What do I care for your suffering? Pain, even agony, is no more than information before the senses, data fed to the computer of the mind. The lesson is simple: you have received the information, now act on it. Take control of the input and you shall become master of the output.
– Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Essays on Mind and Matter”
The juxtaposition of this secret project with this Yang quote is very reflective of Alpha Centauri’s origin in the 90s. As we saw in the post on the Data Angels, cyberspace was different back then: it was a place where everything was possible, and thus you could throw anything at it to see if it sticks. If virtual reality, then why not real virtuality? There might be something to it, after all.
Hindsight does not help in this particular regard, given that this kind of cybernihilism tends to flower in seedy parts of the web where toxic masculinity is cultivated as a virtue. Twenty years on, as real and virtual have collapsed into one another and become post-digital, the whole notion of a (let alone the) virtual world is rather disingenuous. Sure, disappearing into a virtual world was a tempting proposition back in the days (and it featured prominently in the Alpha Centauri lore books), but we all know someone who’ve disappeared into World of Warcraft, and all that this entails. There was something to it, and it bore unpleasant fruits.
For all this, we have not realized the dream of the Virtual World: a place wherein you fully immerse yourself to the detriment of everything else. The Matrix has yet to materialize (pun intended), but the idea that it inevitably will, or even should, has faded to such a degree that you need a certain cultural sensibility to remember its intensity. As with those who were enthusiastic about 70s music in the 90s, there is a certain remove which marks is as a different experience than actually being there, in time and space. If the Virtual World is a decontextualization device, then it ironically needs to be recontextualized.
Anything is possible in the virtual world. You can be anyone you want, anything you want; Sherry Turkle can write extended passages psychoanalyzing the significance of online avatars. On the internet, no one knows you are a dog. Radical freedom is around the corner, when the bonds of the physical world are shattered and we become free to pursue who we really want to be, given our newfound access to all the great works of art and literature ever created in human history –
It would be dystopic to a fault to posit a virtual world consisting entirely of middling youtube celebs being their personal brands, but it would not be too far off. As a cyberculture, we have received vast quantities of information about what it means to live in a hyperconnected world where phrases such as “surfing on the digital superhighway” makes sense. It turns out that Yang’s phrasing in terms of input and output does not hold. It all becomes a feedback loop where a select few bits of data becomes iterated upon until it ceases to be recognizable from without.
Twenty years later, we have lost all ability to can. Which, considering, might be a good thing.