Richard Coyne (Technoromanticism) – Narrativas digitais românticas e McLuhan

Digital narratives place the invention and refinement of the computer at the pinnacle of scientific and technological accomplishment. Therefore, it may seem strange that digital narratives should draw so heavily on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century romanticism. This book examines the spectrum of romantic narrative that pervades the digital age, from McLuhan’s utopian vision of social reintegration by electronic communications to the claims of cyberspace to offer new realities. The characters that populate these technoromances are putative digital identities, cyborgs, computerized agents, and avatars, under the unitary gaze of the global brain, the transcendent intelligence emerging as the digital network grows.

It is easy to show how romanticism encourages inflated expectations, diminishes tangible concerns with equipment and embodiment, promotes the heroism of the digital entrepreneur, and dresses conservative thinking in the guise of radicalism. But addressing technoromanticism in a critical light not only lessens its hold but reveals valuable insights into the computer and the digital age. This book engages in an imaginative game of “what if.” What if we adopt the hard-nosed, commonsense alternatives to technoromanticism of empiricism and scientific rationalism?

What are the consequences for digital narrative if we adopt the insights of pragmatic or structuralist theories of language, the praxical focus of Heidegger and the phenomenologists, Foucault’s concept of bodily discipline, Freud’s Oedipal condition, or Lacan’s concepts of the real and desire? The unifying theme of our inquiry is hermeneutics, and we find that the computer serves as an aid to interpretation by providing a space for application and exploration. As well as countering romanticism, these excursions reveal much about the nature of narrativity and its consequences in the digital age.

The discussion identifies how romanticism deals with the perennial theme of unity, its identification with concepts of the real, and how contemporary agonistic narratives that speak of friction, dislocation, and schizophrenia supplant romanticism. The book also serves as a useful introduction to the application of contemporary theory to information technology, raising issues of representation, space, time, interpretation, identity, and the real in the digital age. As such it provides a companion volume to my earlier Designing Information Technology in the Postmodern Age: From Method to Metaphor, further integrating the insights of Heidegger, Derrida, Ricoeur, and Foucault, and introducing the provocations of Freud, Lacan, and surrealism to digital narrative.

McLuhan identified the era of preliterate culture as a golden age in which humankind was one with itself and with nature. Speaking and listening in the absence of writing involved highly interactive exchanges that come close to directly sharing thoughts. Aural culture was tribal, engaged, practical, and unitary. Then followed the age of literacy. When we write, we lay things out in order and divide the world. Society under literacy is urban, global, and fragmented, rather than local, integrated, and whole. For McLuhan, information technologies are implicated in this shift between the whole and its individuation, or more generally, between unity and multiplicity. Initially the introduction of writing brought about the proliferation of individuation. Now we are entering a third age in which the incessant buzz of electronic communications returns us to a tribal state, but now the whole world is the tribe.1

McLuhan presents one of many variants of the narrative of unity and multiplicity that pervade IT (information technology) discourse. Similar narratives cluster around the four great artifices of the digital age: virtual communities, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and artificial life. In narratives of virtual communities, people who have never met face-to-face are drawn together to participate in the global tribe through the media of electronic mail, on-line chat, computer role games, and video conferencing in ways similar to how conventional communities form, but without depending on spatial proximity, and in ways that obscure the divisiveness of issues of appearance and status. Virtual reality (VR) invites us to experience immersion in cyberspace, to move about in an endless sea of data. VR supposes that we can be immersed in virtual landscapes and virtual architectures, meet one another there and carry out conversations, develop intimacies with one another and with data, assume virtual identities, and be who and what we want to be. The language of virtual reality involves the unitary concepts of immersion and engagement. Various forms of artificial intelligence (AI) present the case for a unity between human and machine. The mind is treated as a kind of mechanism, or software within the hardware of the brain, so we can replicate and simulate aspects of mind in a computer. Conversely, we can study the mind in computational terms. More lately, some AI has overtly adopted the language of unity, maintaining that intelligent behavior emerges from the complex interaction of many simple subsystems, taking to heart the adage of systems theory that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The study of artificial life (AL) develops from this axiom, renouncing ”centralized thinking.” The way biological organisms organize themselves is apparently more akin to the way a colony of ants behaves. Each insect operates locally with no apparent plan for the whole, and yet the whole colony is able to construct complex, air-conditioned termite mounds. These emergent behaviors apparently challenge the need for centralized, hierarchical, and autocratic control structures, and AL researchers devise computer systems to manifest evolution, growth, and holistic behavior in artificial organisms.

  1. See M. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man; and M. McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. For a recent account of the condition of primal bliss, see S. Plant, Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture: “Those were the days, when we were all at sea. It seems like yesterday to me. Species, sex, race, class: in those days none of this meant anything at all. No parents, no children, just ourselves, strings of inseparable sisters, warm and wet, indistinguishable one from the other, gloriously indiscriminate, promiscuous and fused”.