[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

Re: <eyebeam><blast> Human=Computer

Thanks for your very clear exposition of your views on the
human/computer interface Simon, and apologies for the somewhat abrupt
tone of the email that you were responding to a few days ago. As usual,
fuller explanation leads to greater understanding. I have two points.
Firstly, the idea of the computer as a language machine is compelling,
but also somewhat vague I think (in the same sense that describing
painting or cinema as a language is vague). The question is more what
kind of a language, and then how it relates/differs from, for example,
the written phonetic alphabet. The work that's been inspiring me in this
area lately is by the German critic Friedrich Kittler, a collection of
whose essays have been recently translated into English. Without going
into too much detail: Kittler analyzes Freudian and Lacanian
psychoanalytic theory in terms of the media they embody--for instance,
Lacan's Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary are read as embodying the
technologies of phonograph, computer, and cinema respectively. Freud's
mystic writing pad is itself a form of erasable screen with infinite
memory.This kind of analysis addresses the ways by which media of all
sorts find their way into supposedly objective philosophy and science as
conceptual models, or metaphors, whose concrete origins are quickly
forgotten. Having read far too many books proclaiming, in their
different ways, that media are returning us to some "primitive" form of
consciousness, beyond rational language, Western philosophy/metaphysics,
linear narrative, Enlightenment perspective (pick what's relevant to
your chosen artform) at this point I'd welcome just about any more
historically nuanced accounts.

Secondly, the consciousness thing. The philosophical modes I mostly
prefer revolve around networked models of interacting forces, and its
true that from that perspective there may indeed be no such thing as a
consciousness that any of us can be in full possession of (though I'll
take Derrida in "Freud and the Scene of Writing" over Foucault).
However, the fact remains that we all experience the world from the
perspective of our own delusions of consciousness, and ignoring that
experiential problem altogether by means of non-essentialist fiat has
become pretty counter-productive at this point. There's only so many
times we can proclaim the death of the author, and only so many times we
can listen to the inevitable reaction against it (Americans may have
caught the latest installment of this long and tedious argument in last
Sunday's New York Times Book supplement, entitled "www.claptrap.com," by
Laura Miller). It's somewhat similar to the "everything is text" or
"everything is symbolic" statement; once we accept that, so what? How is
calling language a totality an escape from "metaphysics"? Isn't that
just another form of "the best of all possible worlds"? Where does it
get us? Not very far; you've just substituted one absolute for another,
even if the second one is of a different order than the first (putting
Cretan liars aside for the moment...) Just because something's
ultimately undefinable doesn't mean there's no value in the attempt to
describe it; even if we posit that consciousness is some sort of
epiphenomenal byproduct of interacting forces, it's still there, it
still has to be dealt with. 

Furthermore, when the post-structuralist network model gets combined
with the way society (American society in particular) is being
re-modelled around computers--a model in which workers become plug-in
units to be distributed around the network according to the needs of
transnational capitalism, on short-term contracts and no
benefits--leaving consciousness out of the loop starts to sound pretty
scary to me.  I would argue that this is the acceptable definition of
the "post-human": the redefinition of humanness according to conceptual
models supplied by computers. It's not a new thing at all; it's not a
proclamation of some new moment in evolution--its a recognition that the
epistemological terrain has been shifted by information theory and
computers. For some counterpoint, I recommend Ellen Ullman's "Close to
the Machine" (City Lights) as an excellent meditation by a
self-described "lapsed socialist software engineer" on the very large
gaps that remain between computers and humans, and the ways in which the
latter get left out of the former's programs.

The unwillingness to address the problem of experential consciousness
might lead us to miss the fact that computers are, to put it broadly,
embodied mathematical algorithms. While the possiblities of converting
anything and everything into digital code currently seem boundless, they
shouldn't lead us to miss the fact that underneath all the graphical
fireworks and hyperlinks is some pretty basic binary code--ones and
zeroes; we also shouldn't forget that there is always a residue in
translation that is not convertible. Given the strain of current thought
that assumes transparency between genes, information, culture, and
environment (again, Kelly's "Out of Control" being the representative
example), I think that's quite important. While the ability to think in
terms of abstract mathematical concepts is one of the great human
achievements, it certainly doesn't, at least to my mind, encompass all
the ways in which humans can relate to external reality--indeed, if you
take post-structuralism seriously, binary thought is a horribly limited
way of dealing with reality. In fact, I'd suggest that the kind of
"sympathetic magic," which various people have posted about in relation
to their computers seeming to be in synch with their moods, is one such
example of a mode of consciousness which will never be accessible to

a critical forum for artistic practice in the network
texts are the property of individual authors
to unsubscribe, send email to eyebeam@list.thing.net
with the following single line in the message body:
unsubscribe eyebeam-list
information and archive at http://www.eyebeam.org
Eyebeam Atelier/X Art Foundation http://www.blast.org