THE IMAGE AND THE HUMAN
by Joseph Hurtgen
Artist: Matt Zabler The 21st century has tethered humans to screens: the complexity of the world represented in grids, polyamorphous substances flattened, diversity as color-coded demographics, language translated to binary, the ineffable spectrum of the human emotional landscape transduced to a Likert scale. And we enjoy it. If you look closely, your face looks back at you in the screen, just like how your face looks back at you in the eyes of a lover, someone pressed up close enough that the eyes become mirrors. But eyes are always mirrors, just as our bodies, our brains, our consciousness reflects the landscapes around us.
Yes, the human mind creates a connection to its surrounding environment. Everything from cityscapes to landscapes to digital surveillance is turned into a feedback loop of consciousness.
The landscape-to-identity feedback loop is a process necessary for survival, necessary for psychological stability. Hunter gatherers relied on a close relationship to the land for survival. A landscape wasn’t merely a landscape. It was a hunting ground. It was sustenance and sustainability. The earliest religion was structured around the fertility gods and goddesses, deities that reflected the fecundity of the land and the womb. Man worshipped the land because the land was his past, present, and future. If the land and the womb opened to him, he thrived. If not, he died. We grow accustomed to our surroundings. We merge with our circumstances.
The skylines of our greatest cities are phallic-inspired reminders of the modern economy. They are steel and glass renderings of the international bull market, visual presentations of the might of capital and the triumph of man to steer empires, taking resources out of the earth and using them to soar heavenward.
The ultra-city, that nightmare of surveillance capitalism, constructs consciousness in its own freeze-framing image. Cops study footage to apprehend criminals. Corporations study video to capture consumers. Primitive people feared that a camera would steal their soul. They understood the capacity of video and photography far better than they were given credit. As MTV taught us, Reality TV doesn’t produce the old reality. It produces an overdetermined reality, where everyone plays for the screen. The screen produces truth. What does not occur on-screen, what is not recorded, these acts don’t exist. Only what can be played back, looped, studied, shared, and analyzed is real. We meet ourselves for the first time on the screen. This is what I look like. This is what everyone sees. Before the appearance of the digital recording as record, we knew ourselves primarily through our thoughts and desires and through our conversations and experiences with the community around us. With the reflection of the image in the screen, the old ways of establishing identity are contravened. The community is fractured, everyone watching themselves. No one is left to define and understand you but yourself.
The newest landscape is the datastream, The Wachowski’s Matrix Code dripping green characters forever as a perfect image of the world we now feel safest in, the world we most identify with, even though the cause is now lost for feeling secure in the digital world, we still visualize and reinvent ourselves in those Matrix-code green colored pastures.
We visualize the world as information to manipulate, not as a landscape to transverse. We view ourselves as a tool that can reshape the bits and bytes we encounter on an information superhighway that has flattened a once diverse and lush landscape. Now, we speed across the paradoxically vast single point of cyberspace and flatten nothing more than ourselves. As we travel at the speed of information transfer, we imagine ourselves in constant motion. We rarely rest long enough to remember that all those nodes, all those stations in a relay are humans. But, then, what is a human but a reflection of the world that we shape?
Joseph Hurtgen has a PhD in English Literature, a published book of SF criticism, two self-published SF novels, and writes Science Fiction analysis on his blog, Rapid Transmission. He is a writer and editor for New Rural, a website devoted to exploring the intersection of global culture with rural life. He lives in Campbellsville, Kentucky with his wife Rebecca and daughter Frances.