Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dog of the Bear that Hit You

I'm in no way a student of Jung, so forgive me if I misrepresent his thinking or debase it to fit into my own cheapjack spontaneous philosophizing, but from what little I know, I'd have to say that his idea about the 'collective unconscious' is a pretty impressive prediction of the internet. People can talk about Vannevar Bush and his ilk, but the philosophical underpinnings of the human need for a grand repository of knowledge date back to pre-historic times, and it's only in the 20th Century that someone thought to ask 'why.'

The 'why do we need this library' question is a good one, because it seems like the idea of such a place is as large and enduring a cultural myth as Atlantis or the flood. The loss of Library at Alexandria forever cemented it as an elusive dream, an impossible haul of knowledge that we still haven't equalled, the lost secrets of the ancient world. I'd argue that the insane, sudden humanity-altering popularity of the internet owes as much to our weird longing for this dream than any kind of technical or practical drive.

And I'm not just talking about the ability to access the sum total of man's knowledge and achievement with the roll of a cursor. Where Jung gets it right even more than any other predictive models of the web is in thinking that the human subconscious is connected with something larger - namely, a symbolic structure that predates language and governs behavior without ever really revealing itself. The 'dream space' of humanity that has some convinced that symbolism is universal, a mystical and eternal thing that we can access but is not of us.

I don't know that I'd go that far, but much like the little denser pockets of matter that eventually became galactic superclusters as the universe formed and expanded, there are some fundamental aspects of mind-above-mind that surmount all national and linguistic divides that are probably furniture that was in place long before man evolved intelligence. The mind evolved over long epochs, and much like our suppressed impulse to hurl ourselves off of top of tall buildings is a holdover from some lizard or early mammal that was awfully good at gliding, our dream of what life is has formed around clumps of nonsensical matter that doesn't have anything to do with what humanity evolved in to.

All of the things that define us as a civilization - the need for trade, for money to facilitate trade, for roads to carry goods, governance to oversee their construction, religion, music, art, etc. We don't question these things because they simply are and always have been. But how much of that is really a necessity for our survival and success as a species? Ultimately, so much of these basic columns of society don't bear up under scrutiny. It's likely why things like recessions are more deeply terrifying than the loss of security and fear of what tomorrow will bring. It's because these are the moments that we realize as a group that no-one is driving the bus.

And I don't mean that in a prosaic way; not the 'oh, the President and Congress have no idea what they're doing' blahdeblah that makes up so much of the noise that we're surrounded by daily. I mean in the 'Holy shit, all of human endeavor is a sham and there is no reason or purpose to our pursuits' kind of way, a sort of mass gazing into the ever-present abyss and the abyss not actually gazing back, because it's, y'know, an abyss.

The internet is not that abyss. The internet is our shared gazing, if that makes any sense. Being not just a repository for our knowledge and achievements but also a full-fledged representation of our shared unconscious, it captures the cultural zeitgeist of unease and despair in strange but truthful ways. These are, of course, the kind of trends we won't really be able to see clearly until we've got some distance on them. In other words, I can't point you to them, but you and I know they're there. At some point in the coming decades, someone will draw a direct line between 'I can haz Cheezburger?' and credit default swaps. I am not that someone.

The internet, really, is a bid to create a godhead - the point at which we merge with the universe and live and communicate as pure thought. And maybe that's where the need to have such a place comes from - us as little bits of cosmic flotsam that gathered together and started to think, the universe having a need for a way of thinking about itself but not the capacity for thought. And so here we are, doing the universe's thinking about itself for it. But we've never lost that longing for a perfect place, a perfect peace and harmony, a thing without a name or face that we can't live without, the desire to shed our selves and just go back to our home in the hearts of solar furnaces.



Sean said...

"'Holy shit, all of human endeavor is a sham and there is no reason or purpose to our pursuits'"

That one sentence pretty much sums up why I don't even bother trying.

dodo said...

pretty genius piece

Unknown said...

Thanks - it needs a damn edit, though. There are bits like that Winchester Rifle mansion, stairways that go nowhere and rooms with no doors.


dodo said...

I understood where you were going.. sometimes you don't need to spell things out