In some ways aiming to be the Black Mirror of graphic anthologies, I Feel Machine features six cartoonists each exploring the intersection between humanity and technology, and how humans change because of their encounters with the fruits of technological advance. Unlike Black Mirror, though, the creators behind I Feel Machine don’t necessarily try to start you off in a common ground with your own reality, but instead mostly start out their tales by establishing off-kilter scenarios that become disrupted even further by the advances encountered.
Box Brown’s “Uploading” is about just that, but specifically uploading human consciousness into servers. It’s a purposefully disjointed presentation of a society where people live for thousands of years and, since that is not enough, eventually find further refuge for their souls digitally. One of the problems with humans is that they think they are so fascinating, even when they’re not, and it’s this preoccupation that allows them to think that thousands of years are not a long enough life to achieve their potential. For humans, nothing is ever enough. But what do they end up doing with all this spare time? Like people eagerly reading the news of every iPhone release, the basically immortal humans just end up enthusing about the technology that makes them basically immortal. Every once in a while, some philosophy about the situation threatens to pierce the veil but is soon summarily dismissed, and human consciousness becomes the state of permanent self-obsession.
Erik Svetoft presents some dramatized true crime from the future in “STHLMTRANSFER,” which traces the process of data theft in a world 100 years from now where our current data has become collectible digital ephemera transmitted through illicit connections and chased down by the Social Media Security Force. It’s direr than the transfer of data, though. This is a world of human-computer hybrids. You can see indications of the subtle and outrageous forms this takes throughout the story, and so in context of social media, it becomes a kind of identity theft in a society where identity is becoming muddled and a person can not claim to be a human or a machine, and there seems no unifying consistency to the variety of creature humans have become. Svetoft presents a civilization that has no idea what it is and can only remedy that by stealing what other people have presented as self.
Shaun Tan’s “Here I Am” is the most beautiful, humane entry in the book. Taking place in an absurd wonderland, the story is narrated by a little human girl who experiences the magical qualities of the world around her. It’s a charming landscape that encounters a mysterious visitation that evokes curiosity and boredom and reveals itself to be focused on the girl. Without giving anything away, this leads to a situation where choices must be made, where promises of making the universe a wider place also come with an acceptance of limiting victimhood and a disavowal of self. All told, it’s a fable of self-empowerment, but a mysterious one, and Tan’s visual world-building creating a life that is based on logic built upon illogic is thrilling and ultimately touching.
Tillie Walden’s “Contours” functions as poetry and manifesto in its meditation on a world without gadgets — or, more precisely, a world in which gadgets no longer work. Walden’s abstract cartooning is dominated by her color work, particularly a deep and foreboding blue that overtakes some pages, and represents well the emotional pressure the narrator feels. “Time hangs on us like a relentless summer heat,” she writes as people try to fill their lives without apps and videos and messaging and social networks, and it reminds me that though I dream of a time without a digital pocket universe augmenting reality, there’s a whole generation of human beings who can’t imagine what having that kind of space is like, and might even find it oppressive. The answer in Walden’s view, and this is always the answer in any situation, is human togetherness.
The most mysterious entry in the book is Julian Hanshaw’s “Be Little With Me.” Taking place in a grim, post-apocalyptic-feeling urban area populated by multiple versions of the same person, perhaps clones, Hanshaw’s story introduces a small projector that can make all possible realities visible for snippets at a time. The projector becomes a point of sharing and then ire between two of the people in this city, one of whom invented the projector and the other of whom is trying to unload a pet chicken on someone, anyone. Hanshaw’s visual world-building here is impeccable, giving a real sense of the space these people are creeping about, in juxtaposition to the unseen infinity being offered by the projector, but that infinity may also have infiltrated our story in ways we haven’t predicted, offering a surreal solution that makes you wonder about the nature of change in an infinite reality — where all possibilities exist, are no changes actually possible?
Krent Able’s “Bloody Kids” is probably the weakest link, leaning more on shock value than the often abstract philosophical meditations that the previous stories comprise. Much more of a shocker, the story covers a weekend gathering of friends with kids, the fretting of the parents in regard to kids’ addictions to cell phones, and an unsettling revelation of completely alien rituals that the kids have aligned themselves with as a result of succumbing their psyches to their gadgets. But it may be a hallucination. Or it may not be. Either way, the generation gap escalates into an all-out supernatural battle of terrors that feels tonally out of sync with the rest of the book, over-the-top in presentation and more grounded in a recognizable world, as is the object of criticism, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from diving into this collection.