinforcement of the status quo, problems of surveillance, and delusion-all of which point to alienation among ourselves, from nature, and from our machines. The rhetoric of unity also embraces its own apparent contradictions, through the aphorism of “unity in diversity.” So virtual communities are said to allow differences to flourish, cyberspace is said to be fragmented and polyvalent as well as whole, and in the new AI and AL a global unity emerges from diversity, and vice versa.

The theme of unity and multiplicity is an ancient one, but it finds full flower in the writing of the romantics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The themes developed by the romantic writer Schlegel should be familiar. He reacted against the progressive subjection of the world to the rationalization and reduction of the early Enlightenment, complaining that in the modern age, under the influence of Cartesian rationalism and the growth in science, “the intellect exhausts itself in the study of individualities,” resulting in the complete loss of “all idea of perfection in unity.”1 In so arguing, he articulated the romantic quest for the soul’s reunion with nature. He contrasted the perfection to be found in unity with the fragmentation of individuality. He also appealed to a golden age in which all things were united under “the perfect consistency of the ancients,” to be contrasted with our own “dismemberment.”2 He also pointed to the power of “instinct,” which is beyond reason, and which, “beginning and ending in nature” can “unite nature with mankind.”3 He recognized the longing to transcend the world of the individual toward a unity: “There is in the human breast a fearful unsatisfied desire to soar into infinity.”4 The unity people seek is ineffable, beyond language, and nature is “ever mute, incomprehensible, unsympathising, and unconsoling.”5

  1. F. von Schlegel, “On the limits of the beautiful,” 414. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid., 415. 

  4. Ibid., 419. 

  5. Ibid., 421.