User Error: Brain Worms
Will we still set New Year’s resolutions when our consciousness lives on computers? Adina Glickstein rings in 2023 with transhumanists, goblins, and worms.
‘Tis the season of aspirational self-improvement – of discounted gym memberships, doomed to be bought and forgotten. Home for the holidays, I immediately start fantasizing about “going Tao Lin mode” which is what it’s called when you start worrying about EMF and throw out all the seed-oil-containing products in your parents’ house. I end up curled up in my high school bedroom watching an online “Vision Setting” workshop sold to me by my yoga teacher as part of her new branded partnership with Squarespace. Sitting on a white faux-fur pelt, she beams down to us, presiding through the interface. We do Kundalini kriyas, punctuated by journaling prompts. We are guided, ever so gently, to reflect: what sustained me, this year, and what drained me? What elevated my consciousness, nudging me towards a higher state?
All this invocation of ascent is dizzying. Disembodying, even. Or maybe that’s the breathing exercises. A refrain is lodged in my head, not a chant or meditation mantra, exactly. It’s a dictum from computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, prophet of the singularity: information, he says, is always seeking to attain higher states of complexity. Kurzweil laid the groundwork for what some call transhumanism – supposing that machine intelligence will, in the not-too-distant future, surpass and enfold that of humans. In his view, this is akin to achieving nirvana. When he dies, he intends to preserve his consciousness by uploading it to a supercomputer. Are we reducible to information; to electromagnetic activity in the brain? Is the future he predicts one worth living for, worth improving ourselves for? I close my laptop, breathlessly, and slowly back away.
Much within me is indeed worm, as I lie facedown, fused to my smartphone, in my blanket cocoon of proto-singularity.
Last year, my New Year’s resolution was to log off harder – to keep my phone plugged in on the other side of my bedroom, out of my bed-bound reach. To be thoughtful about my circadian rhythm and blue-light hygiene. I learned, from a TikTok that I watched before falling asleep with phone still in hand, that you should cease exposure to your devices at least an hour before bedtime. So I resolved to put my phone in a homemade Faraday cage that I DIY’ed out of a pasta box, a strategy I lifted from a friend’s “harm reduction guide to using your phone less.” For a couple of months, I dutifully slept with my phone in a cardboard farfalle box. And then I got asked to write a monthly column about internet culture.
I guess it’s natural, to want to better ourselves. To strive towards higher states. This past one was not, for myself and apparently others, the most salutary of years. For confirmation, look no further than the fact that “goblin mode” was democratically elected as Oxford word of the year. It describes the opposite of aspirational self-help: goblin mode valorizes “behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy,” and that it was chosen by The People to define our collective experience of late is both vindicating and horrifying. Goblin mode is falling asleep with your phone on your chest; scrambling your hormones with blue-light exposure; unleashing your inner slob-demon, her midnight pallor illuminated by the glow of the screen.
In my own most goblin’d out moments, all I can think about is a line from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “You have evolved from worm to man, but much within you is still worm.” Much within me is indeed worm – much to be improved upon – as I lie facedown, fused to my smartphone, in my blanket cocoon of proto-singularity. Like an earworm, the hook of a pop hit, the words play in my mind on psychic repeat. I have never read Nietzsche. I know this quote because it’s the epigraph to a Routledge reader on transhumanism.
In computer-speak, “WORM” is a kind of data-storage – “write once, read many” – where information is inscribed into memory and cannot be overwritten or erased. It can be accessed and read, but never modified. Outside of programming, it is rare for anything to be so fixed, so certain. There’s a statistic, really more of a meme, that when Kurzweil predicts the future of technology, he’s right 86% of the time. By his assessment, a scenario where we meld with the machines would constitute a quantum leap into exciting new realms. To the contrary, I think it sounds more like existential goblin mode, disembodied and self-indulgent to the max.
Thank your deity of choice that, aside from certain matters of data storage, most choices are reversible.
The media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues that the visions of figures like Kurzweil have less to do with improving the world than with “transcending the human condition altogether.” What may appear, at first, to resemble innovation and discovery – maybe even self-improvement on steroids – is really a matter of the ultra-rich “insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape.”
Elsewhere, Rushkoff recounts how the psychedelic pioneer Terence McKenna planned to be cryogenically frozen and brought back to life in the future, maybe once the singularity had come. But on his deathbed, McKenna opted out of eternity. He didn’t want to wake up, one day, a floating consciousness in a coldly-lit room full of geeks clad in lab coats. Thank your deity of choice that, aside from certain matters of data storage, most choices are reversible. Looking towards the empty expanse of a fresh year before us, I offer one resolution for 2023. This year, I’m committed to believing in mutability, in possibility – no matter the probability of Kurzweil’s prophecy, no matter how fixed in place things might seem to be. So little of this world is WORM, if only we don’t damage it beyond recognition, trying to actualize some techno-utopian reveries of exit.
ADINA GLICKSTEIN is an editor at large for Spike and publishes “User Error” monthly. In her last column, she considered girls’ grifts and the startup-ification of subjectivity.