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The Ghost in the Machine

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By William Deresiewicz


 

Once, we dreamed of gods and angels. The beasts were below us—that we knew. But we feared becoming beasts ourselves, told tales of metamorphosis, the blurry line between us: Circe’s wand and pen; Ovid’s spiders, birds, and bears. We were made of clay and spirit, half nature, half something else. If there were animals beneath us, there must be gods above. Might we rise to join them, just as we could sink to the others? Those myths we also told: Hercules, Castor, Aeneas. Christianity made the prospect universal. The gods became angels, and Heaven was open to all. We would be purged of mortal dross, and sprout celestial wings.

Now we have other dreams. Not beasts and angels, but machines. For Marinetti and the Futurists a century ago, the machine was the new deity. Bright, powerful, glorious, swift: the airplane, the steamship, the automobile—pure reason, the mind made metal. For Kurt Vonnegut during the postwar boom—he had worked for General Electric—Marinetti’s vision of a post-human future was all too imminent. In Player Piano, machines have made the humans all but obsolete.

Machines above us, equivocal gods, but also machines below, regarded with the same anxiety of kinship the Greeks felt about nature. The word robot was invented by the Czech science fiction writer Karel Čapek in 1920, and the concept has haunted our imagination ever since. Blade Runner, A.I.: Where do we stop and the machines start? How can we tell the difference between us? What does it mean to be human, anyway? Do we really have souls, or is it all just fancy wiring?

But lately, something new. We don’t just worship our machines, we enter them. They do not point to Heaven, they create it. I mean the ones with screens, of course, and the virtual worlds they contain. Think of Avatar. Ostensibly a Rousseauistic fable of return to nature, the movie is really a fantasy about disappearing into an alternative reality accessed technologically. Jake, the hero, lies in a pod in a lab, but his spirit gallops free on Pandora. The planet is supposed to be a real place, but it feels computer-generated (in part because we know it is). The avatars are blue, not green: the computer’s color, not nature’s. Jake is paraplegic, but his avatar—lithe, comely, 10 feet tall—gives him superhuman powers. As for the Na’vi, Pandora’s indigenes, they’re already living in an Internet—connected, USB-style, with animals, the planet, one another. At the end, Jake unites completely with his icon (uploading his consciousness into it, as it were), shedding his human body and entering the other world for good.

The kick is the same in The Matrix, even if the premise is different. The Matrix is supposed to be an evil place, but it sure seems a heck of a lot more fun than flying around in that cruddy ship. Like Jake in his pod, Neo and friends close their eyes, plug themselves in, and descend into infantile dreams of omnipotence, flying like angels or gods.

“Avatar” is the word for a user’s graphical representation in a videogame. That’s what these movies are, after all: very expensive, collective video games. And that’s our newest dream: to become pure spirit by becoming pure energy, pure pixels, pure information. To shed our pimply bodies and be free.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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