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Hyper-Innocence

The Christian story of Genesis is a creation myth central to the Western construction of the self. It involves, as its central theme, a fall from grace. As Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, they gain knowledge. The first flaw they perceive is their own body — the shame of nakedness. The couple is then booted from paradise, their imperfect bodies more suited to imperfect surroundings. In the East, Hinduism sets as a central doctrine a strict caste system of cleanliness, reminding followers daily of their imperfection in relation to each other and the gods. Today, technologists such as the Venturists seek to improve the human condition by achieving immortality. Whether through a fall from grace, our very creation, or simply in our own mortality, humans perceive themselves as imperfect. As a life progresses, these flaws build in both number and import. Children, with innocence not yet lost to the count of years, are seen as closer to perfection. But adults: both in the flesh and in the mind, we are flawed. We seek to perfect these flaws by augmenting our reality. It is a yearning for innocence, not as naivete or lack of guilt, but as a kind of amoral, infinite perfection: the innocence of a god. This quest for innocence is achieved through perfected representations of our selves and through a perfection of our surroundings. At its highest level, our augmented reality reaches a state of hyperreality: the nonreal — its borders blurred — inside the unbounded real.

The quest for innocence, in its most simple form, may be demonstrated by a doll: a humanoid carved from wood, or molded from clay, with its potential for perfect symmetry; an idealized projection of the self. The doll is not idealized only in exaggerated or perfected form, but also in its very nature. It does not age, does not die, does not bleed or ever go wanting for sustenance. It is a blank slate, an amoral immortal. Whatever emotions, intentions, or knowledge we have (or lack) may be attributed to these creations. By creating dolls, we manifest our ideal into reality. Transforming these dolls into puppets transcends further boundaries.

Nothing can endure if it is not ‘animated,’ if it is not… endowed with a ‘soul’ [Eliada 2005:20]”. As a puppet, the figurine is granted the illusion of autonomous movement. Animation is the act of writing aemaeth on the golem’s forehead, bringing the clay figure to life. Through this animation, the doll — the theophany — becomes a more convincing illusion. It is the life giving breath. Indeed, the word animate springs from anima, the Greek word for soul [Sharp 2004]. As the ever-observant Oscar Wilde humorously points out, these puppets are superior to humans. “There are many advantages in puppets. They never argue. They have no crude views about art. They have no private lives” [Wilde]. They are not subject to the same imperfections as us. Instead, they reach closer to innocence.

As our technology increases, so do our projections. The art of the doll progressed from clay molding or wood carving to the ball-jointed, pubescent females of Hans Bellmer. Yet our technological creations allow us to take our projections even further.

Today, the doll is replaced with the android. These humanoid robots, with realistic skin, hair, and movement, can create a creature so real as to be disturbing. It is the recreation of the human, without the fleshy parts. Like the doll, the android is an amoral, immortal simulacra.

In 2005, Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro unveiled Repliee Q1Expo, a female android. Repliee has silicone skin, motors that simulate breathing, and the ability to flutter its eyes. When demonstrating Repliee, Ishiguro found that although it was obvious that the android was just that, people interacting with her (if I may assign the machine a gender) unconsciously wanted to believe that she was real. “More importantly, we have found that people forget she is an android while interacting with her. Consciously, it is easy to see that she is an android, but unconsciously, we react to the android as if she were a woman” [Whitehouse 2005]. This reaction to the machine may be attributed to her appearance: she appears as real as the doll. Repliee represents innocence. Like the doll, she is the human form perfected, if degraded in her intelligence.

The following year, Hiroshi Ishiguro unveiled his latest work: Geminoid HI-1. Created in his own image, Geminoid repeats the realism of Repliee, but this time integrating telepresence into the machine, so that Ishiguro can control and speak through the android remotely, creating a simulated intelligence [Hornyak 2006]. With this system, the human interactor need no longer slip into the unconscious to treat the android as if it was a man. The tele-present intelligence matches human intelligence, as does the mechanical body match in appearance the organic body, to make the bot completely believable in its form.

Raised from the pages of science fiction possibilities, as an external, idealized entity with which we interact, Geminoid HI-1 functions as a perfected being. But the doll or android alone could never fulfill our lustful search for innocence. It is only a unidimensional projection of perfection, not perfection itself. Our surroundings, our reality, remains limited and flawed, “too small for human imagination” [Laurel 1992:87]. In the quest for innocence, we must turn to a full-scale modification of our reality. The android raises possibilities in this direction. It not only allows us to fulfill the common wish of the industrial capitalist to be in two places at once, but also promises a manifestation in physical form of our idealized avatar, not simply one stagnant, but one through which we can act, interact, and even live. It is a titillating hint of the possibility of full cyborgization. But before the avatar can be manifest as an objective form that we would consider real, it must first be explored and constructed elsewhere. It must be placed within a perfected environment. Virtual reality allows us this possibility.

In the words of Brenda Laurel, virtual reality is a “manifestation of the age-old desire to make our fantasies palpable — our insatiable need to exercise our imagination, judgment, and spirit in world, situations, and personae that are different from our everyday lives” [Laurel 1992:87]. The earliest form of this is the moving picture, that “most beautiful fraud” [Wikipedia 2008]. Entering the darkened cinema, senses not required for the visual experience are themselves dimmed. We find ourselves immersed in the action on screen. Our emotions are tied to those mythic characters who appear human, save for in the way which would expel them from the virtual reality of the silver screen and link them with us; save for their achievement of innocence. The troubles of the characters end up solved, they do not bleed, perhaps they can even fly. Their world is clean, everything perfected for the action of the character. It is a constructed Eden. Preserved on celluloid or silicon, the forms are immortal. With computers, we are able to intimately control these characters. The level of realism is increased another mark.

In the modern virtual environment (rendered or not), we act out our own wants and desires. A perfected avatar within a perfected environment. Death is preventable — we need only yell “Reset!” to boot ourselves out of peril [Oshii 2001] — but if it does occur, it is only a minor setback. We have powers and possibilities not available in the world of our daily experience. With enough time and effort, perhaps we ourselves can even become god-like, leveling up and reaching ever so much higher than ever before. Rather than only observing our perfected abstractions, such as with dolls, virtual reality allows action to take place through them, and it facilitates this within a constructed paradise.

Accessing the Internet is an integral part of this quest for regaining innocence. Plugging ourselves in, our consciousness melds with the vast global network. The darkness of the desert of the real disappears to the blinding light of cyberspace. Our bounded consciousness is unleashed in to the greater nodal network. We may harvest data from an immense library of both knowledge and experience. The internet brings us closer to god: it is nothing short of the Tower of Babel, allowing all humanity to interact and, in that interaction, reach a more perfected state. Here, in this city of flowing light, we are all immortal entities, able to shift our perfected forms into any shape we see fit.

But the knowledge that this is a facade can never be lost. It ever looms over the experience, waiting to shock us rudely as we log out of the virtual world and enter the reality of everyday experience. We may plug ourselves in, but our consciousness remains aware that it is an experience bounded, with those borders separate from the borders of our daily reality. Enter hyperreality: a reality constructed with elements of the non-real. It is an augmented truth, which is in itself not a lie, but truth. Unlike virtual reality, fantasy is not bounded in the hyperreal. The reality fully stimulates the senses: the unconscious, and the conscious. With the ability to augment our reality without the need for a suspension of disbelief — without the notion of disbelief itself — we can climb to the very top of Nimrod’s tower. Hyperreality, smugly, promises godliness.

Jean Baudrillard describes the hyperreal as “a real without origin or reality” [Baudrillard 1994:1]. He and other philosophers of the hyperreal draw on a short story penned by Jorge Luis Borges. In the story, the ruler of a vast empire causes a map of his territories to be drawn. It so detailed that the map was the very size of the empire. It covers the land, and becomes indistinguishable from the territory itself [Borges]. Baudrillard treats this fable as “the most beautiful allegory of simulation” [Baudrillard 1994:1], but in his analysis of the fable, Baudrillard claims that the difference between the map and the reality has disappeared. It is not that we mistake the map for the territory, but that there is no difference.

Umberto Eco discusses the wax work museums of America as a simulacra demonstrative of a hyperreal experience. Here, “copies” of original paintings are presented, but fuller and more real than the original. They surpass and placate any desire to experience the original. These reproductions themselves become real. The lighting, music, and even the temperature of the room are all augmented to match the scene and provide a more full sensory experience. Imitations improving reality. The wax creations are simulacra: copies without originals [Eco 1990].

The hyperreality not only manifests our ideals, but integrates them into our own experience such that they become indistinguishable from truth — indeed, such that they become truth. War by Hollywood and CNN. The American West sanitized, idealized, and regurgitated through John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. It promises a world which we can control completely — solipsism in action, for even if the real is objective and separate from the mind, it can be reprogrammed completely to the liking of the individual. “[Hyperreality] surpasses traditional and natural reality in brilliance, richness, and pliability” [Borgmann 1992:83].

Heinz Pagel offers an explanation for the existence of the simulacra of reality: “A good simulation… gives us a sense of mastery over our experience. To represent something symbolically, as we do when we speak or write, is somehow to capture it, thus making it one’s own. But with this appropriation comes the realization that we have denied the immediacy of reality and that in creating a substitute we have but spun another thread into the web of our grand illusion” [Pagel 1989:88]. In that the simulation demonstrates mastery over the simulation, Pagel is correct. But he takes a dim view of this, relegating it to only “another thread” in a “grand illusion”. He misses, it seems, that this mastery may not be an illusion — or, rather, that the illusion ceases to be an illusion as it comes into existence. It is an altering of reality, not something fake, but as real as that which was altered.

A critic of the post-human, N. Katherine Hayles claims that “hyperreality does not erase [the borders separating simulations from reality], for they exist whether we recognize them or not; it only erases them from our consciousness” [Hayles 1991]. Yet this seems only a description of virtual reality. Hyperreality is a stage further, also erasing the borders in our unconscious. It does not tread too close to solipsism, I think, to say that with both the conscious and unconscious blissfully unaware of the separation between simulation and reality, the distinction no longer exists. It is not ignoring the borders till they go away — we do not know what to ignore in the first place. Erased from the mind, they are erased from existence.

Jennifer Cypher and Eric Higgs explore Disney’s Wilderness Lodge in Orlando as an extreme hyperreality. It is crafted as a perfected conglomerate of National Park lodges from the American Northwest. “The real thing only better, wilderness without dirt or danger.” Through its augmentation, this sanitized simulacra achieves dominance over the reality the lodge is modeled on — but it is a real thing itself. To those who stay in the lodge, but never glimpse that which it is modeled on, the Wilderness Lodge is an accurate representation of reality, an irony of contradictions [Haraway 1991:434]. The totem poles, “stone inlaid with designs suggesting Navajo and Hopi blanket patterns”, and “teepee-shaped light fixtures” are, like Disney’s Native Americans in Peter Pan, artifacts of a history that wasn’t quite, but through our story-telling, become real. And why shouldn’t they? To forget the American government’s perpetuation of genocide, to eliminate the mosquito from the forest: it is an agreeable rewriting of the truth. It makes our past, our present, and our future more bearable. As the authors write, “the lodge reproduces and represents something which does not exist… it is truly a copy without an original” [Cypher].

As our environment is improved, so too our selves. The body and the mind both live vicariously, augmenting their state and form in relation to perceived reality. We seek to drown ourselves in the amniotic ocean of the womb.

Mamoru Oshii explores hyperreality in his film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. In the film’s world, metal has meshed with meat such that cyborgs represent normality, and the organic human — even one with a synthetic brain — is the exception. Japan’s culture, ever loving of its dolls, has progressed so that autonomous humanoid robots are common, filling functions both of work and pleasure. The film centers on a small law enforcement unit attempting to answer why a new model of androids have begun to self-destruct. The world portrayed is a perfect hyperreality. The characters, as cyborgs, are ever jacked in to a seemingly infinite data network, allowing themselves to unbind their consciousness — or ghosts, as the film has it. The fleshy parts of the human body have been replaced, so that while they tend still to maintain the appearance of humanoid normalcy, body parts are synthetic and mechanical; under warranty, owned, and able to be replaced or upgraded. When online, the character’s vision of meatspace fuses seamlessly with the virtual world, negating the difference between the real and the virtual. Planes and submarines take on organic forms, with bird-like wings and fish-like fins [Oshii 2004]. It is a meshing of flesh and machine, an abomination.

In this hyperreality, the android dolls, often indistinguishable from the cyborg human, disrupt order by self-destructing or, as one character (modeled on cyborg theorist Donna Haraway) puts it, committing suicide. At film’s end, the cyborg protagonist discovers that the android suicide is caused by the ghost in the shell. The doll manufacturer, seeking a cheaper and more believable alternative to artificial intelligence, had kidnapped children, copying their ghost into the cyber-brain of the dolls. As the ghost cannot exist in two places at once, this “ghost-dubbing” kills the child, effectively moving the child’s consciousness into the doll. The children were not terribly thrilled by their forced shift from animal to machine, and kill themselves to draw attention to their plight.

The world of the film is, as the title suggests, an extreme representation of the technologically mediated quest for innocence. It shows us the doll become human, and the human become doll. Yet Oshii reveals that this quest for the abstraction of innocence both within the self and outside the self achieves only more flaws and imperfection.

With the body augmented by cybernetics, our humanness replaced with the post-human, and our identification not as a biological organism, but as a cyborg, we turn ourselves into dolls. Prolonged life, replaceable limbs. As we connect our minds to the vastness of a global computer network, our bounded consciousness spreads, transcending our meager human grey-matter. This hyperreal, cybernetic simulacra, projected by Oshii’s film, is a convergence of the threads in our search for innocence. A melding of technologies and thought permeating the body and the environment [Laurel 2000]; information reprogrammed, augmenting our being, transcending our nature, reaching ever closer to the infinite mind of the universe.

In The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade illustrates an ontology for “archaic man”. His analysis of primitive myth leads him to the conclusion that, in this archaic ontology, no action has meaning except in as much as it replicates the action of a mythic being “in illo tempore“. He cites this as an attempt to return to an animal state of innocence; a “nostalgia for the lost paradise… [A paradise] with the image of an ideal humanity enjoying beatitude and spiritual plenitude forever unrealizable in the present state of ‘fallen man’… [A] very distant epoch when men knew neither death nor toil nor suffering” [Eliada 2005:3].

Eliade errs only in limiting his illustration to the Other. This yearning — this nostalgia — for innocence has not been limited to our ancestors or our primitive brethren. We are all creatures of myth. The quest is a phenomena that spans time and culture, weaving the whole of our species into a web of common human existence — a “desperate effort not to lose contact with being” [Eliada 2005:3-92].

Yet with the possibilities offered by the technologies of today and tomorrow, the quest threatens to disconnect us from both our selves and our neighbors. The hyperreal, simulacra of an existence is no longer a way to live in the world, but a way to live outside of it. It is a product of a mythos that no longer resonates with our experience of being. Not until our experiences are justified by the sacred will we be satisfied with the profane. Rather than augmenting our experience, we must augment our myth. We need a new myth. A myth in which we are neither perfect nor fallen. A myth with the ability to live. Even within our literate culture — a culture which often shuns oral, living documents — we must dream a collective cosmology that can integrate itself into our existence and shift with the dynamic flowing of time.

Works Cited

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Borgmann, Albert. 1992 Crossing the Post-Modern Divide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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