The Migration

Our beautiful democratic wonderland, where the violence is always elsewhere, limited to the computer monitor, the television screen, always committed by some mad other. We are always trying to help them, but it never seems to work. They just don’t understand democracy; it is just not in them. Back home, things are, to be honest, not a great deal better.

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Melbourne skyline

Sure, we have big cities; big sky-scraper cities that plunge into the sky, soaring upwards like our bold visions for ourselves and for the world itself. They reek of success. So many around the world, living on the boundaries, the peripheries, look to these shiny wonderlands and their forests of glass and steel and concrete, look to a different reality; one they can barely imagine.

For most, their experience of reality may not seem to agree to the promise; the image of life in the wonderland. It is a sad, old, neglected amusement park, a parody of what it used to be, a spooky, eerie homage to something lost, something that may never have been. The suburbs are revealed as wastelands, with their shopping centres and acres of parking surrounding them like deserts in which we tether our car-camels. Shiny advertisements hang above dirty, grimy buildings: the idea, the image is more powerful now than the tangible. 

Public space has disappeared. There is now only private space and commercial space. There are no town squares, just shops, homes, more shops. We could think of Los Angeles as pictured in Paul Haggis’ movie Crash, where, in an opening monologue, one of the protagonists muses that the city has become the kind of place where people have to crash into each other in their cars in order to touch. There is some truth in this, not just in terms of our distance from each other, but in terms of the fact that the way that we ‘touch’ is increasingly mediated by technology.

The migration is on. The reasons are the same as they have always been: people looking for a better life, the chance to lead a meaningful existence. Some dream still of the suburban paradise, the wonderland, but those that are already there see it for what it is. They are moving out, rather paradoxically, by staying in.

View of the urban wasteland near the Bolte Birdge, Melbourne with the ill-fated Melbourne Star in the background

As many in the field of virtualisation point out, we have been expanding out possibilities through technology forever because we are inherently technological. Tools are part of us, part of human experience. Humans have always meant to be cyborgs. It now seems as though we are moving closer than ever towards our destiny. As the ‘real world’ seems to unravel around us, we escape to the virtual.

The virtual worlds on offer are rich and enticing in comparison to the mundane nature of ‘real life’. These worlds promise meaning, promise to provide something that people can care about. Life has been sucked out of the real world for many people. The institutions that once gave their lives meaning have collapsed. The church is gone. The community is gone. There are no children playing in the streets, no public life, no public space, just roads and cars. Shops and houses.

For many, the virtual world is not just real, it is more real than reality. What is real to us is more a matter of what is made real by us: what is ‘real’ is what is important to us, what we care about. In virtual worlds, people interact with each other in a space where the rules are easy to understand and fair to everyone. They meet new people, discover new possibilities and feel a sense of achievement. Are these things not what everyone wants? Millions of people are heading to these new worlds in search of such experiences, in search of something worth making real.

Some have begun to see their bodies as constraints and dream of leaving them behind. Free of the body, they will be able to run, fight and fuck perpetually in the virtual. They will be eternally young and fit and healthy and, best of all, they will be able to leave their grim lives behind them once and for all. For some, the virtual is an escape and can thus become an addiction. For others, however, it is a chance to expand their possibilities of experience in ways that that they would not be able, such as transcending physical disabilities.

The risk of being virtualised is being objectified. As the migration continues, we spend more and more time constructing ourselves as virtual entities and, in the process, we give ourselves over to possibility (and the risk) of being constructed by others, who are using our browsing habits, spending habits and even our movements, to create profiles of us as consumers. There may come a time when AI will predict our every desire. This may seem like a joke, but data mining is still in its infancy. Can humans be reduced to algorithms? There are those that think they can, that we will be able to leave not just our bodies behind, but our brains as well, that we will become meta-organic, something that was once organic, biological, but now beyond. 

We wish to become cyborgs. This is our dream. But will we become ones with autonomy, or the cells of a cybernetic organism? Worse still, will we believe that we have autonomy when it is really just the product of an algorithm, the algorithm of free-will?