Even Google couldn’t help me here, but I seem to remember that Rudy Kousbroek – a car enthusiast – once wrote an essay in which he claimed that most people, when asked to imagine the cross-section of a car, would see nothing more than a kind of sponge, a featureless plane. They have no idea what the underlying mechanics look like; how an oil-based fuel is turned into forward motion. They have no idea how this large-as-life object, one they depend on every day, actually works. This could also be a rather apt description of my own relationship with my computer, and with ‘the internet’.
In a discussion of some recent studies on the now-ubiquitous internet and the effect it is having on people, Patricia de Vries writes in De Nederlandse Boekengids about the false dichotomy drawn between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ worlds: ‘This vision leaves no room to problematize the internet as a part of the complex, messy socio-technical tangle in which we live, invested by such factors as geographical location, capital and work, politics and economics, but also by smaller quantities, such as you and I – and all the expectations, ideas, desires and aspirations of these players. Even more significantly, we are all too willing to ascribe our fears to something that lies outside ourselves, and which is therefore beyond our reach.’
“Well...this is the beginning of the end. Nobody’s safe any more.”
In her notebook Simone Weil wrote: ‘A very beautiful woman who looks at her reflection in the mirror may very well believe that the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.’ One might suppose that beauty was redundant in a virtual world; after all, it has no function there – no biological function, at any rate. Nevertheless, we seem to be developing ever more ways to present human figures in new forms of ‘artificial’ perfection. The poor bodies in the real world are then put through painful and expensive contortions so as to measure up to their virtual counterparts.
“No, you’re not the only one thinking you’re tripping out. They morphed his face. You’re welcome.”
Over Christmas dinner my uncle related how he had Googled something or other and found a clip of an interview at which I had also been at the table, as the moderator. Yes, said my aunt, you looked so relaxed! You crossed your legs, settled into your seat. So relaxed. I don’t know whether this is paranoia or delusions of grandeur – both, perhaps – but the first thing I thought was: Oh, no! If there’s enough image material of me online, then anyone with a deep-fake program – now a tool for programmers and the digitally literate, but soon not much harder to use than an Instagram filter – could have me say anything. ANYTHING.
“I’m sky high right now and and this was a bad decision to watch.”
In the Santi Quattro Coronati, a basilica in Rome, a series of 13th-century frescos depict the purported conversion and baptism of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The emperor, stricken with leprosy, is miraculously cured by Pope Sylvester. In return for this cure, Constantine then bestows authority over large swathes of his empire to the church leaders. A few centuries later, the document describing this Donation turned out to be a 7th-century forgery (which had nevertheless served the Popes extremely well). What always strikes me about these frescos is how successful propaganda can look so silly. Diseased, but in full imperial regalia, Constantine lies awkwardly in bed, his eyes closed, his brows furrowed in resignation. Red spots have been painted onto his face and arms with great care and unnatural regularity.
“This technology will be used for evil purposes. Wait till the 2020 elections.”
I’m not trying to say that there’s nothing new under the sun. On the contrary: just as orchids and insects co-evolve, we humans evolve along with the technology we invent - even if most of its anthropoid users haven’t the faintest idea how it actually works.
Fiep van Bodegom edits the literary magazine De Gids, writes regularly on literature, and has published essays, translations and prose.