Piloting the meat suit
Digital technology isn't just reshaping information; it's reshaping our relationship to physical reality
Google “meat suit” and you’ll come up with photos of Lady Gaga’s 2010 outfit at the MTV Video Music Awards, a dress made literally of meat. You might also come across references to “piloting the meat suit,” which means something rather more abstract. This meat suit is the human body, the flesh that encases the real you. The real you is disembodied; it can inhabit a virtual form, like an avatar or a digital identity, and it can also inhabit a physical body, a meat suit that’s driven by real you. Same essential self, different but equally real expressions—or so the logic goes. This would be a good jumping-off point for an anti-tech diatribe, but that’s not where this is heading. (Maybe another time.) Instead, it’s a vivid example of the influence of the virtual on the real, a force that may be shaping much more than we think.
I owe this this thought to a recent essay about the Canadian Freedom Convoy and the associated protest against their federal government. In “Reality Honks Back,” N.S. Lyons delves into the specifics of the protest. But I think what’s most interesting is the distinction drawn between two groups of people, the Virtuals and the Physicals, and its implications. The core of the argument is that there are “two classes of people in society, who … interact with the world in fundamentally different ways.” The first class is the Physicals, people who work in a “physical location, or they own or operate physical assets that are central to their trade”. Builders, couriers, and farmers are all examples of this class, as are the truck drivers who are emblematic of the protestors. The second class is the Virtuals, people whose work involves manipulating information “at a level of abstraction from the real world.” This is the laptop class, also described as knowledge workers; HR executives, lawyers, journalists, programmers, consultants—and the politicians the protest is directed against. The Virtuals are the winners in our increasingly technological society; they “are now everywhere unambiguously the ruling class.”
I think the distinction has a lot of explanatory power, and once seen you can’t unsee it. Lyons has a lot to say about the class conflict between Virtuals and Physicals but I’m most interested in the observation that the Virtuals haven’t been able to physically shift the protestors, so instead they’re responding the way they know how, with the best tools they have: “narrative and informational control.” In other words, when reality won’t play ball, construct an alternative reality and try to remake the real world in that image. From teenagers wanting cosmetic surgery to make their bodies match their selfies, to the demand for assistive reproductive technology and surrogacy, to the instant banishment of boredom thanks to the supercomputer in your pocket, we increasingly expect to be able to bend the real world to our will.
If this argument is right, then the most important issues with digital technology aren’t the familiar ones of censorship, misinformation and Instagram-induced anxiety. Instead, what matters most is how technology is reshaping our entire view of and relationship with physical, embodied reality. Because it’s the logic of the ruling class, expect to see it reflected in law, policy, and culture—and social division. Virtuals and their reality are coming to a meat suit near you.