Try this: Mind the gap in the code



Rene Descartes’ argument known as the cogito (“I think, therefore I am”, 1637) was updated as “the brain in a vat” argument.  The gist of Descarte’s argument is that the subject’s knowledge of their existence is certain (phrased famously as “I think therefore I am”) because the “I” couldn’t think unless the “I” exists.

The argument was that personal reflection can lead to certainty, yet the updated argument calls the quality of existence into question.  If the subject was merely a brain sustained in a vat and receiving stimulation/information electronically directly as brain stimulation, yes, it exists and knows of its existence.  However, subject wouldn’t know that this information was direct knowledge of experience or mere data it’s being fed. The brain suspended in the vat could receive data of, say, a hot stove being touched by the subject’s hand.  That data would be interpreted as a direct experience, even if there was no such stove and no such hand.  Still, logically there must be a brain.

These experiences are time-based, both the imagined brain and Descartes’ original subject. It would take a very short time, a fraction of a second, for the data to be received.  That would be in time; it would take time, so data of the present moment would not be available until it was just-past.  That is Edmond Husserl’s brilliant insight. There would be no data of the present moment processed in the present moment.

We do, though, logically and necessarily exist in that present moment, if we are indeed able to anticipate an experience and process an experience:  future and past, though just-past.

There’s a hole in our knowledge of our experience, that hole being our direct experience of the moment in which we actually experience it.  I refer to it as a hole, which has measurable dimensions, when in fact there are no dimensions to the present moment because they are not empirically known, i.e. observable.

The gapped quality of data is precisely what is captured by digital media.  There is information, in the form of code, that relates to pixilated images and, gapped, similar to the way an alphabet relates to the sound of a word.  It’s also gapped, similar to our actual existence, though different than our perceived experience.  The gap is the logically known but impossible to measure present moment, presence.  Lacking a narrative structure, the present is, then, infinite.

My approach here is phenomenological – try to say that quickly – but here is the difficulty: the phenomenological description of the present moment is that of absence; it is past.  There is an ‘experience’ in the classical sense of that word that entails consciousness but by the time it is experienced it is just-past because the experience itself is time-based and it takes some time to register that experience in the brain.

It is rather an experience of absence to the present then, without structure, as we’ve described it above.  That is what we might be certain about, but certain about what?  Without the internal structure of narrative time there is an edge, being anticipation of a future moment and the just-past moment presented to consciousness as “now”.  However, as a presence in time it is not actually now by the time it is registered to consciousness.  It’s experienced as now but, in fact, is just past.  That’s Husserl’s story and I can’t see how it’s not a clear description of our experience.

Here we are:  Our being is in the present that is without structure, outside of a narrative, of experienced time consciousness.

Our experience of digital media is similar.  It certainly seems seamless enough but code is just that: coded with gaps between each piece of the code, that produces pixels with empty space between each pixel.  It can be wondrously manipulated, and manipulates us to experience this as a seamless experience, when in fact it is gapped.  Mind the gap.

Without structure, between each pixel, each piece of code, the gap replicates each moment where we may be conscious but, without the structure of the narrative elements of past and future, always also there in the present infinite space.

The abundance of movies about time travel, gapped reality, make-believe universes where games are played out — what is in the present moment comes into being and disappears — suggests we know at some level that digital media is playing with us, playing with our sense of consciousness, as we play.

And our growing sense that we are spiritual (open, infinite) if not religious (embedded in a tradition, and institutions) mirrors this coded reality.

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Try This – an introduction

So now it’s become obvious to me:  I’m writing a book about time.  “Kenny in Infinity” is a chapter, the cartoon character Kenny my muse. 

Here’s the introduction:

This began as a study of new media, not so new now, that discloses aspects of experience we might reflect upon with new insights, given what new media discloses about, well, everything.

Try this.

Theoretical physics was born out of new means of perceiving what’s out there, these new means being new media.  Both the new physics and new media reinforce what careful introspection illuminates: time, and our being in time, spreads into infinity.  Our physical experience discloses narrative time, ‘one damn thing after another’.  But words fail us.  And between every syllable is silence.  Otherwise, it would be one long screech.

Between every note played in music is silence; between every word or at least every sentence, silence; between every symbol in computer code is no-code.  The breaks symbolize something other than the code and, while the overall code has a beginning, middle, and end, it is riddled in no-code.  In every sentence there are words and with every word phonemes, and between phonemes…  We have breath between syllables, and those familiar with meditation are aware of how noisy we are – our hearts beat, when we inhale, exhale, more noise – and everyone and our world suddenly seems noisy when we attempt to be silent.

There are scientific (measurable, replicable, falsifiable) theories, but here is what distinguishes theoretical physics from plain old physics.  On the level of experience, apart from theory, time consciousness might be all we have to work with.  In any case, that is what I’m working with here.

Our new time consciousness reflects, amplifies and illustrates ancient understandings.  For instance, “In the beginning was the Word…”   Fundamentalism is an easy mistake to make when you can hold the Word of God in your hands.

People accept the illusion of a text as timeless, associating the Word with a lot of words.  I still hope to hear the word of God in the person of Jesus through the medium of print or, better yet, read aloud, though now the printed page is largely usurped by the pixilated computer monitor.  We talked about a paperless office in the beginning of the digital era while creating the cloud of text and images.

Today I even participated in the Daily Office online.  These selections of prayers and scripture passages for the morning, noon and evening prayer, a practice going back to Constantine and monastic life in the third century, are recited aloud in communities, and flicker on my laptop as I pray with an online community, though there’s no one else in this room.

Walter Ong, Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan all identified the relationship between language technologies and meanings.  Overstating it perhaps, McLuhan’s point that “the medium is the message” became a touchstone and then a cliché, but the point is still well taken.  There is a trace of the oral in the written text, a trace of the written word on the printed page, and in the pixelated images on my computer screen.  Yet, each medium is distinct and is both a vehicle and the road the vehicle travels upon when it comes to a new consciousness of what is real.

That’s life.  When sacred or even mundane symbols are pressed onto clay tablets, the clay itself contains remnants of living organisms.  Ephemeral words and the eternal Word are only adjacent. To identify the medium with the message might be straight out idolatry because these means of expression are human.  What is other than human, absolute silence, is divine.

But I have focused too much on the otherness of text and word associated with the Word.  It is incarnate.  It is other than other; it is also this.

Try this.

I close my laptop and put my phone out of reach.

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