Browse by

The Orwellian Age of Phantomology

by Rolf Giesen

The Infinite Blob of the Mysterious Avengers

The first science fiction movie I ever saw in my life was either The Blob: Indescribable! Indestructible! Nothing Can Stop It! or The Mysterians, the King Bros. release of the revanchist Japanese Earth Defense Forces made by Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya. And I know how shocked I was when I saw a few years later (and older) the radioactively distorted shadows on the walls of an outer space laboratory: all that remained of the unlucky Venusian aggressors in the East-German Stanisław Lem pic First Spaceship on Venus that sure had influenced Gene Roddenberry in creating Star Trek.

In China the movies are being called “electric shadowplays” (dianguang yingxi):

From the early days of mankind shadows seemed to men to be something magic. The spirits of the dead were called shadows, and the underworld was named the Kingdom of Shadows and was looked upon with awe and horror. [1]

Peter Schlemihl comes to mind, who sold his shadow to the Devil for a bottomless wallet. (Loosely based on Stanisław Lem, Ari Folman made a modern-day film of that story: His Congress shows Robin White selling her image and identity to Miramount Studios.)

Today the devil has various names. He turns up as Google, YouTube, Facebook, Netflix. And the shadows sold to him are our digitized “avatars”. Instead of a bottomless wallet we get, as reward, “disneyfied” entertainment “at its finest”.

Like a gigantic vacuum cleaner, the Walt Disney Empire is absorbing all franchises that one could wish for: besides their own Mouse-eared brands and theme parks in the United States, France, Japan and China there are the Star Wars series, 21st Century Fox and, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Almost sixty years after my childhood blob, in early 2018, I saw The Avengers: Infinity War which saw me dumbfounded. The picture is about a Titan named Thanos who looks like a muscle-bound trucker. This digitized guy is going to challenge the universe and needs the complete army of Marvel superheroes to stop him: Thor, Captain America, Young Spider-Man, Iron Man, Black Panther, Vision, Groot, The Incredible Hulk, Falcon, the Scarlet Witch, Star-Lord, Doc Strange, Stan Lee in his obligatory 15-second cameo, you name them, too many to count them. One of them is named War Machine! All the shadows from the age of virtual comics are together for people who cannot get enough.

One of my favorite writers, the late Urs Widmer, titled one of his stories “Shit im Kopf” – “A Brain Full of Shit”. Nuff said!

I felt like H. G. Wells when he saw and reviewed Fritz Lang’s Metropolis:

I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier. It is called Metropolis, it comes from the great Ufa studios in Germany, and the public is given to understand that is has been produced at enormous cost.

It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own. […]

Never for a moment does one believe any of this foolish story; for a moment is there anything amusing or convincing in its dreary series of strained events. It is immensely and strangely dull. [2]

After I had seen that giant pile of shit called Infinity War, I said to myself that I had seen enough blockbuster “science fiction” for the rest of my life. I promise that I won’t go and see any more.

The Pod People of FutureWorld

With blockbuster CGI = Computer Generated Imagery, it’s not so much the content, not the substance, it’s the form, or to quote Marshall McLuhan: the medium itself that is the message. The minimalist substance is less important than the fascination with the technological aspects of the medium that sometimes absorbs and “devours” the viewer. The form is the amount of digital platforms that are currently performing and globalizing the American Nightmare.

The digital media transform the simulation of non-existing realistic worlds to a daily affair. What digital simulation has achieved is not so much realism, it is photo-realism. It’s an incredible world of make-believe. The objective is not to copy our sensuous and physical experience but the image of it. Eventually, as Pandora’s Box is opened already, out of it will emerge the world dominion of image worship. There is no distance anymore to fantasy content. Fantasy isn’t any more special. It’s down-to-earth and plain, like a daydream. We get the shit into our brain.

Everything has to become “lifelike”. That was the main goal right from the beginning. It was not about good acting, it was about capturing the image of man as naturalistic as possible.

Biomechanics organizations monitored and tracked the human body’s motions for medical research. Multiple cameras were synced to a computer to monitor and registered the body’s motions for medical research. Reflective or bright markers placed on the body’s main points of motion (elbows, wrists, knees) could help track movements.

The video game industry was among the first to introduce this system to the entertainment industry, and John Dykstra used it for creating a digital double of Val Kilmer in Batman Forever (1995), produced by Tim Burton and directed by Joel Schumacher.

The process reminds of a story written by Jack Finney in 1954: The Body Snatchers. It was four times filmed, the first version Invasion of the Body Snatchers directed by Don Siegel, and also inspired a bunch of dopier imitations like Invasion of the Pod People. Back then, in Cold War McCarthyism, the pod people were meant to represent the “Communist Menace”. But there is a deeper meaning.

You will find Finney’s “pod people” everywhere in society: unspeakable “demons” who are going to take possession of friends, parents, relatives, spouses, neighbors. According to Finney, even lovers turn inexplicably cold, succumb to depression or become victims of dementia – and we fear that we are next in line to lose our mind and soul!

Synthetic actors, the “synthespians” of digital imagery, might not only absorb our physical identity and movements but even will command artificial intelligence someday which would make their appearance in an interactive scenario much more interesting and unpredictable. In interactive environments that are by now more successful than the story-wise analogue, still linear product of the movie industry one better works with digital actors, as they most easily transfer from one medium to another. More than 1,000 actresses and actors so far have been scanned already and digitized by a Los Angeles-based company. These avatars will populate a virtual play-ground of games while we, the “originals”, will be transformed into donkeys.

The Decomposition of Images

The technology of the age of virtualization mediates a little of that feeling of omnipotence that Stanley Kubrick described when he glorified a Christ-like Star Child at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In new media we are no more viewers and consumers but participate actively. Or so we think.

In cyber age the magic word to open Sesame is no more analogue, no more Cinema or TV but Cross Media, IPTV, Mobile Phone, iPad, ADSL. TV etc. Everything and everybody is subject to a global matrix. In the beginning it was just a typewriter in front of a TV set. Today it is a life design which fulfills the visions of religion. Anything can be copied: digitally – be it reasonable or tasteless. Like an ancient God you can cross life forms, animals and humans and create your own Chronicles of Narnia: talking lions, centaurs with ponytail, winged unicorns and other exotic chimera. According to the viral marketing of a Swiss chocolate manufacturer the future of cows is purple.

The mediator between the products of the human brain and global reality is the Internet. This digital network is so to speak a by-product of the 1969 ARPANET, a project of the Advanced Research Projekt Agency (ARPA) installed by the United States Ministry of Defense.

Helmut Herbst, professor and filmmaker, developed a theory about what he called the decomposition of images that began with Robertson’s Phantasmagoriae, his ghostly magic lantern projections in the 19th century, and reached its final stage with the Internet. To put such images into a general store with drawers or transform it into a box office at the entrance of a cinema is like nailing a pudding to the wall.

George Lucas once postulated to “democratize” the means of producing semi-professional images. The result is to be seen on YouTube, a rather young medium that already contains billions of moving images in its brief history. The population boom led to an explosion of (mostly amateurish) images. Everybody seems to feel a vocation to participate in that cult. Mediocrity has become the main competition of the professionals.


In William Gibson’s Neuromancer vision of cyberpunk virtual reality humans virtually become part of the computer world:

…a “consensual hallucination” created by millions of connected computers. This network can be “jacked” into, while in the real world characters flit from Tokyo to the Sprawl, an urban agglomeration running down the east coast of the US. Gritty urban clinics carry out horrendous sounding plastic surgery. A junkie-hacker, Case, is coaxed into hacking the system of a major corporation. What once seemed impossibly futuristic is now eerily familiar.

Neuromancer,” says novelist and blogger Cory Doctorow, “remains a vividly imagined allegory for the world of the 1980s, when the first seeds of massive, globalised wealth-disparity were planted, and when the inchoate rumblings of technological rebellion were first felt. A generation later, we’re living in a future that is both nothing like the Gibson future and instantly recognizable as its less stylish, less romantic cousin. Instead of zaibatsus [large conglomerates] run by faceless salarymen, we have doctrinaire thrusting young neocons and neoliberals who want to treat everything from schools to hospitals as businesses. [3]

Raymond Kurzweil, Google’s chief futurist and Director of Engineering, claims that we are close to linking our brains with AI. This wouldn’t make our brain obsolete, though: “By linking our brains to cloud computers, humans could expand the limits of our own computing ability – and eventually, upload our own brains to the cloud.” [4] Kurzweil hopes that in the 2030s or 2040s our thinking will be predominately non-biological and that we will be able to fully back up our brains. (Back up with shit? we might ask provocatively.)

Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, hopes that the functions of the search engine will become someday part of the human brain. Google, of course, will be the supranational institution to select these implants.

Raúl Rojas, Professor of Artificial Intelligence, Free University Berlin, however considers the Silicon Valley visions of coming singularity illusory and phantasmal. ”We are far apart from understanding the brain left alone surpass it.” [5] But this is not the question. These ideas are being thought and merely this makes them real. Artificial vision, brain-computer interfaces (BCI) and mind-machine interfaces (MMI) are science fact. The attack on the human brain is well way underway. The Amazing Transparent Man is not only a film title by Edgar G. Ulmer but, beginning with Facebook, naked scanner, surveillance cameras and flying eyes drones, a desirable concept for global totalitarianism. Destination: open the human subconscious mind. And – hard to believe – people are asking for mind control: to fight worldwide terrorism and gain more security within a seemingly golden, virtual cage. I once heard a YouTube executive speak about the assets they had: living people! These platforms and “cultural industries” are truly collecting scalps or brains to make money. Will we belong to YouTube or Google?

Phantomology: A Life Plan for the Digital Age

Half a century ago, Stanisław Lem, who wrote The Astronauts, the 1951 novel the DEFA film First Spaceship on Venus was based on that had shocked me as an innocent child, had a vision about the consequences of what we call today thoughtlessly “virtual reality”. He termed this vision “phantomology” which describes a (waking) state in which fiction and reality become indistinguishable.

What can a person connected to a phantomatic generator experience? Everything. He can scale mountain cliffs, walk without a space suit or oxygen mask on the surface of the moon, in a clanking armor he can lead a faithful posse to conquer medieval forts or the north pole. He can be adulated by crowds as a marathon winner or as the greatest poet of all time and accept the Nobel Prize from the hands of a Swedish King, indulge in the requited love of Mme. Pompadour, duel with Iago to avenge Othello, or get stabbed himself by Mafia hitmen. He can also grow enormous eagle wings and fly; or else become a fish and live his life on the coral reef; as an immense shark he can pursue schools of prey with jaws wide open, more! he can snatch swimming people, chew them up with a gusto and then digest in a tranquil nook of his underwater cavern. [6]

Lem was not that much worried about the technology itself but about the consequences of deception, the mix of reality and fiction. Where does the vision begin, where does it end? How high is the level of immersion? We should be concerned about the social consequences of the global standardization of such a mind control. Not the user will have the power but whoever will control him or her.

3D animation and digital games are only a piece of jigsaw in a global concept. Europe for instance stands for variety but not for interactive randomness. We cannot suspend or delay a process, but we want to save our poetry, our music, our culture. Meanwhile, however, we are volunteering as human guinea pigs in the new age of Orwellian monitoring. For digital entertainment, social media like Twitter and Facebook, online banking and eBay and a mountain of trash and advertisements we offer our brains and access to our subconscious mind. We are praying to one day become “immortal” virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems, run by an artificial intelligence that sure will not be liberal but “reasonably” autocratic. Daniel Francis Galouye’s Simulacron 3 was published in 1964. It’s a prophetic work. Dr. Nick Bostrom, philosopher and director of the Future of Humanity Institute, Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University, takes some inspiration from Galouye’s vision:

Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct. One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations would be sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones. Therefore, if we don’t think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears. That is the basic idea. [7]

The future determines inevitably our present age.

Copryright (c) 2018 by Rolf Giesen

[1] Lotte Reiniger, Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films. London and New York: B.T. Batsford Ltd. and Watson-Guptill, 1970, p. 11.
[2] H. G. Wells in: The New York Times. April 17, 1927.
[3] Ed Cumming, “William Gibson: the man who saw tomorrow”. In: The Guardian, 28 July 2014.
[4] CBC – June 9, 2015. Cit. From Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence.<Ray Kurzweil in the Press
[5] Spiegel Online, June 23, 2015.
[6] Stanislaw Lem, Summa Technologiae (Sumo f Technology). Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1964.
[7] Nick Bostrom, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? Abstract”. Published in Philosophical Quarterly (2003), Vol. 53, No. 211, p. 243.