Cathedral Full of Mirrors


by Tyler Walicek
All illustrations by Benjamin Sack.
This article appears in our first print issue, Pattern Machines.

They’ve built a grand architecture of profit and power and draped it across the surface of the entire world.

I have been swept up in many addictions over the course of my life, as we all have in one way or another. Yet few have been as insidious and bewildering as my entanglement in the compulsive loops that drive the modern Internet. What does this all-encompassing, multimodal network that’s been loosed upon the world inflict on us? Its complexity, the arsenal of shallow highs it can deploy, sets it apart from the simpler contours of substance dependence. Instead, it’s hydra-headed: a multiplicity of glittering curiosities, enticements, joys, and pitfalls. The network is a wealth that impoverishes, a vast archive that records everything’s nothingness, a map that leads into a maze.

It makes us in its image, though we assume the opposite. It stamps on us the matrices of its architecture and the operant conditioning of its signals and rewards—texts, notifications. It makes us the passive recipients of its active iteration into untested forms. Artificial intelligence dawns, and black-box algorithms seep into the vital systems that control our societies and our lives. A causal reversal of creator and created. The tail is wagging the dog, or at least dangling treats in front of it.

Treat-seeking, as it were, takes for me the form of compulsive Internet use in the service of self-soothing. It’s driven by my propensity for shortcuts: cheaply and quickly mainlining the kind of escape from solipsism that we get from a state of creativity or flow or love or awe. But those remedies don’t derive their anxiolytic effects from a vain attempt to fill the hole inside ourselves with consumptive distractions; that void is infinite and unfillable. Rather, such escapes—“fulfilling” or “whole-some”—acknowledge the emptiness and futility of recursive thoughts and instead bring us closer to equilibrium with the conditions of our existence. A golden mean. We seek to find relief from the agonizing, flagellating litanies of thought, not to drive more deeply into them. Burying one’s anxiety in the endless reams of online data, however, is more like tossing content into the abyss in the quixotic hope of filling it. And like the black hole that it is, the more mass (media) it swallows, the hungrier it becomes. That inverse correlation is true of both my own shallower desires and the devouring corporate maw of mined data. The flesh made word. Our little human foibles writ large and commodified.

What does it do to us to have our selfhoods split, and split again, split endlessly between worlds and into particulate clouds of our histories?

Scattershot signals, trillions per second, fire around the world at light speed to arrive in the palm of my hand, in a virtual venue of my choosing. And of course I am invited, encouraged, urged, even, by the empty text box, by the heart or the like icon, to add my own whiplash response to the fray. Earlier networks presaged this, but systems like television only delivered slow, unilateral propaganda. The Internet has closed the loop and extruded this dynamic into new dimensions, moving from the delineated time of the nightly broadcast to a neverending font of time-displaced data. A fleeting thought from years ago can be disinterred by a harassment mob that proceeds to ruin a life. A social network might deliver a “memory,” long-forgotten, of a day I spent with someone who once loved me. Coming across a memory in a photograph or journal is passive and is more or less subject to one’s agency. This new surreality is different. Another causal agent has entered the arena. The past—animated by these inscrutable algorithms now trawling my digital history—has reached into the present and opened a looping portal, stitching together that which was set apart in time.

When we offer up our life narratives and personal memories to a database architecture, we do so to the detriment of our organic memory. The brain treats a photograph as a memory externalized and therefore neglects to record its own in high fidelity. Furthermore, the process of active remembrance is more important for the formation of our identities than the tokens, physical or digital, that are both static and a mere sliver of the riches of the senses. The pattern in which these facsimiles of memory are stored, the set of relationships between them, is ossified—very much unlike the ceaseless weaving and re-weaving that animates the mind’s loom of identity.

These sites, then, not only allow for the sudden and unwarranted introduction of the past into the present. They also allow the present, in the form of our impoverished capacity for reminiscence and narrative formation, to calcify our interpretations of the past. Predictive algorithms perform the converse and inject future into present. The anticipation of your “needs” serves up a targeted advertisement, you make a purchase that would have otherwise gone unconsidered, and the algorithm’s prophecy is self-fulfilled. The need is manufactured and met by the same profiteers. That loop is closed. But an inestimably larger number of them cinch around and ensnare all of us hapless consumers.

These and other temporality-distorting mechanisms give rise to irrational chains of causality. The present acting upon the past; the future swooping in to nudge us towards our own manipulation. We have little idea what these contradictions might do to the delicate threads that compose our selfhoods. The past and future stream uninterrupted, laminate upon each other. The Internet’s staccato immediacy makes little stabs in the flow of our senses that accelerate until they coalesce into a hypnotic drone—the chirping of Morse code sped up to the point where dots and dashes cannot be differentiated. The rapidity and complexity of these data points further ungrounds us in time. We did not evolve to parse assiduous streams of lossy, decontextualized data. It is a “dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension,” as Don DeLillo puts it in White Noise.

In thinking about the ways that these mechanisms have come to dominate our relations, I’ve come to visualize the whole edifice as an enormous, labyrinthine cathedral. Between the buttresses are stained glass windows of extraordinary vividity, drawing the eye and distorting the external light. This cathedral of the imagination at first appears like those found in reality. But the echoes of its halls aren’t only composed of sound—here, the walls are hung with long mirrors; when two mirrors face each other, light echoes too, reverberating between them, creating illusory recursive hallways that stretch off into infinity.

In the maze of light and color, we see ourselves, refracted endlessly. We see others: everyone at once and no one at all; not anyone real, at least. Not anyone who isn’t a distorted reflection. The clergy’s sermons—ideologies religious and secular—resound through the halls. Their deafening sound elongates and slows with the Doppler effect, permeating the minds of listeners willing and otherwise. Beams of light and imagery, the chatter and moaning of the world, writings and inscriptions and illuminated manuscripts are all shattered into slivers of reflection. The cathedral’s geometries are distorted too, twisting off into confounding Escherian stairwells and passages. And, finally, time itself is warped. The cathedral’s staggering distances allow for lambent windows into the past, like the light from distant stars, and its gravity dilates time. The future collides with history.

“Such gigantic scales are involved—or rather such knotty relationships between gigantic and intimate scales—that hyperobjects cannot be thought of as occupying a series of now-points “in” time or space.”– Timothy Morton

I don’t intend “cathedral” to simply be a stand-in for “Internet” or “technology.” I want to hit upon a visual vocabulary that can encapsulate the multimodal, atemporal, interdimensional surrealities that interpenetrate our current state of being. When the network has developed to the point where I can instantly jump through space and time, witness the usurpation of my memories and the exertion of irrational causalities, exist in a state of time dilation and displacement from my physical surroundings, enmesh myself with the gears of capital, and feel the eyes of distant watchers upon me at all times, I feel the need to reconceptualize this system that I have in many ways come to view, credulously, as an acceptable and mandatory part of life.

The cathedral, then, exists as what philosopher Timothy Morton would call a hyperobject: something that is “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans. […] Such gigantic scales are involved—or rather such knotty relationships between gigantic and intimate scales—that hyperobjects cannot be thought of as occupying a series of now-points “in” time or space.” Like an object existing in a higher dimension, a hyperobject is never fully visible to us. Only slivers of it can phase into our reality. Morton refers to this as the “mesh” of interobjectivity”—the scattered and inconsistent points where the hyperobject’s appendages touch down in our perception, like the tip of a tornado. In our cathedral, they might include the phone in my pocket and everything I view on its screen, or a billboard for a tech product, or an overworked gig economy driver. The mesh is whorled and inconstant in spacetime.

Hyperobjects are “nonlocal; in other words, any “local manifestation” of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject. They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to.” Einsteinian physics tells us that space, time, and matter are interdependent. Still true, to the best of our knowledge, at the level of our substrate physical reality (the mysteries of the quantum world aside). What’s in question is the psychological effects of a newly manifested, world-spanning hyperobject that extends its tendrils into each and every one of us, Luddite or not. Its pattern interpolates social and economic relations, entertainment and information consumption, experiences of memory and inner narrative, and, at this point, effectively every conceivable aspect of modernity. It has outstripped the boundaries of our comprehension, with artificial intelligence poised to multiply that distance exponentially.

Maybe what we’re seeing represents the realization of certain prescient literary metaphors: Borges’ Library of Babel, Eliot’s heap of broken images. An illusory dimension woven through the world like lace, visible only at nodes where it phases into our reality, whether through the portal of our screens or in its more subtle societal ramifications. What kind of algorithmic specters might float through those halls? What does it do to us to have our selfhoods split, and split again, split endlessly between worlds and into particulate clouds of our histories? Whatever it is, it’s a far cry from the kind of worship that marks the quiet chapel—community, solidarity, humble cooperation. Instead, we’ve built ourselves a hall of mirrors, a moral maze that amplifies the parochial and makes true knowing unknowable.
The cathedral’s refractory refectories inculcate us into its patterns. Brands adopt the slang of the users, while users burnish their “personal brand,” i.e., their packaging into a marketable object. What is the common point that they are both approaching? This abrasion of relation to material reality, this erosion of the organic self, is a synthesis that is sanding down identity into a mere effigy. The malleable clay of human attributes is pressed into identical bricks that are laid to build out new chambers of the cathedral.

The closer that we move towards that mean, the more that all around us becomes a product, including ourselves, and the product becomes all. In time, social relation may become fully transactionalized, and the ideal consumer will be born. However, perceiving the world like this, as a reduction to a singular commodified whole, actually involves an acute sense of the discrete. It quantifies, prices, and discriminates. Boundless individualism and competition form this game’s arena. Our focus on the immediate precludes holistic, systemic thinking—thinking at the level of the hyperobject. Paradoxically, the more that reciprocal feedback turns our attention away and dislocates us from the substrate material world, the more that the products of that world become the objects of our infatuation and delusion. Commodified attention grows more discriminating, locked onto a certain kind of granularity: the granularity of products, their diversity and specifications, but never their origins or ramifications.

Living with the task of parsing this cathedral, this hyperobject, means distancing oneself from the standard beats of human existence and walling oneself off behind increasingly crystalline layers of abstraction. The networked hyperobject demands this. It exists beyond the grasp of our own minds, preoccupied as they are with the tangible. It untethers the mind from spatiotemporal realities—the kinesthetic, grounding tactility of words on the paper page or ink from the pen, the union of mind and body that’s strengthened by the real-world presence of loved ones or a walk in the woods. The mind’s response to living in the realm of the hyperobject is a pervasive sense of dislocation. Like tracing paper offset from the original drawing, the contours of reality are shifted. Senses denude. And the greater the distance between the realm and the real, the greater the adumbration of our perceptions.

“As the necessity becomes socially dreamed, the dream becomes necessary.” – Guy Debord

Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’ continues apace. We enjoy our electronic devices, so we must dream up a world where the rare earth minerals within them are not mined by child slaves. Or where our cars are not powered by oil that was traded for blood, or our food picked by brutalized immigrants, and so on. Marx’s false consciousness, not unlike our nightly phantasias. Not unlike the justifications that the addict spins for his increasingly bathetic desperation. This dream’s narrative is a narcissistic and self-congratulatory tale, deceitful and contemptuous of real history, whether it is made so by intention or emerges from obscured exploitation. It is the addict’s denial, made macrocosmic.

Such a deluded populace, properly set at a distance from the cathedral’s true mechanisms, sees at this broad scale a gleaming machine, ultra-efficient and supernaturally powerful. Its narratives and self-laudatory histories—dislocated fragments of light and sound—fill the place of worship, immersing all in a heady combination of nationalism, capitalism, and technophilia, with attendant discrimination and commodity fetishization. This cathedral is an object of worship, full of beautiful and mesmerizing icons and treasures on which to lavish our idolatry. Its myriad windows and reflective surfaces cast light in all directions and command the eye. As the ostensible height of human achievement, its truth is the only truth. But the sculptures within are grotesques made by slaves, and its foundations are filled with bones.

We trudge our way through these passageways in our daily work and social affairs. We feel that we are stacking our accomplishments and moving towards some final chamber—the end of work! retirement! Final fulfillment and satisfaction with our lives and our relationships! the attainment of enough leverageable knowledge to finally be enough—enough for this world and enough for ourselves. Analogously, if we’re the type to steep our flesh in mounting doses of substances, we toil under the delusion that there will be, somewhere in the cathedral’s dungeons, some distant chamber where we finally catch up with and bring down the dragon, and we can relive the perfection of the first high. But out of the chamber and into the labyrinth, there is another hall, and another, and after pressing forward year after year, you will one day see the compass needle reverse, and it’s suddenly clear that the cathedral surrounds the whole Earth, and you will arrive, ruined, where you began, having never really left.

Being suspicious the nature of the cathedral isn’t an immunization from its allure or an excusal from now-effectively mandatory participation. The senselessness of the ritual of Internet binging is familiar to those, like me, who have struggled with addiction. The first stirrings of the compulsion; the open pit of indulgence. Persisting in the face of consequences with self-abnegating momentum. It has its own character, as all addictions do, and this one is shot through with fragmentation: flecks of glimmering data that all assembled inform one of little at all.

Or if we do find ourselves informed, engaged in the process of information, we do so in accordance with the wishes of the priests: the masters of capital. The loudest broadsides of online media are created in service of their ends. The sermons echo down the hallways, drowning, distorting, and bleeding into speech and thought. What’s served up by major media outlets is largely either propagandistic or functions as a diversion from the atrocities that are accompanying our slow-motion late-capitalist collapse. They’ve built a grand architecture of profit and power and draped it across the surface of the entire world. A hailstorm of conflicting partisan shards, a deluge of distraction. The same kind of crassness found in a casino of jangling slot machines, whirling kaleidoscope colors and games, the deafening noise of revelry, and the resulting time dilation. The cathedral is built to be, or has emerged as, a site of unquestioning worship and glorification of capital’s pantheon. Its incantations lull us into ritualistic behaviors until we find ourselves ensnared in the recursive pursuit of dopamine.

Recursive mechanisms are exponentially powerful. Dislocation is reciprocal.

But, disturbingly, the personified “they” of the last paragraph is misleading. These mechanisms aren’t (entirely) controlled by a cabal of be-suited, cigar-smoking men in wood-paneled back rooms. Or even by their latest iteration, the youthful hoodie-and-sneakers types who’ve tried to mollify the corporate image, with middling success. The sinister “they” of conspiratorial lore is something else entirely. Capitalism is not a rigid ideological system imposed monolithically since the collapse of the feudal. It is rather a rat-king of social control, economic incentives, class relations, racial and gender disparities, imperialist intervention, ecological phenomena, and the condensed effects of every imaginable kind of history, stretching back centuries. And the cathedral is, necessarily, a projection of our particular brand of late-stage hypercapitalism. Therefore, it too is an undulating lattice of causal relationships, recursive loops, human intention, and machinations beyond our scrutiny. This ship is not being steered by any one actor. Post-modernity’s bizarre contribution is that some of our newest pilots are nonhuman.

Of course, non-biological systems have added their weight to the scale from the beginning, since the first gold coins or plowshares or cuneiform tablets. The omnipresent runaway feedback loops, often enabled or engendered by technology: usurious lenders mire the desperate in poverty, enslavement or conquest of a people for economic gain results in self-justifying ideologies of racial inferiority, religions offer a psychological salve while growing into ever-more sophisticated systems of control. Wealth begets wealth, and power, which parasitic ‘elites’ accrue and use to ensure the continued begetting of wealth and power. And now, the Internet fuels a dialectical feedback cycle of political and identitary polarization that divides the populace, until the only thing that unites us is our all-pervading consumerism. Recursive mechanisms are exponentially powerful. Dislocation is reciprocal.

Work—real work—means the fulfillment of needs. The definition of responsibility is the completion of the necessary before the desirable. This is the first principle discarded by the addict. If we take necessity, globally, to be the assurance of human welfare and the establishment of equitable, sustainable systems that satisfy at least our lower-level Maslow needs, then by this metric we have in many ways failed. Production and consumption of the unnecessary outstrips and precludes the provision of a livable life for all. American higher education and healthcare are exploitative debt traps. Vast treasure is expended on the creation of entertainment commodities—not an evil in themselves, except insofar as they are employed to shore up the delusive spectacle. But the attention and expense lavished on baubles is an insult to the daily suffering of so many within and without the American nation.

In the mind of the addict, conflicting impulses—proceed towards death, strain for survival—become indistinguishable and cancel out. The upshot being that, gradually, it is one’s selfhood that’s canceled out.

So when confronted with a system like the cathedral that is a swirling confluence of dimensional, social, mechanical, eternal, mortal, self-evident, invisible, constructed, and emergent phenomena, I find myself entirely at a loss. What does it mean to intertwine oneself, or be intertwined, in this crystal palace of chaos and capital? Trying to parse this bewildering array that, like an electron, exists somewhere but nowhere at all except as a range of potentialities, or perhaps like light’s particle/wave nature, the duality of which seems to preclude itself, produces more than anything a sort of paralysis. An interference pattern against the screened backdrop of my mind, beneath the proscenium. In seeking relief from the self, I become locked into a paradoxical loop.

Yet the paralysis itself is paradoxical. I willingly take in scads of data to pacify myself or fill the inner hollowness, asymptotically approaching the one: pure hedonic escapism. But the more I pacify myself, the greater the future cost of pacification. The correlation is inverted. My imagined destination, that final chamber of the cathedral that I dream will satiate me, approaches at the same rate that it slips away towards the horizon, like a Hitchcock zoom. Others have called it the hedonic treadmill. Struggling to run, I at once lurch forward and am thrust backwards, without ever having traveled at all.

The maddening recursions of the cathedral that hovers above our world are of a kind with the perverse loops that are inscribed in the mind of the addict. Addiction, too, is a hyperobject, existing conceptually at the societal level and laced into an individual’s neurons. It colonizes into the body, it colonizes wealth and health and love and consumption of all kinds. Its interfering ebbs and flows grow stronger until the lines between need and want are hopelessly tangled. Conflicting impulses—proceed towards death, strain for survival—become indistinguishable and cancel out. The upshot being that, gradually, it is one’s selfhood that’s canceled out. Compulsions both digital and chemical carve channels into our delicate neurons, widening the gorge until all smaller pathways are subsumed. The chords and harmonies of personhood devolve from signal to a noise that is itself a more basal kind of signal: a single, deafening static tone. Feeling is pruned to the simplest of notes. The gentle human longings for fulfillment or love are swept aside by the tidal rush of chemical need. The waters churn, erosive and corrosive.

Driving myself more deeply into the recursion opens a view onto the really disturbing possibilities that are found farther down the infinite regress. My immense difficulty severing the Gordian loop is rooted in my mind’s predilection for that absurd and senseless pattern. To ‘use,’ to be a ‘user,’ as of software or of drugs, is to take shelter in rote monotony. The life of the addict, though filled with vertiginous highs and lows, is repetitive and predictable. As its waves and troughs compound, they remain in the same form, differing in degree but not kind. There is the glut of indulgence and the sickly, anxiety-ridden dismissal of consequences. The blaring signal swells until it makes all else inaudible. Then the feedback loop sputters out, pleasure hangs just beyond one’s grasp, and the first tendrils of withdrawal start to creep in, beginning the pattern anew. You can’t yet grasp the lengths to which you’ll go, deeper into the regress, to feed the cycle. There’s nothing more depraved than a man in the depths of an Ethernet binge.

So, we see that the refractions of the cathedral reach into themselves and stretch beyond the boundaries of the human mind. What is the logical endpoint of these loops, if they have one at all? In what direction is the recursive feedback sending us? As we enter into increasingly asymmetrical relationships with our devices, or the quantification of our social interaction leads us around on leashes of cheap validation, or we allow neural networks to learn methodologies that we can no longer decipher, can we really continue to believe that these self-reinforcing mechanisms are delivering us to a brighter future? Are we approaching a golden mean? No, there is no telos we are beating ceaselessly towards. It is already here. It seems to me that we’ve begun something much more akin to the feedback loop between microphone and speaker, where a low hum builds exponentially to a hideous screech.

Tyler Walicek is the co-editor-in-chief of Protean Magazine.