In Hobbes’ Leviathan, the philosopher told of a social contract. This contract posited that humans should agree to surrender the freedoms of the natural world such as violence, sexual impulses and primitive drives in exchange for the safety of the rule of law. In other words, society could be free from the pain nature could cause, but in this exchange, not free to act according to their basic drives and instincts. The scary, unpredictable world of nature with its many freedoms but explicitly perilous essence can be exchanged for the structured regimen of laws, the security of walled cities and the implicit violence of governments. And yet, constrained by the rule of law, society had to forgo or repress some of their most primitive sexual and aggressive drives. Again, humans are faced with a lack, should they give up their drives and co-exist within society or give way to their instinctive drives?
Freud, in Civilisation and its Discontents, spoke of a tension, a deep rooted frustration that assails all humans living in society, the fear that they cannot express their true nature and must thus repress it. Primitive emotions like violence and sexual impulses are forbidden in these societies and dutifully punished. And yet, according to Freud, our most primitive impulses build up, forming a population of repressed individuals that needs to find an outlet in other ways. As such, Freud argues there are three ways society can cope: by creating “powerful distractions… intoxications… and substitute satisfactions” To come to terms with our internal struggles of inferiority, we create myths about power and law, coping mechanisms that help distract us and sublimate our dangerous instincts.
No wonder the power of perilous mountains and dangerous seas elicit experiences of the sublime – they remind us of the violence we had to forgo. And similarly, it’s no surprise that the building of infrastructures like dams, forts and other technologies amaze us, reminding us of the power we are able to produce if we live in an organised society. And yet the tension remains, one myth not being powerful enough to supplant the other. The myth of civilization was erected at the expense of nature and the myth of security in society at the expense of our freedoms of the drives. But could a society ever gain security (freedom from pain) and also appease its primitive instincts (freedom of the drives)?
In 1989 the world wide web was launched, a global collection of pages, documents and images all linked by hyperlinks and URLs and accessible via the Internet, itself an interconnected communication network system. This new medium through which society would communicate, learn and interact, operated on a scale never seen before, allowing people to talk, message and share content to people across the globe in a matter of moments. With a tool so powerful, ever-expanding and where opportunities seemed so limitless, it is perhaps unsurprising that many myths about its potential to radically change humanity were spawned. Barlow in 1996 wrote the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace stating: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” In this new cybernetic world, the rules and laws of the world don’t apply. The worldwide web has no borders, no governments and no laws, it operates via a binary of zeros and ones that allows its contents to transcend physical form and time. Could we now expose our primitive drives without the fear of physical pain or rule of law?
The word cyber – interestingly – derives from the ancient Greek kybernetes meaning steerer or navigator, a nod to the millions of internet surfers of today. Distanced enough from the perils of nature, but close enough so that it could reproduce it virtually, the cyber aesthetics fits the original sublime definition as expounded by Burke: “when danger or pain press too nearly, they are simply terrible; but at certain distances and with certain modifications they may be delightful”. Online, nature’s green pastures become immortalised in VR headsets. Dirty old money turns into bitcoin, the only allusion to the ‘real world’ being an ironic nod to ‘mining’. And our desires for violence and sexual satisfaction sublimated via the transgressive safety of dashcams and webcams.
And yet, with everything recorded and our every move tracked, our cohabitation within the cyber world has been one of excitement but also of concern. Online, without the direct threat to physical violence, we are inhibited, but we are also more exposed psychologically. After all, without our biggest organ (the skin) to protect us, online we are porous and malleable, shapeshifting into whatever character or avatar we desire. But then again, without organs or physical bodies, we are also liberated of pain – online we are capable of extending past our own mortality, finally making the myth of heavenly eternal existence a possibility, or as Thomas Hine stated “an attempt to invest our lives with a meaning and drama that transcend the inevitable decay and death of the individual.”
In an attempt to get the freedoms we had exchanged for security back, we now embarked on a mythological crusade via the synthetic world of the internet. And yet, amidst this virtual realm, we ended up trading our own privacy for the fleeting illusion of those original freedoms. Yes, online we can appease our basic drives for violence and sex, and even forgo our identities completely, but in the safe neutrality of cyberspace, secure behind the screen, is that transgression as powerful as the harsh reality of the real world? When the internet first launched, it arrived packaged within its own mythology: a mythology of freedom, self-expression, growth and egalitarianism. Yet unpacking it has revealed some unexpected items in our cart…