As the weather breaks and we head into autumn, the Prime Writers are turning their attention to the senses.
Today, we join Matthew Blakstad, author of Sockpuppet (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016), to examine the relationship between technology and the senses, and consider whether, as modern writers, we should be trying harder to explore, rather than belittle, the sensory world that is cyberspace.
I write stories about technology, and how it affects our experience of the world. So it might seem strange for me to contribute a post about writing and the senses. After all, doesn’t technology dampen our senses? Doesn’t time in front of a screen reduces a person to a pair of eyes, passively soaking up pixel-light?
There’s a lot of truth in those assertions, but I think they reflect too narrow a view. Any video gamer will tell you that a bout of Grand Theft Auto leaves your pulse racing and your senses as heightened as those of a hunting mammal. These days, the ‘real’ world offers very few experiences that can so profoundly stimulate our sensory apparatus. Tech has started to evolve its own, unique sensory content; but literature tends to devalue this, when compared to the more ‘truthful’ experiences to be had in the world of flesh and molecules. Yet more and more of the human experience is mediated by screens. Can writers afford to ignore this new dimension?
It’s easy to reject our on-screen experience as passive or deadening. But as writers, shouldn’t we be seeking to chart this newly discovered territory? These days it’s very hard to find something original to say about the experience of striding across a moor in the throes of a storm. The Romantics had that stuff down pat centuries ago. Yet by contrast, I’ve read barely any mainstream fiction that truthfully explores the sensations of an all-night bout at the keyboard, or in a VR headset.
It’s true, of course, that the experiences offered by tech are largely visual, at the expense of the other senses. When we spend time online, our eyes become bloated from the incessant chatter of information we’re forcing them to process. Our senses of touch and taste and smell grow atrophied by comparison. To some extent, this is just a limitation of current computer interfaces. Virtual reality gear will increasingly stimulate our sense of touch as well as sight, through ‘haptic’ feedback. Smells and tastes, too, may become synthesised. But there’s no denying that our current digital realities offer a more slender range of sensory experience than the physical world.
And yet, in another sense, technology deepens our senses. A seasoned gamer or coder develops a heightened perception of an abstract yet tangible space that’s hard to describe to the uninitiated. William Gibson, in his prescient 1984 novel Neuromancer, called this cyberspace. He described it as:
“A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions…A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”
What’s striking about this early vision of online reality is its glassy abstraction. It’s ruthlessly visual, sure, but more than that, it’s stripped of any affect. This is in part a product of the cool detachment that characterises a lot of writing from the 80’s; but it also reflects the fact that Gibson, like most people at that time, had never actually spent hours at a time vanishing down an online rabbit-hole. He didn’t know what that actually felt like, so he could only describe it in the abstract. These days, by contrast, it’s rare to find someone who hasn’t had this experience.
So it seem to me a fit and fascinating project for a writer to try to capture the sensory qualities of this ‘consensual hallucination’. In my debut novel Sockpuppet, I’ve tried to do so, through the experience of my protagonist, software developer Dani Farr. I write about how screen-time funnels Dani’s attention:
“All she hears is the white noise of her computer’s fan, all she sees are the slashes and curly braces shimmering over her twin displays like insects dancing on the surface of a pool.”
…how it leaves her feeling physically:
“Her back is a single knot of pain and her carpals ache with repeated beating of the keys. Her irises are stretched to bursting.”
…and even its peculiar erotic charge:
“She roams the net a creature on heat, soiling an endless trail of empty hotel rooms.”
I hope in my book I’ve managed to capture some sense of what it’s like to exist online. In Sockpuppet’s sequel, which is out next year, I’m taking this project further. Lucky Ghost imagines a not-too-distant future where our whole experience of the world is stimulated and managed by an addictive, wrap-around virtual environment that we carry with us everywhere. It’s alarming to imagine how easily we all might sink into such a compelling artificial reality. Writing Lucky Ghost is helping me realise how much power may in future be held by those who have the ability to manipulate our sensory experience.
The task of fiction is to process and interpret the world around us. Given how much of our time is consumed by technology, and how much of our experience is controlled by the Silicon valley elite, I hope that more and more writers will start to explore and capture the sensations of life on-screen.
Matthew Blakstad is a civil servant and a graduate of the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course. His debut, Sockpuppet, was published by Hoder & Stoughton in 2016.