Faustian Society

by Ken Sanes

These are some of the "macro-trends" that describe the way contemporary society is being transformed by the connection between technology and illusion. Much of the focus is on the way we are learning how to control the world of nature and worlds of illusion, so the physical world will be as malleable as images and simulations, and simulations will be lifelike.

From Simulation and the Creation of a Human World:

In 1964, the literary critic Northrop Frye published a short book, titled The Educated Imagination, in which he tried to summarize his ideas on the relevance of literature to life. In it, he asserted that we all find ourselves confronting a world of nature, which is oblivious to our values and desires. It is a world that is inhuman in shape, manifesting no larger intelligence or morality that we can discern.

Our response to this experience, Frye said, is to turn nature into a "human world" that looks more like home. Although he expresses it somewhat differently, it is obvious from the text that he believed we create this "human world" a number of ways. One way we do so is by reconstructing our physical environment, replacing it with something of our own design. We build roads, farms, cities, and so on. Another way we do so is by producing literature, which allows us to explore alternative models of human experience. Here, instead of re-creating physical reality in our own image, we invent fictional versions of reality that let us see a vision of the world as we can imagine it and as we want it to be.*

The collection of essays that follows examines what has become of our effort to create such a human world as we approach the last years of the twentieth century. It describes the way we are beginning to fulfill a dream that is at least as old as civilization, by learning how to control nature or physical reality, and also create believable simulations of reality that are, in essence, new kinds of fiction.

From The Automated Environment:

Inevitably, these changes are bringing about a new kind of society, in which people have advanced abilities to manipulate both the physical world and worlds of illusion. Everything from the physical environment, and from the world of images or simulations, becomes raw material, that  we can appropriate and re-create in our own image.We end up living inside an artificial environment that caters to our desires, in which we constantly manipulate technology in ways that expand our freedom and power, and allow us to transcend many of the limits of existence. The computer scientist, manipulating images to create virtual worlds, and the physical scientist, learning how to manipulate the elements of this world, become archetypal figures of the age.

We can already see the beginnings of such a society -- permeated by computers, automation and simulation -- in almost everything described in the book. We can see it in those smart houses, where the same computers and television screens provide control over both the actual house and imaginary worlds. We can see it in rain forest exhibits, where an environment of nature and fabrication is monitored and run by computer; and in Disney World, the model city, where we are constantly carried to and through a realm of fantasy, by technology. If these are good predictors of the future, then we are entering an age in which the house is a technology-slave; nature is a variation on the Lied Jungle, manipulated by computer and augmented by simulation; and automated cities are made up of material and electronic images (although, it is unlikely we will choose to make most buildings into obviously themed environments that look like they were lifted out of comic books.)

In this new environment, simulations will almost certainly be much like "reality" and reality will develop many of the qualities of a virtual environment. The material world will begin to seem less substantial, and more like an environment of images that is open to our manipulations. The elements of our surroundings will be ephemeralized: they will be lighter, miniaturized, more pliable and pervaded by responsive computers, so our environment seems less like matter and more like an extension of the mind that controls it. Our surroundings will include simulations of space in the form of video screens and images, with which we will communicate with the world; it will come to include computers that simulate human responses, and technologies that turn the environment into an extension of our will. All of this, of course, is to some degree, already taking place.

This artificial environment will be the ultimate extension of the progress of civilization. Civilization, after all, has always been about using nature as a raw material to create products and an environment that expands our safety, our comfort and our possibilities.

Inside this new kind of environment, an effort will be made, not only for machines to do everything for us, but also to bring everything to us, with transportation, communications and simulation. In effect, this artificial environment will be modeled after the buffet, in which all the world is laid before us for our choosing. Television, grocery stores, newspapers, malls, theme parks, encyclopedias, art museums, and so on, all carry out this basic function, offering us collections of information, fantasies, food, products and culture, from many places. The occupant of the automated house, able to see everything; communicate with everyone; order or invent anything, all from a computer screen, is the ultimate extension of these new abilities.


This excerpt is from the essay on Sherry Turkle, which examines a set of ideas that describe the self, society and mind as fictions -- simulations. 
From Sherry Turkle: Surface and More Surface:

What we are seeing with all of these ideas is an effort to "deconstruct" or "deactualize" reality. In the vision they offer, the popular culture that appropriates everything and turns it into a simulation and a story line becomes the model for the self, society and reality. Life becomes a symbolic arena for the acting out of fantasies.

With this in mind, we can now provide a more complete portrait of the culture of advanced technology and simulation. On the one hand, it is trying to create realistic simulations that are under our control, so they will give us whatever we can't get from the "nonfiction" world. On the other, it is using science and technology to give us the kind of control over the physical world that we have over simulations, and to describe reality as a kind of simulation. We can thus see one of the essential characteristics of this new culture, which acts as if it is trying to transcend the limits of existence by creating simulations that seem real and by making reality more like a simulation. It is similarly trying to accomplish this in its philosophy, with efforts to argue that simulation and reality aren't so far apart as we may have thought.

This tendency can also be found in another idea, that simulation and "reality" will, one day, merge or become indistinguishable as a result of the progress of science and technology. Here is an expression of this idea in a passage from the novel The City and the Stars, which was referred to in the previous chapter. The passage describes the inhabitant of a future city as living inside a room or chamber that can generate perfect physical illusions on his command.

"Another wish, and machines which he had never seen would fill the chamber with the projected images of any articles of furniture he might need. Whether they were 'real' or not was a problem that had bothered few men for the last billion years. Certainly they were no less real than that other imposter, solid matter...."

What all of these philosophies reveal is the way the society of simulation, entertainment and fantasy is creating a vision of the universe fashioned after itself. These aren't the only philosophies produced by contemporary society, but they have growing importance and they have the potential to coalesce into an ideology and a source of cultural legitimation.

These philosophies give us a vision of life as a television program in which we frequently change channels to keep from getting bored. The universe becomes a metaphysical theme park -- cosmic Disney -- and we are all enjoying a participatory adventure, on the ride of our lives. Even the self ends up as nothing but a series of themed attractions. It is a world in which little is demanded of us; in which the stakes of life aren't so large, and the consequences of action aren't so final. It is also a world in which life ceases merely to imitate television. As Turkle makes clear in the title to her book, now that we are blessed with high-technology simulations, that's us we are watching on the screen.

From Faustian Society:

When we examine the characteristics of contemporary societies that have been described in previous pages, we find that much of it comes down to a few essential ideas. These societies are part of a new civilization and a new period in history, which can be referred to as Faustian (with apologies to Spengler) because of its quest for power.

At its core, this new Faustian age and civilization believes in the self and the self's right and ability to control the conditions of its own existence. It exalts reason, but it is practical or "instrumental" reason, which is seen as a tool that humanity can use to manipulate the world.

Faustian society includes at least four elements that define the individual's changing relationship to the world of limitation:

* It uses science and technology to overcome the limits of the physical world.

* It brings together high technology and art to create simulations that can be used as substitutes for what can't be extracted from the physical world. The most important of these simulations are imitation realities, which provide people with experiences not available in the rest of life.

* It adheres to an aesthetic philosophy, which sees the acting out of fantasies that express our fears and desires, as a form of art, entertainment and liberation.

* It views matter, life, culture and mind as deceptive appearances, which makes them simulations or something similar to simulations.

In addition, Faustian societies are characterized by the pervasive use of deceptive simulations to manipulate large numbers of people.

Put in terms that were first referred to on an earlier page, Faustian society is using the powers of rationality and the ego - of logic, science and technology -- to build a perfect world that answers to our desires. The goal is to create a new kind of person: a sovereign self, in control of its environment, including its own biology and mind.

In order to achieve this goal, it is trying to make the world as transparent as possible, so everything can be seen and understood. It wants to hold all existence up to an x-ray, because what is known can be controlled. This effort to bring about transparency and control, or knowledge and power, in the service of real human needs and boundless human desires, summarizes much of what Faustian society is about.

We can see intimations of the world as Faustian society would re-create it in today's simulated and automated environments and in some of the images of life conveyed by television and movies. These are early efforts to build and portray perfect worlds and perfect selves in which nothing is left to chance.

But we can also see in some of these same simulations, portrayals of the dangers that Faustian society poses to our relation to the world of limitation, including the danger that we might lose interest in "reality"; devalue it; undermine it, or lose the ability to distinguish reality from illusion.

Faustian society is already the dominant force in the contemporary world. Its power centers are the high-technology urban areas of America, particularly in the Northeast and West Coast, and the urban centers of Western Europe and Japan. The world's business, scientific and cultural "elites," many of whom live in these regions, are its creators, administrators and exemplars. They have enormous power to shape its culture, in the near-term. When seen from a broader perspective, they begin to look like the vehicles of humanity's desire to bring about a perfect world, as they produce forms of technology and representation that answer to their audience's needs and desires.

But many groups and regions haven't made the transition to this new kind of society; others are in opposition to it. In particular, what remains of the world's religious traditionalists, have been engaged in a reaction against many (although not all) of these changes. Despite their considerable differences with each other, all view the world as the work of a creator, who imposed not only material conditions on existence, but a moral code that limits thought and action, and subordinates creature to creator. All see themselves as defending religion, traditional culture and morality against the secularism, the moral and cultural relativism, and the philosophy of the self, fantasy, pleasure, transgression and cultural experimentation of Faustian society.

The creations of popular entertainment have foreseen the emergence of Faustian societies. They routinely portray humanity gaining power over both the material world and worlds of illusion. And they frequently examine the potential for good and evil in these new powers.

The movie Matinee, for example, which is about Key West during the Cuban missile crisis, portrays all the elements described above -- the effort to use technology in the quest for power; the bringing together of art and technology to create advanced simulations that allow audiences to act out fantasies in which they overcome dangers; the use of simulations to deceive; and the social constructionist effort to expose culture and ideology as illusions that are used to manipulate and mystify people. The movie's creators put all this in because they are tapping in to the issues and anxieties of the age.

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