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H.G. WELLS AND THE END OF THE BODY CHRISTOPHER KEEP University of Victoria John Perry Barlow, one of the foremost advocates of computermediated communications, asks us: "When the yearning for human flesh has come to an end what will remain? Mind may continue, uploaded into the Net suspended in an ecology of voltage as ambitiously capable of self-sustenance as was that of its carbon-based forebears. It's not a matter of embracing this process. It has already embraced us and may, in fact have designed us for it in the first place" (5). Adapting the work of the French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Barlow sees the Net in distinctly evolutionary terms. In his schema, cyberspace is that "'point' toward which all human history [has] been directed ... the creation of a great collective organism: Mind, a planetary consciousness sufficiently interesting to provide company for God" (4-5). The Net then, is not so much the product of a specific historical conjunction of capital, technology, and state-interests, as a "natural" and indeed "inevitable" process whereby the mind will finally escape the gravitational pull of the body and accede to a space of pure intellection. The technology of high-speed micro-processors and packet switching gateways provides new means of connecting one person with another, but only insofar as it first drives a wedge between consciousness and corporeality. As N. Katherine Hayles has argued, it has become conventional to conceptualize cyberspace as "a disembodied realm of information that humans enter by leaving their bodies behind. In this realm, so the story goes, we are transformed into information ourselves and thus freed from the constraints of embodiment" (34). The equation of virtuality with a disincarnate intellect subtends much of the writing concerning the emergent electronic culture. It can be glimpsed not only in the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson, in which the characters dream of "the bodiless exultation of cyberspace" that allows them to escape the "prison of . . . flesh" (6), but in the more pedestrian fantasies of university administrators and their plans for the Victorian Review 23.2 (Winter 1997) CHRISTOPHER KEEP233 "virtual classroom." Here students, such as those at the newlycomputerized campus of Acadia University, will "sit in groups of four at special desks, which contain jacks for their laptops. Once everyone is plugged in, the professor can lead the class through lecture material, problem sets or a virtual workshop" (Lougheed 40). The Acadia experiment however, is only the beginning. Students in the not so very distant future will not have to be physically present on the campus at all. Wearing stereovision helmets connected by fiber optic cable to a high-speed graphics computer, they will be able to tele-commute from their homes to their classes at any point on the globe. In these virtual spaces, the physical body is displaced by a digitized image which interacts with the digital images of other students and the instructor.1 The virtual classroom, it is claimed, will level the differences between students that breed discrimination: translated as pixels on a stereoscopic display, the physical markers of race, gender, class, and disability may be modified, or removed altogether, if the student so wishes. One may, in effect, appear in any shape imaginable and, in that shape, have access to the sum total of information available on-line. For some educators, as David Porush reports, the virtual campus is a way to "deliver universal education . . . Cyberspace will create a totalized hypertextual platform that will cure what ails American higher education" (124). Digitization, in the eyes of its proponents, allows the university to fulfil its traditional humanist goals even in an age of staffing shortages, declining student enrolments, reduced library acquisitions, and a host of other plagues. Disembodiment, in these scenarios, is the telos of learning. According to the Chronicle ofHigher Education, twenty-four per cent of college and university courses are now taught in computer-equipped classrooms compared with sixteen per cent a year earlier and, as the Acadia example shows, we can expect these numbers to grow as education policy-makers bring ever-greater pressure to bear on universities to enter the computer-age (qtd. in Cumming 14). The logic...


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