The Internet In Our Bones

I wrote this essay for Slipped Gears, an exhibition at Usdan Gallery, Bennington College, VT.

While airplanes of today have never been able to fly more perfectly directly, from takeoff to touchdown, runways have become damaged due to wheels landing repeatedly at exactly the same spot. Micro-precision is thought to lead to a better tomorrow. Countless activities are monitored at hyper-granular levels in order to squeeze out the most potent data, which is in turn used to make machines less brutalist and more balletic and predictive. We have apps that measure every step and heartbeat; stock market trades are recorded in milliseconds. But, at the end of the day, the euphemistically labeled cloud, storing so much of this information, is formed from acres of gigantic metal, glass, and plastic warehouses, absorbing megatons of environmentally unsound energy to keep machines cool. The intensity of the race for immediate precision in all things is leaving scratches and scars IRL. The seemingly seamless perfection of data-driven everything sometimes has unseen liabilities — the worn-down spots on runways are allegories for the scars being created in our collective digital psyche.

In this current transitional period when technology begins to commonly reside in and around us, systems and frameworks of machinic perfection are overlaid onto the messy and dense tangles of people, feelings and objects that make up life. The notion of leaving bodies behind, transferring consciousness to a cybernetically-enhanced “matrix” as naively imagined a decade ago, never came true. Rather, the inverse has occurred, we can nearly feel the internet in our bones.

There is a preponderance of the usage of the word “disruption” as a potential means to recalibrate systems through technologically-enhanced radical efficiency, both in the marketplace and in governance. This notion carries with it an ahistoricism and unawareness of very real, large, and entrenched power structures — it seems to have the political and ideological dimensions sucked out of it. Late 20th century notions of “intervention” and its historical belief in high-level structural understanding are being replaced by ground-up micro-actions, working under the guise of disruption, that are assumed to collectively result in change. This move to a disruptive practice, as opposed to large-scale intervention, is still underway and in the end may be a more effective means for quantifiable change but the tally of what is being lost in this approach has not been tabulated; a net gain in efficient action doesn’t equate to an increase in happiness.

What new definitions of machinic pleasure are being created and how many are being forgotten? How many terabytes of data are contained in a single smile? The imposition of algorithmic corrections distort what were once uniquely human domains; an internet-of-everything mentality acts as a kind of anti-endorphine. Experiences are tempered to a point where individual eccentricity is smoothed to a statistical anomaly. I sometimes imagine airline pilots being bored, as they fly the most sophisticated technology ever conceived across expansive oceans and through the most uninhabitable conditions, nearly a mile above the earth, engines functioning nearly perfectly day after day. And yet, as the glowing “heads up” monitor display ticks off every micro-detail of change in the plane’s operating system, bouncing digital hand-shakes through interstellar satellite systems back to Boeing’s headquarters in Seattle, the pilot flying yawns and maybe even nods off for a few minutes. Essentially we are witnessing the laying to rest one of humanity’s most instinctual excitements, that of rocketing through the clouds, through systems of predictive mechanics and on-board algorithmic environmental taming.

Anxieties around these issues are not new but the visceral feeling of loss, that certain ways of being simply can no longer exist, is palpable. Knowing that things may be effectively better doesn’t mitigate a certain nostalgia. I doubt there is a geo-locative device sophisticated enough to tell us what the collective offset is for our hearts.