How Solid Is the Flesh?

How to Cite

Bruns, A. (1999). How Solid Is the Flesh?. M/C Journal, 2(3).
Vol. 2 No. 3 (1999): Flesh
Published 1999-05-01

It's not only recently that computer technology and electronic networking have been surrounded with a vast amount of hyperbole -- sweeping statements of glorious futures awaiting us if we continue on the present course of technological development, with predictions from the 'paperless office' to the vision of permanently uploading one's consciousness to the global matrix, leaving the body behind. At the same time, we have seen dire warnings of a dumbing-down of society through a narrowing of human inventiveness by needlessly accepting the rules of computer logic, and through an overdependency on machines in everyday life -- indeed, the 'Y2K bug' has become something of a wet dream for neo-Luddites: the bigger the crash, the better their chances to do away with computers altogether.

It doesn't take much to see that much of these predictions, hopes and dreams are centred around a dichotomy of flesh and mind: from Neuromancer to The Matrix, entering the network appears synonymous with leaving the flesh; increasingly, the growing planetwide network with its brain-like connections of nodes and centres is seen as a global mind, with the bodies of its users merely useless appendages that will be removed once we figure out how to sever mind and body and fully live online. Whether they love or abhor the idea of life in cyberspace -- most commentators' descriptions of the electronic future are to some extent fuelled by this radical and powerful imagery.

Reality can't be made to fit into this dichotomy quite as easily, however. The flesh is remarkably resistant to all attempts to overcome it: we might temporarily ignore our bodies as we travel through cyberspace, but the growing rates of carpal tunnel syndrome and back pain amongst computer users are a clear sign that mind and body remain firmly connected, much to the delight of the designers of orthopaedic keyboards and office furniture. And speaking of the office: if anything, paper consumption rates have gone up rather than down, thanks to better and faster personal printers which make printing out yet another revision of the document we're currently working on a breeze (of ozone). The paperless office, once thought to be just around the corner, has receded into the distance.

That's not to say that the neo-Luddites got it right on all counts, however. Their main argument against predictions of the 'death of the book' at the hands of hand-held reading screens has long been that no electronic gadget could ever replace the book in its robust versatility. They say that you don't take a laptop computer to read in bed, or while you're taking a bath, for example, and that at any rate a computer disk or an anonymous file on a hard drive just hasn't got the same aura as a rare hardcover edition of the same text. This confuses some very different types and uses of books -- you wouldn't read the rare hardcover in bed (it's too heavy to hold up for long) or, heaven forbid, in the bathtub. If we're talking about a cheap paperback instead, however, reading it in the bath probably isn't a good idea, either: steam and moisture from the water will make its cheap glue runny and its pages soggy, and you'll end up with a lump of papiermaché. And in any case, most people I know shower.

This takes us to another way in which the flesh/mind distinction has been framed: descriptions according to which the flesh -- representing here the material world as such -- alone is 'solid', and the mind -- particularly in its cyberspatial/technological form -- is 'ephemeral'. We cling to solid, material artefacts (printed documents, letters, books) to fundament our thoughts, rather than their electronic counterparts (files, emails, Web pages), because the former appear to have a stronger 'presence', and this, too, is a reason the 'paperless office' remains theory. We take what we see on the Net with more than just a grain of salt, while we are far less critical of what we see in newspapers, print journals and books, just because they have a greater materiality. By this mindset, nothing published electronically, available on the World Wide Web, can ever be a classic in the way that the great books of literature we find in the libraries are classics.

If you look at the less popular aisles of your library, however, you'll see a different reality emerge: here the off-mainstream works vie for the attention of occasional visitors; with budget restrictions often allowing only the purchase of paperback editions, these books will remain here until they're too worn or decayed to be loaned, or until the latest literary fad demands more storage room -- then they'll be shipped off to the warehouse or sold to whoever takes pity on them. In reality, then, for the majority of printed works (other than those instantly canonised and continually reprinted) the ephemerality of their medium is as much of a threat as it is for works published exclusively online, or perhaps even more so: the last copy of a text, available on the Web, will still be available for a potentially global audience, while the last paperback of an obscure novel, stacked away in the municipal library of a rural town, is practically lost to the world.

The same is true for other forms of communication, too: trying to find a letter you received from a friend a few years back is likely to result in searching through multiple shoeboxes full of correspondence, if you bothered to keep it at all; at the same time, like many users you may never have bothered to set expiry limits for the inbox of your email programme, and still have a perfect record of every email communication you've had since you first got online. In the case of public discussion fora such as newsgroups, this may even be cause for concern: the worrysome implications of Internet archival services such as Deja News are only beginning to enter the public consciousness (Bruns, "Archiving the Ephemeral"). Websites, too, may change a lot, but for every link that's suddenly vanished it's also possible to show pages which haven't been updated in years but are still online since nobody ever bothered to delete them. With the ongoing explosion in storage space available, this trend is likely to continue: as the space on hard drives and Webservers gets increasingly difficult to exhaust, fewer people will go through the trouble of cleaning up their storage space regularly. In effect, then, the supposedly ephemeral world of cyberspace is becoming more and more anephemeral.

So, how solid is the flesh, and how volatile is the mind? To ask the question this way would only mean continuing a binary division that doesn't appear to exist in reality. As we have seen, the supposedly ephemeral, bodiless existence of cyberspace is showing signs of solidification, while on the other hand the solidity of what we refer to as 'the real world' (in contrast to 'the virtual') is always only a temporal appearance: all flesh is mortal, as it were. In the end, though, perhaps the lesson is that despite all the popular fiction claiming the opposite, flesh and mind are much less divisible than they seem. We don't just leave the body behind as we enter cyberspace, and 'real life' isn't somehow automatically more 'real' than 'virtual' experience. This is evident in other fields of cyberdevelopment, too: after all, the main point of virtual reality gadgetry is to replicate physical experience -- we might want to mould the flesh into new forms, but we're hardly trying to get rid of it.

Author Biography

Axel Bruns