The Post-Human Era:
Has Technology Taken Control of How Humans Behave and the Logic
of their Thought?
Faurschou Foundation, Beijing
23.03.19 – 27.10.19
Translated by Duncan Hewitt
1973, 6th Avenue, New York: Martin Cooper makes the first mobile telephone call in human history, and the first mobile phone, DynaTAC, is born. This 2-pound brick of a phone is the invention of the Motorola laboratory, its retail price a startling 3,995 US dollars, its emergence heralding the dawn of the age of wireless communications for the human race.
2019, California: Apple Inc. launches its latest iPhone 11 at its headquarters. Today’s mobile phones are far lighter and more portable than those of forty-six years ago, and this smart device, which can be slotted into a pocket, is no longer restricted to merely making phone calls. Rather, like a smart virtual assistant, it can help the user make purchases, navigate a route, make payments and search for the latest restaurant, and can update news and photographs in real time.
Mobile phones have transformed from simple communications tools into a means of enhancing people’s capacity for living and socialising. As Marshall McLuhan described it in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man ( 1964 ), media have become an extension of the organs of the human body. Yet in an age where technology is constantly being upgraded, this description is no longer sufficient to encapsulate the changes that the mobile phone has brought to people’s ways of life and behavioural habits. The subconscious implanting of the mobile phone into our lives has rewritten the logic of human thought, and ushered in a new era of post-human civilisation.
When you enter Doug Aitken’s exhibition with such reflections in mind, the multilayered scene, created by the installation of mirrors and video on all sides, gives you the feeling of being in a kaleidoscope, spying on and observing this historical process from the sidelines. In the video work New Era, eighty-nine-year-old Martin Cooper is the main character: he relates, in a straightforward manner, the story of the invention of the mobile phone and the outlook for future society. The film does not employ any complicated expressive techniques: the start of the story even seems rather blunt, as the elderly Cooper mutters to himself, ‘I made a phone call’, and then goes on to state the facts in an earnest, calm tone. The film makes clever use of a narrative poetry approach to depict three ages – the past, present and future. As Cooper, the primary focus, looks towards the future at the mouth of a cave, which symbolises the roots of human civilisation, flickering rays of light blur our view; in the distance a signal tower appears, standing all alone in a desert, the fictional and the real intersecting each other like phantoms. If we take the era of wireless communications which began with the mobile phone as a reference point for the past, then people in the real world of today are like cars moving around in the network of interweaving wireless communications; the constant flow of traffic on the night-time highway resembles a bustling vision of information exchange in the ether. The numbers on the telephone keypads constantly criss-cross, displaying the unpredictably fluctuating geometric patterns of the kaleidoscope; in the background, the soft humming of the female chorus and the sound of bells echo throughout the installation, weaving a vision of history and the future overlapping. Aitken starts from simple dialogue, to produce, in this limited space, a deconstructive analysis with images and sound; he is continually exploring the current state of human life, in which nature and technology coexist.
If New Era presents the prospects for human life as an open question, then the work 3 Modern Figures ( don’t forget to breathe ), which can be perceived in the mirrors, is a factual depiction of this question. Human forms cast in sanded resin, like cyborgs in a future world, change colour constantly to the rhythm of the faint sound of breathing. The ingenious connection between the two works lies in the way that, while visitors are standing in the midst of the New Era installation, deep in contemplation, they will sense a faint pressure from this other scene – as though the post-humans of the future are observing the process of the development of modern human history. Once mobile phones are connected to the body to form an integrated whole, humanity will have been swallowed up by machines and digital technology. Aitken leads the observer into a scenario that blends space and memory, in order to reflect on how exactly technology has changed humanity.
Since the dawn of human civilisation, technology has been an ancillary tool that has continuously promoted the development of civilisation. We have made use of this tool to satisfy our daily needs, and have learned to apply it skilfully. With the advent of the industrial revolution, as the new machines that were constantly being developed were extending human senses, they gradually gave rise to new productive forces, which could surpass humans’ own physical limitations. Humans themselves believe that they proactively chose machines, yet, in fact, without our realising it, machines have imperceptibly changed our bodies and our habits. The first mobile phone – whether in terms of its appearance or its function – was more like ‘a miniature wireless radio device’, but as smart technology has developed, we now make use of our phones to gather online information in order to complete tasks, process our personal data and replace identity documents. At the same time, they are also shrinking and becoming ever more intimately interconnected with humans’ daily lives.
More and more people have developed a dependence on these devices that goes beyond the material, like the human forms in 3 Modern Figures ( don’t forget to breathe ), which either have their heads down or are reclining or sitting. You need more nimble fingers to use a smartphone, and sharper eyesight to adapt to the brightness of the screen and the size of the text. If you are unable to satisfy these requirements, RFID ( radio-frequency identification ) chip implant technology can replace human senses, and check relevant data readings. Such scenes are no longer only the province of science-fiction films – smart devices have already overtaken the organs of the human body, and have turned from external physical aids to internal, psychological devices. This type of addictive quality and these changes to the structure of the human body have exerted an influence on human beings’ actions and consciousness, which, though invisible, cannot be ignored.
Technical progress has brought with it super-smart gadgets, with the result that thought is no longer an individual activity. Human reflection is no longer limited only to oneself – amid the unlimited network connections, information is continuously being stored, remembered and recreated, and man’s search for ideas has already gone beyond actual human existence. As Michel Foucault revealingly observes in his discussion of ‘the death of man’ in The Order of Things ( 1966 ), if what dies is our awareness and understanding of human beliefs, can humankind still, in the latter phase of technological development, make judgements regarding its own inherent value? In the face of thoughts and actions that have been guided by technology, are we still able to reflect independently, without relying on these smart devices themselves? Or indeed, when the devices disappear and humans and machines merge into one, how much independence of action will we retain?
Although Aitken has turned this fragmented narrative into a fantasy space where various landscapes interact, the exhibition’s final installation work, Crossing the Border, does not necessarily lead the viewer to draw links with the previous focus on the swallowing up of contemporary life by digital technology. The giant silhouette of the saintly Gandhi, cut from stone and concrete slabs, stands upright in the exhibition space; a stream of water flows from cracks in the stone slabs, creating the visual effect of a waterfall. Aitken, taking Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation as an example, proposes fighting back against the ‘swallowing up’, by staying out of step with the technological age.
Yet we can never revisit history. Technology has invaded our bodies and our consciousness with a powerful force, and the creation of a hybrid of man and machine has already become an irreversible trend. The constant refining of biomimicry means that Aitken’s lovely utopian vision can exist only in the imagination. Perhaps, as far as humans are concerned, rather than seeking a return to an irretrievable past inspired by feelings of naturalism and romanticism, it would be better to contemplate how, in the post-human era, we can resist the changes brought upon our bodies by controlling technology. For, as Foucault said, ‘Man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.’1
1. Michael Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences ( 1966 ), ( London and New York: Routledge ), 2002, p. 422.
1973年，纽约，第六大道，马丁客库帕打通了人类历史上第一通移动电话，第一台手机Dyna TAC诞生了。这款2磅重的砖头，由摩托罗拉实验室发明，销售价格为惊人的3995美元，它的诞生意味着人类无线通信时代的开启。2019年，加州，Apple公司在总部发布了最新一款iPhone 11, 此时的手机已比46年前轻便许多，这部可以塞进口袋里的智能设备，不再只有单一的通话功能，而是像智能助手一般帮助人们购物、导航、支付、搜索最近的餐厅，并能实时更新新闻和图片。手机已经从简单的通讯设备转变为增强人类生活和社交能力的手段，正如麦克客卢汉在《理解媒介》中所描述的，媒介已成为人类身体器官的延续，但是在技术不断迭代的当下，这一描述已不足以概括手机对人们生活方式和行为习惯的改变。手机潜意识的植入已重新书写了人类思考的逻辑，并开启了后人类文明的新纪元。
当你带着这样的思考走进道格客阿提肯的展览，环绕四周的镜子和影像装置造成的多层次景观，让你如同置身万花筒中，窥视和旁观这一历史的进程。影像作品《新纪元》，以89岁的马丁客库帕为主角，直截了当地陈述手机发明的故事和对未来社会的展望。整部影片并无令人难以理解的表现手法，甚至在故事的开头略显直白，年迈的马丁低声喃喃自语着“I made a phone call”，以恳切、平和的口吻陈述着事实。影片以叙事诗的方式巧妙呈现了过去、现在及未来三个时态，当主角马丁在象征人类文明起源的洞口展望未来，闪烁不定的光亮模糊着视线，远方出现沙漠中孤立的信号塔，如同幻影一样虚实交错。如果以手机开启的无线电时代做为过去坐标，那么现实世界中的人们则在无线通讯交织的网络中，如汽车一样移动；川流不息的夜晚公路，如空中信息交互的繁忙场景；电话按键上的数字不断交错，呈现出万花筒中变幻莫测的几何图案；背景中，低声吟唱的女和声与钟声在场景内不断回荡，编织着历史和未来交错发生的画面。阿提肯从简单的对话出发，在有限空间内构成图像和声音的解构分析，并不断探讨自然与技术共存的人类生存现状。
技术进步带来了超级智能个体，使得思维不再是个体活动。人类的思考已经不仅局限在本体上，在无限的网络连接中，信息被不断存储、记忆和再制造，人类对于思想的追求已经超出了真实的存在，如同福柯在《词与物》中醒人的提示 “人之死” （death of men），如果死亡的是我们对 “人”的信念的认知和理解，人类在技术发展的后半段是否还能做出对自身本体价值的判断？面对被技术牵引的思想行为，我们是否还能自主思考而不是依赖智能设备本身？又或者当设备消失，人与机器合二为一，我们还会剩下多少自我行为？