September 23, 2021

Is in-person human contact now a luxury good? You might be forgiven for this impression, at least in elite coastal America, after seeing the photos from New York’s $30,000-a-ticket Met Gala last week.

In one already-notorious image Carolyn Maloney, a Democratic representative for New York City, sports a gown that trailed multiple banners bearing the legend EQUAL RIGHTS FOR WOMEN. Maloney smiles, unmasked, at the camera. Behind her stand serried ranks of female serving staff, dressed in black and wearing identical black Covid masks.

In the earliest days of lockdown, this class-inflected freedom from hygiene theatre was the preserve only of the ultra-rich. While ordinary people were saying goodbye to dying relatives over Zoom, Kim Kardashian flew her entire feudal entourage to a private island for a birthday party.

A year on, those Met Gala images attest that hugging-as-privilege has now trickled down to the merely upper crust: regular celebrities, politicians, the founders of Black Lives Matter. But at the same time, those benefiting from the new elite right to in-person contact are pushing the opposite for everyone else: disembodiment as liberation.

This dream has been long in the making. We should greet it with all the enthusiasm we’d muster for a gift-wrapped bouquet of scorpions.

This is easier said than done. Pretty much everyone younger than I (born at the fag-end of the ‘70s) has grown up seeing themselves animate a CGI avatar on-screen, in any one of countless computer games — just as they’ve grown up conducting much of their social lives online.

If this is your normal, it’s not a big step to imagine a ‘self’ that has nothing to do with a physical body. This idea received big-budget cinematic treatment in the 2009 fantasy Avatar, featuring a crippled ex-soldier who gains a new life in a prosthetic body. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the movie was a smash hit, triggering such an outpouring of nerd emotion it spawned a new insult: ‘Avatards’.

But the dream of freeing human consciousness from the human body isn’t an internet-age invention. Back in the chaos of the first centuries AD, long before Christianity was codified into religious orthodoxy, esoteric sects and strange rites flourished. One such was the body of thought that came to be known as ‘Gnosticism’, from gnosis or ‘knowledge’. What survives of their thinking suggests that for Gnostics, the material world was intrinsically evil and the task of humanity was to escape it.

The early gnostics were scattered by heresy-hunters, but their dream of becoming beings of pure spirit lived on, famously via the Cathar sect in Southern Europe through the 12th to 14th centuries. The Catholic Church was not keen: in one notorious massacre at Béziers in 1209, the papal legate Arnaud Amaury is said to have told his men: “Kill them all — God will know his own.”

Despite such persecution, the idea of liberating the human soul from squalid materiality persisted stubbornly underground. It survived in Rosicrucianism, which in turn made its way into strands of esoteric thinking that still flourish today in weird corners of the internet. But if esotericism is now largely the preserve of Very Online cranks, the Gnostic longing to become creatures of pure consciousness has gone supernova.

Early pioneers of the internet imagined ‘cyberspace’ as a place of liberation from all the pesky constraints of the material world. I remember thrilling at this ‘cyberpunk’ vision, as imagined by authors such as William Gibson in the 1990s. As Gibson depicted it, in ‘cyberspace’ a growing proportion of human life would be wholly unmoored from physical reality: an endlessly creative zone of gods, monsters and infinite possibility. In the recent words of cult sci-fi author Zero HP Lovecraft: “We imagined ourselves as samurai sword VR pirate pioneers”.

In this worldview, as for the crippled hero of Avatar, the imperfect nature of physical bodies is little more than a drag on self-actualisation. I’ve argued previously in these pages that this opinion helps power the increasingly radioactive debate about ‘gender identity’. But this is only one of the ways that what seemed in 2009 just a fantasy for nerds, is now mainstream politics and culture.

Witness two new reality TV shows (or perhaps more accurately unreality TV shows) whose core premise is that selves can be separated from their bodies. Like The Voice, Fox’s new show Alter Ego showcases singing talent over physical hotness. But this comes with a twist: instead of singing from behind screens, Alter Ego performers will compete via CGI avatars.

This comes hot on the heels of Sexy Beasts, where contestants don elaborate prosthetic makeup before going on a blind date. The conceit is that by concealing their actual faces, their true selves will be better able to shine through.

The common factor behind both these shows is the idea that by working a human ‘self’ loose from its embodied presence in a physical body, provides ever greater freedom to be our ‘true selves’. In a promo video for Alter Ego, one of the singers explains his desire to perform via alter ego: “There’s something about how I look behind this alter ego,” he says, “that I feel like it’s held me back”.

In 2018, Aaron Bastani promised that automation would create a world of super-abundance for everyone, leading to a socialist horn of plenty and liberation from work via ‘fully automated luxury communism’. Today, that’s morphing into a dream of emancipation not just from work, but from our very bodies: fully automated luxury Gnosticism.

But this dream has a sting in the tail. For many adolescent girls now, what holds them back isn’t their bodies but the impossibility of living up to the image they project online. Reports are emerging of teenagers so dependent on tweaking their selfies with Instagram ‘filters’ they become unable to interact with people in person.

Even Facebook’s own research now shows that life lived through too-perfect selfies is toxic for teenage girls. Meanwhile, for those whose jobs by definition can’t be unmoored from their bodies, the push for disembodied life has still more unsettling implications. Because no matter how loudly you promise that luxury Gnosticism will be fully automated, someone still has to take out the bins, stack the dishes and care for those who can’t care for themselves,

Their existence is a painful reminder that while Covid has accelerated the rise of the robots, even prompting the launch of a robot Covid nurse, we haven’t yet managed to automate blue-collar workers out of existence. Instead they’re increasingly downplayed: there’s a new presumption of mandatory, masked facelessness for the lowest-status people whose roles regrettably require them to show up to work in person. Lockdown’s abrupt reminder of how radically we depend on manual workers did not prompt a new appreciation of the working class.

Meanwhile, the middling strata — the so-called ‘Zoom classes’ — forms the key target audience for unreality TV shows that present virtual life as liberation. And for some, the shift to remote working has indeed been a net positive. For those with space for a home office, and families already formed, going virtual can be liberating — while there are still plenty of reasons to log off and focus on real life.

But for those who are single or less professionally established, the bleak reality of ‘remote work’ is less bucolic. This is the group for whom fully automated luxury Gnosticism offers the greatest temptation: when IRL life looks like sitting on your bed in a shared house, with an incipient case of laptop burn and one of the top 10 most popular girlfriend apps for companionship, why would you ever want to log off?

“I believe we are living in the cyberpunk dystopia,” writes Zero HP Lovecraft, “and it’s way less metal than everyone thought it would be.” It’s tempting to imagine that Britain’s thus far more moderate approach to Covid restrictions — it feels like everyone has unmasked for autumn — will save us from such baroque extremes as we saw at the Met Gala. But we shouldn’t be over-confident: whether it’s quinoa or statue-smashing, what starts among the American elite has a habit of percolating out to the American imperial province that the United Kingdom now indisputably is.

At the start of the pandemic, we imagined embodied, in-person human life might grow more valued as a result of the disruption. And indeed it has: but not for everyone. That endlessly creative world Gibson imagined is now romanticised and sold back to us by the people commissioning unreality TV. The right to remodel our ‘meat avatars’ is politicised as the new front for civil rights. The danger of taint by other physical bodies is a key public-health message. But how you experience fully automated luxury Gnosticism depends on where you sit in the class hierarchy.

At the bottom stand masked, anonymised servants, clad in face coverings and uniforms until they can be automated out of existence. In the middle sit the Zoom classes, for whom virtual life can be a perk or a nightmare. For the lucky ones, it’s a chance at family life, but for others it’s more like an endless, lonely shift as (in Zero HP Lovecraft’s bitter phrasing), “pointless argument vegetables growing in walled gardens, harvested for the benefit of robots that serve us ads”.

And even as tech and media elites sing the praises of luxury Gnosticism for the rest of us, they’re reserving unconstrained, in-person human interaction as a privilege for themselves. Whether this emerging political order comes dressed as civil rights, TV entertainment or public health, we should see it for what it is: an assault on the humanity of all but the aristocracy.