Kant Against Your Oculus Rift
Our technological age is usually praised as a linear progression toward better and better — from dumbphone to smartphone, from record to cassette to CD to MP3, and so on. But amid this triumphant march, large swaths of marchers are heel-turning toward superseded means of watching and listening: Hipsters keep their VHS collections, bands doggedly release their latest EPs on cassette tapes, and photographers continue to use film long after its supposed “death,” surprising film manufacturers like Harman Technology with a “film growth of 5 percent year-on-year globally.”
In fact, bewilderment by industry experts has become standard fare in technology reporting. No one expected the use of e-readers to peak in 2011, innovation to slow, and real books to make a steady comeback. No one expected that in 2017, vinyl pressing plants would become so throttled with business that manufacturers would be unable to meet demand and new plants would open up shop. Even the dumbphone has a new niche market of enlightened users wary of the addictive effects of the smartphone’s constant connectivity. Old tech may be small potatoes compared to the overall rise of internet technologies, but its successes are always reported in the breathless tone of sports announcers marveling at an underdog’s comeback: “The e-reader device is dying a rapid death,” “Vinyl records sales outstrip digital sales for the first time ever,” and “Bring back the dumb phone,” to quote a few recent headlines. Despite advertisements to the contrary, we are not all salivating to consume the continued progress of Amazon, Apple, and Google. Sure, they are the winners, but our hearts are with the underdogs.
What, exactly, is the charm of older audiovisual mediums? Prod a holdout over his cassette tapes, and he’ll usually make an aesthetic argument, waxing poetic about the warmth of the tones, the comfort of the hiss, the friendly clatter of the reel-to-reel. This applies to most superseded mediums. Whether it’s the unrealism of Technicolor, the small pop of the needle in its groove, or the splatter of lines and dots that fuzz over a VHS edition of Ghostbusters, old tech is always defended on the basis of its flaws.
Maybe we’re nostalgic. Maybe we’re engaging in a sort of self-defeating cynicism, lashing out against newer, clearer, and better mediums because they threaten our human imperfection with their crystal-clear displays — fooling us into thinking that the screened world is a real world. This was what Plato thought about the audiovisual artists of his day. Book X of his Republic castigates media creators as imitators, thrice removed from reality, preying on intellectual feebleness to create their illusions:
[T]he same object appears straight when looked at out of the water, and crooked when in the water; and the concave becomes convex, owing to the illusion about colours to which the sight is liable. Thus every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this is that weakness of the human mind on which the art of conjuring and of deceiving by light and shadow and other ingenious devices imposes, having an effect upon us like magic.
It might seem obvious that Plato is mistaking art and media production for the tricks of an illusionist. But our own age has developed a breed of creators that makes his critique look prophetic. Plato was not entirely wrong — he was just wrong to apply his criticism to all media creation instead of the large segment of media creators who hold the position “the more real, the better.” Despite audience protests, these folks plow forward with ever-greater degrees of immersive experience — turning every movie into a 3D movie, increasing the accuracy of every camera, and, of course, developing virtual reality (VR) technology in which the experience of media becomes indistinguishable from an experience of real existence. From the creators’ perspective, the love of superseded tech can only be nostalgic, or just plain stubborn. But they’re wrong.
The “flaws” of analog mediums are only flaws if Plato is correct and the purpose of media is to give the onlooker the experience of illusion or magic — the belief that the voice is really there or that one is “immersed” in the film. Under this view, a fizzle or a hiss becomes a flaw precisely because it is a reminder that, after all, one is only watching a movie or listening to a tape. If, however, the goal of beautiful media is not illusion, but aesthetic experience, then flaws that gently reveal the movie as just-a-movie and the recording as a just-a-recording actually serve the experience.
This idea goes back to Immanuel Kant. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant argued that aesthetic experience is not concerned with objects insofar as they really exist, but only insofar as they appear to “mere observation.” Kant called this “disinterestedness.” Van Gogh’s Starry Night does not enthrall and delight because his stars are taken as really being there. They delight us precisely because we do not take them as existing, but as images and emanations of the personal creativity of Vincent Van Gogh. In fact, consciousness of real, this-world existence is a sure sign that we are missing out on whatever media we have come to enjoy — to see a play as “just a bunch of paid actors reading lines” is to miss out on the play, just as seeing the same play as really happening (with actual murders and family dramas unfolding before one’s eyes) hardly amounts to an enjoyable night out at the theater. The audience who first saw a moving picture of a train approaching a camera and fled the theater in fear for their lives were certainly experiencing something — but it was not aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience delights in its objects as if they are real — knowing that they are not.
The point of the artist is not to trick us, but to delight our imagination. And our imagination is delighted only when the objects of our perception do not fool us into thinking they’re real. Kant argues that “beautiful art must look like nature, although we are conscious of it as art.” Beautiful art must exist as an in-between phenomenon, in which it looks like it’s real, but its audience remains conscious of this “like,” this “as if.” The cause of delight, rather than boredom, with artificial sights and sounds is that we look into them, not as an existing part of our everyday world, but as if looking into another world.
The aesthetic gaze exists in the tension of the “as if,” succumbing neither to a cynical realism that sees artifice as “really just smoke and mirrors,” nor a VR mentality that strives to see artifice as “really existing, really there.” The technical flaws of older media help maintain the aesthetic gaze, because they introduce the tension necessary to a consciousness that delights in artifice as artifice — every flicker and pop serves the experience of looking and listening “as if” the media were really existing, planting our feet in the real world while we look and listen into another. Most of us have had the experience of disappointment in watching some cold, perfectly accurate bit of film. As we count the pores on some poor actor’s face, we may have even wished that we could return to our childhood, to a time when watching movies was a magical experience, when it really was going to a movie and not peering into some weird, 3D portal. This desire is a desire for aesthetic experience, as Kant describes it — a desire to watch a movie as movie, or hear an album as an album, or play a game as a game, rather than indulging in a totally immersive experience that desperately tries to get us to think that what we are watching really exists.
The fact that flaws serve aesthetic experience helps to explain why the transparent effects of the original Star Wars are still more exciting than the immediately digested “experience” of James Cameron’s Avatar; why the “too real” quality of Blu-ray makes us long for some technically worse medium; why we have perfect camera technology but download apps to help us make our photos look yellowed, overexposed, and aged; why we live in an age of increasingly smooth digital experience but actively work to make it choppy, with apps like Vinylfy (which adds record noises to your streamed music), trends like Vaporwave (which ironically adores the plodding kitsch of the dial-up age), and our delight in derpy eight-bit flash games over and against visually perfected game worlds like the newest Call of Duty. If one has never been in a recording studio, I imagine it would be difficult to explain why so much time is spent battling against microphones and digital systems that capture voices and instruments “perfectly” by adding reverbs, filters, effects, and superseded amplifiers to capture that “raw,” “warm” 1960s sound. Again, the flaws preserve the aesthetic experience. We screw up perfect, realistic experiences in order to enjoy them again.
For Kant, the ultimate VR experience (with goggles, 360-degree immersion, a body suit stimulating pressure and heat, and all the rest) will be artless and boring. Yes, boring. We have become so excited with the possible imaginative contents of VR — dragons! flying! weird sex! — that we have forgotten that any and all images can become boring when they are presented as really existing. What makes them exciting is that they delight the imagination — we know they don’t really exist, yet we gaze on them as if they do. Tending away from aesthetic experience and toward total simulation will suck the imaginative contents of VR worlds dry, just as the excited imagination of human flight has become the boring, really existing, everyday experience of falling asleep on an airplane. It takes a kind of excess of childish wonder to continue looking out the window and imagining all the people living down there — it will take an excess of wonder to continue looking at the VR world with anything like delight. The slavish imitation of the real runs the risk of making VR as boring as the reality we sought to escape when we strapped on the Oculus Rift.
The degree of technodazzlement latched onto VR makes it unlikely that Plato or Kant will put a wrench in the works. In the end, their aesthetic philosophy will be proven by the malaise, boredom, and desperate search for novelty that will ensue once the imitation of real experience becomes the normal method of media consumption. Until then, the subversive, backwards movement toward technically flawed mediums of watching and listening will remain the thorn in the side of technological “progress” — the reminder that a delighted imagination, and not an accurately simulated real, is the reason media ever made the world go round.
Readers tend to understand this problem. Smaug, the dragon of The Hobbit, captivated, frightened, and delighted us in Tolkien’s pages. The “more real” version of Peter Jackson’s trilogy could never match up. No matter how well CGI technology and Benedict Cumberbatch’s booming voice come together, the 3D, audiovisual, sense experience reduces the degree to which we see Smaug “as if” he really exists — and thus it reduces the delight of our imagination and the aesthetic experience as a whole. To make a VR Smaug might represent a logically progressive movement — if the end goal is the experience of “real existence.” But if the end goal is “delight of the imagination as it stands in the real world and peers into the world of the work of art,” a VR Smaug is regressive, and viewers will be bored with it after two or three weeks.
The problem with VR is the problem with the digital age generally considered. Digital education is progress — if the goal of education is fact collection, rather than learning. Digital communication is progress — if the goal of communication is the accurate imitation of bodily presence, rather than a communion of persons. VR is progress — if the point of media is to fool us, rather than delight us. Our technological developments improve our machines without asking the awkward question of whether our machines improve us. The perfected robot, and not the perfected person, is the end to which most of our human capital has become the means.
The solution is a painful one: Think. Only an answer to the question “what constitutes a good cake?” can allow us to judge innovation in the field of cake baking. So, too, only an answer to the question “what constitutes a good life?” can allow us to judge technological developments as attaining or failing to attain proper human flourishing. Until we personally and communally articulate and enforce the human goals that technology should serve, we will remain pawns in the history of technology, strapping on VR headsets as if by necessity, unable to explain why the world has become so gray.