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The internet is not a single entity - it's a whole new way of living

Psychoanalyst Josh Cohen untangles our complex "ways of being" in an overwhelmingly digital world.

The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World
Laurence Scott
William Heinemann, 248pp, £20

In an inspired episode of Graham Linehan’s sitcom The IT Crowd, Roy and Moss, the tech geeks based in the bowels of the company building, convince their gloriously clueless manager, Jen, that a bog-standard wireless router is The Internet. She duly unveils the flashing black box at a shareholders’ meeting, announcing, “The Internet!” with a magician’s flourish – the punchline being that, instead of laughing her out of the room, the assembled owners erupt in a collective gasp of wonder: There it is! The Internet!

Much commentary on the internet, even when better informed, is prone to the same illusion. It points to the net as though one could speak of it from the outside as one phenomenon among others, a Bad or Good Thing, either corroding or liberating our brains, relationships and communities. We too often speak of the internet as a discrete entity we can take or leave, rather than the environment in which we think and feel.

One of the many virtues of Laurence Scott’s probing and elegant meditation on the digital world’s “ways of being” is that he conveys a sense of online life as a mode of daily existence, rather than a bounded space we can enter or exit at will. This renders him suitably wary of the “Demon of Melodramatic Prophecy”, that tendency of books on contemporary phenomena to market themselves with apocalyptic warnings or messianic good tidings of the near future (you know the kind of thing – How the Internet Is Making Innovative Geniuses/Gormless Cretins of Us All). “Every book”, Scott suggests, “has at least one demon who threatens to make its vision less interesting” – in this case, the temptation to find some final verdict, a flattening of the essential ambiguity of the digital world.

Although Martin Heidegger is nowhere explicitly named in The Four-Dimensional Human (Scott may prefer not to invoke unrepentant Nazis, to which one can only say fair play), the book seems to follow the German philosopher’s critique, in his 1954 essay “Die Frage nach der Technik”, of the superficial conception of technology as the historical accretion of machines. Technology, Heidegger posits, is rather the mode through which humanity discloses its very Being; it is, he writes, “no mere means”, but “a way of revealing”.

Although he has plenty to say about the ways in which our various devices insinuate themselves into our bodily and psychic lives, Scott is much more interested in the digital world’s “ways of revealing” everyday experience than in hard technical analysis or airy futurological speculation. Relevant here is a more specific allusion to Heidegger discernible in the penultimate chapter title: “The Cabin in the Woods”. The romantic image gilding the cover (the remote chiaroscuro dwelling, crowned by a watermelon-pink Google location marker) evokes Heidegger’s hut in the Black Forest mountains. This is the site of true “dwelling” and an emblem of the patient task of thinking “Being as such” – for Heidegger, Being is something one does not “think about”, but simply “thinks” – shorn of its contingent social or psychological colourings.

Scott is alive to the many resonances of the phrase “cabin in the woods”, but its “four-dimensional” significance is brought out by the knowing 2012 schlock horror flick of that title, in which five American college kids hole up in an off-grid forest getaway, only to discover they have “unknowingly journeyed into the centre of surveillance”. The cabin turns out to be the site of a murderous ritual sacrifice monitored and controlled by the evil workers of a hi-tech facility. So much for thinking Being in the profound solitude of the Schwarzwald.

Scott derives his “fourth dimension” not from cutting-edge technology of the present but from literary texts of the 20th century, notably The Inheritors, a novel co-authored by Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. The fourth dimension here is “an unrealised, unrealisable infinity of space” folded imperceptibly into our standard three dimensions. This once-fanciful sci-fi scenario is now the air that we breathe. Not long ago, the cabin in the woods signified the dream of “pure, isolated habitation”, located at vast physical and imaginative distance from our quotidian reality.

But in the age of location services the gap between the near and the remote collapses, and with it the fantasy of total escape:

The more we come to think of a quintessential house as being lit not just by lamps at the window but by the oblong glows of assorted devices, by the half-hidden flicker of the router

under the table, the less a house on a hill will be able to accommodate our dreams of solitude.

The book is full of such artfully concentrated imaginative descriptions. Notice how, in delineating the router’s dissolution of the boundary between the house and the world outside, Scott conjures the transition from the lamplight’s 20th-century solitude into the glowing device’s 21st-century sociality.

More than a mere display of erudition, Scott’s forays into literary and philosophical texts from Sophocles to Walter Benjamin are a rebuke to a crude technological determinism that thinks of the fourth dimension as a creation of our own age. They remind us that the derangement of space-time now being realised by the digital world has always lurked at the outer edges of the imagination. The “digital perversity” whereby the deafening noise of social media is at once a “terrible silence” is anticipated by Dionysus: “His trademark entrance on to an Arcadian scene involves blaring pandemonium, but crucially it is from within this noisy ecstasy that a terrible silence petrifies any mortal present.” With such uncanny intrusions of the ancient into the present, the book niftily performs its central conceit.

One of the many rich ironies of 4D life is that its merciless dissolution of spatial and temporal boundaries intensifies our nostalgia for a sentimentally pristine past. Exhibit A here is the Oakland-based firm Digital Detox, which offers a tailored escape from networked life in the form of Camp Grounded, where adult participants “shed their digital selves to re-create an idealised vision of summer-camp innocence”, complete with “woodworking, pickling, analogue photography and archery”.

But such intricately planned artifice, Scott argues, can only aggravate the predicament it is meant to relieve by confirming the irretrievability of our personal and historical pasts: “As is common with simulations, Camp Grounded has the form of a simile with none of the novelty: your food will be like your childhood food; you will live like the Scouts you used to be.” The escapist simulations of the 4D world are a notably egregious instance of the impoverishment of language, constricting rather than expanding our imaginative breathing space.

And yet it seems that increasing ­numbers of us are calling out from the abyss of the digital void, yearning for the impossible recovery of a three-dimensional world and its reliable differentiations between here and there, now and then. The internet was born in anarchic visions of shedding the constrictions of personal embodiment. “Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement and context do not apply to us,” the internet activist John Perry Barlow wrote in 1996, envisioning the dizzying proliferation of our online identities.

But the history that subsequently unfolded was rather less utopian. As the internet morphed into a vast consumerist playground, ever greater numbers of us came to be seduced into quantifying our online selves, reducing ourselves to the sum of data we could trade for access to goods and services. It is far easier, Scott suggests, to sell stuff to “contained, knowable people” with “an online history of consistent, amiable personhood”, and it turns out that we like being sold stuff sufficiently well to oblige the vendors. As Scott has it in another fine aperçu, “Digital life, for all its ethereality, is in the business of making things matter.” It brings to mind another contemporary crime against speech, those corporate granola boxes and juice cartons that address us as their bantering chums. In reducing us to instances of generic amiability, the digital world subjects us to the same sort of shrinking operation we perform on it, cutting it back to a finite, knowable quantity (as in the flashing black box of that episode of The IT Crowd).

Herein lies the governing paradox of our 4D “ways of being” as it emerges from under Scott’s sharp and lyrical gaze. We experience the digital world as at once a sublimely unnavigable landscape that decentres our world, and as a reassuringly personalised domain that recentres it. The 4D world is neither liberating nor imprisoning, but holds both possibilities within itself.

The Four-Dimensional Human is finally less a commentary on the digital world than a meditation on the many ways our technologies serve as spectral emanations of our inner lives in all their contradictory richness. Beyond the lovely precision of its diction and companionable voice, it is notable for its courage to write from inside the ambiguities and confusions of online life, to resist the easy pleasures of summary judgement. Not that this entails bland even-handedness: there is much lamentation here, albeit a wry lamentation that avoids the hectoring exhortation to do or not do something, that refuses to proffer either one of the seductive but utterly false delusions that there is some easy way out of the digital world or some ideal way of living in it.

Josh Cohen is the author of “The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark” (Granta)

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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Dunkirk is an accomplished, expressive war film without the blood and guts

Christopher Nolan both stretches time and compresses it, creating suspense without horror.

The first line heard in Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk is a declaration of identity. “English! Anglais!” shouts the inky-haired, milky-faced Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he hurries toward a group of French soldiers at the end of a deserted street, having narrowly escaped being gunned down by Germans. Identity is crucial in this movie. Questions arise about the nationality of a grunt who appears to have fallen mute: is he a German spy? And with several hundred thousand soldiers cornered in Dunkirk awaiting evacuation in May 1940, foreigners are weeded out of the lines of men waiting for rescue by British vessels.

Only one naval ship has been committed to the evacuation: with German bombers dotting the sky, picking off the troops waiting on the beach and jetty (or mole), the military won’t risk putting in jeopardy any vessels that may be needed come the next big battle. In the absence of other options, an improvised flotilla of civilian boats makes its bobbing way across the Channel towards Dunkirk.

That cry of “English! Anglais!” could also signal a returning home for the British-born, Anglo-American Nolan. For 20 years, he has been almost exclusively a Hollywood filmmaker, darkening the mood at multiplexes with his sombre Dark Knight series and his riddle-me-this puzzle pictures Inception and Interstellar, and becoming in the process one of the world’s genuine superstar directors. Dunkirk brings him back to his roots while continuing to pose the sort of structural challenges that have animated him since Memento (still his most wickedly inventive work) and The Prestige (a close second).

To maintain a triple-pronged narrative that cuts between soldiers such as Tommy on the beach, plucky civilian volunteers such as Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) inching across the waves toward France, and the RAF Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) babysitting the lot of them from the air, Nolan’s screenplay fuses the three timelines. This gives the impression that everything is happening concurrently, when, in fact, there are minuscule flashbacks, flash-forwards and replays of the action from different angles sewn into the editing. The events on the mole occupy around a week, the ones at sea a day, while the darting aerial combat lasts merely an hour. Providing momentum and continuity is Hans Zimmer’s surging score, which is shot through with mechanical groans and shrill, sawing violins redolent of exposed nerves.

Cinema has been stretching time since at least Battleship Potemkin but it is unusual to find elongation and compression used simultaneously. The soldiers’ long wait to be rescued, as they take cover in one ship that gets torpedoed and another that is beached, is necessarily abridged. The pilots’ mission, on the other hand, is stretched out and rendered in intricate detail; at one point, Farrier’s survival comes to depend on nothing more than a piece of chalk.

It’s a sly joke for Nolan to confine an actor as imposing as Tom Hardy to a cramped cockpit as well as hiding his pretty face with a disfiguring mask for the second time. (His unintelligible turn in The Dark Knight Rises caused viewers everywhere to cup their ears in a collective “Eh?”) Casting elsewhere works on the Thin Red Line principle that minor characters are more easily defined when played by stars: Kenneth Branagh is a naval commander, Cillian Murphy a shell-shocked soldier. Advance publicity has dwelt on the acting debut of Harry Styles, formerly of One Direction, who is the latest British pop star cast by the director following Tim Booth in Batman Begins and David Bowie in The Prestige. Styles does a decent job and doesn’t bump into the furniture, though there are other elements in the film more worthy of note.

Chief among them is the decision to create suspense without horror, substantiating Nolan’s claim that this is not so much a war movie as a survival film. Audiences are put on high alert by an ambush in the opening scene and by the shot of a dead man’s foot sticking out of the sand. A soldier asked how he knows that the tide is coming in responds by pointing out that bodies are washing up on the shore. Yet Nolan is manifestly not playing a game of oneupmanship against Saving Private Ryan. Hints of violence are sparing. Soldiers killed by bombs simply disappear in an explosion of earth, and the one death in which our empathy is actively solicited falls loosely and ignominiously into the category of friendly fire.

For all its accomplished action sequences and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s expressive cinematography, which mimics at times the distressed texture of Super 8, the picture is distinguished by a knack for undercutting genre conventions without diminishing them emotionally. Pretty much the only red stuff shown is the strawberry jam handed out on slices of bread aboard a hospital ship; the one time we hear the words of Churchill they are read aloud from the morning paper by an exhausted soldier understandably lacking in bombast or ceremony. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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