Wild Nature, Free Radicals, and the Nerve Sell
Just a few weeks ago, Gilles Deleuze committed suicide. His death comes as the triumph of the "body without organs" slowly comes to realization. Indeed, the cyborg is being supplanted by the anthropomorphism of programming as it finds its way away from the interface and into the metaphor of life itself. Deleuze's work is decisive in confronting the philosophical consequences, moral urgency, and imaginative potential of the information age. To find some suitable epitaph to serve here seems a bit inappropriate. Nevertheless I cite from his colleague Guattari:
Yesterday's machine, today's and tomorrow's, are not related in their structural determinations: only by a process of historical analysis, by reference to a signifying chain extrinsic to the machine, by what we might call historical structuralism, can we gain any overall grasp of the effects of continuity, retro-action, and interlinking that it is capable of representing.
and from Didier Deleule:
...the machine is not a substitute for the life process, even though advances in cybernetics might have us believe otherwise. Nor was the machine ever intended to take over life's work tasks or to alleviate the problems of work overload in 'imperfect societies'. In spite of all the arguments we still hear about 'labor-saving' machines or production processes that allow for more leisure time. The fact is, machines were not built in order to free humans from servile tasks. The function of machines is...to enhance life's capacity for mastery and conquest. The machine does not in any sense replace life.
and from Norbert Weiner:
Every instrument in the repertorie of the scientific instrument maker is a possible a sense organ.
And finally from Donna Haraway:
The cyborg would not recognize the garden of eden.
In the new film, Strange Days, a film about the last moments of the twentieth century, there is a section in which the following phrase emerges:
It is not that you are paranoid, it is that you are not paranoid, enough.
I recently read the following in an essay on one of the growing number of Right Wing web sites called, "America in Peril":
Your enemy is using tools he has always used before. Data, information, technical information. I have seen this happen time and time again. You must have written knowledge where people can access it. You, as a mentor, you have to become an educator, a student, you have to become a mentor and teach them what to do and how to do it. If you have a group of ten people you must have ten copies of knowledge. Reloading, combat skills, farming. I do not care. Whatever the subject is disperse your knowledge. The printed word is going to be banned. Mark my word on this. I guarantee it. It has already happened with certain books concerning how to take care of firearms.
In the epilogue to Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte writes:
Finding a cure for cancer and AIDS, finding an acceptable way to control population, or inventing a machine that can breathe our air, and drink our oceans, and excrete unpolluted forms of each, are dreams that may, or may not, come about. Being digital is different. We are not waiting on any invention. It is here. It is now. It is almost genetic in its nature, in that each generation will become more digital.
It might do well to suggest that we remember that the effects of "the mechanization of the world picture" has a long history, and that a reading of such figures as Lewis Mumford, Sigfried Gidieon, and even Martin Heidegger (for so many reasons) should stand astride reading such hollow thinking as that of Negroponte, Marvin Minsky, or an emerging class of corporate CEO's masquerading as cultural visionaries. Indeed, as Walter Benjamin so clearly articulated it, "The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that "the state of emergency" in which we live is not the exception but the rule." And without the aestheticization of the digital, we might find a way to think through what Mumford called the "magnificent bribe" of cybermodernity and into the epistemologies of technology.
The historical, esthetic, moral consequences of information technology have not emerged only in the age of computation. The link between representation, intelligibility, and the mechanisms of power share a history not bound by any specific technology, even while intricately formed in their midst. These histories, deeply ingrained in ideology, are at the core of both cultural and cognitive developments of electronic media. Deconstructing and destabilizing the history of communications technologies clearly represents a burgeoning field of critical, artistic, and historical significance. Couple this with the broad implications of representation (linguistic, visual, and computational), and the urgency of confronting the effects of an increasingly digital epistemology are conspicuous and immediate.
Indeed, the emergence of electronic "grammar," and the increasing grasp of the development of systems theory, comes nearly at the end of the biosphere, and, simultaneously, as the completion of the project of mastery of nature implicit in modernity-whether we want to think about life after modernism or not! But more than this, the movement from eco-systems to info-systems, codes to algorithms, individuals to agents, cognition to neuro-cognition, recording to rendering, observation to interaction, reflection to behavior, science to techno-science, biology to genetics, genetics to artificial life, both demonstrates and represents that the "moralization of objectivity" that came with the enlightenment is having profound effects on a broad range of human activities and has, in some ways, exposed the triumph of technology as already assimilated into the intertwined worlds of the eco-sphere and the info-sphere. As is clear from the talks this morning, the conflation of the organism and the code that operates it are linked in confused assumptions about both open and closed systems. "The Global Brain" and the "network ecology" are metaphors with staggering consequences not rationalized by electronic positivism. Yet, after hearing that encryption codes that seemed unbreakable by supercomputers became a simple matter of cooperative computational code-breaking, one must extrapolate and consider that not all artificial life projects will be as secure, or as innocent, as Tom Ray would have us believe. Nor should one think that the economic and strategic utilization of technology, artificial intelligence, biology or genetics is in any way free of profound consequences in terms of the control of human behavior, cognition or agency. Just after the Chernobyl disaster a Soviet scientist remarked: "In matters of science and safety, there's nothing worse than an optimist."
This summer at Ars Electronica the economist Saskia Sassen gave a talk about the collapse of the Behring Bank in England. She opposed two systems, the system of judgement and the system of computing. The ability of the computer to model vast amounts of information was linked to the ability to mobilize billions of dollars so quickly that human judgement could hardly understand what was happening. Upper management, sustained by well mannered and, no doubt, well meaning, leadership, had little grasp of the programs that could predict and then be used to transfer the entire resources of the bank at speeds that were unimaginable. On the one hand, she identified this as a crisis of centrality. In a transterritorial economy, power was dispersed so invisibly that understanding and judgement could not preclude the event before it happened. And on the other hand. And perhaps more significantly, Sassen concluded her talk by suggesting that mobilization and collapse represented the "triumph of pure reason." Computation destroyed the Behring Bank in an act of programming that is deeply inflected with human greed and simultaneously beyond the scope of judgement. It was just several years before this that so-called "programmed trading" in the New York stock exchange initiated sell algorithms that caused a near collapse of the American economy (well, one has to remember that the American economy is almost virtual anyway). One might think of this as Viral Trading. Couple this with the failed switch in the telephone system on the East Coast a few years ago, the switch that initiated a domino effect that effectively shut down the communication systems of the Banks, the Air Traffic Control system, Police, Emergency services...and one begins to realize that even the most stable systems are not necessarily redundant enough to sustain themselves against that damned law of thermodynamics, the one that Tom Ray told us was inoperative in the digital world! One can only begin to wonder how autonomous agents, DNA computing, artificial life forms, will learn to behave once that are unleashed into the slightly less precise world in which we live.
Hans Enzensberger once wrote that "no avant-garde has thus called for the police to rid it of its opponents." Times have changed. The coy alliance between predictable ferment and repressive tolerance has enveloped most of the creative practices of the 20th century. As is clear from even a casual understanding of the cultural, political, and creative practices of the past 20 years, the issues of technology and computing have generated responses ranging from euphoric desperation to heroic cyber-modernity. In the accelerating environment of the past decade, the urgency of the staggering cumulative effects of techno-science on the cognitive, biological, political and individual spheres has hardly been conceptualized despite a growing literature of speculative, theoretical and pseudo-non-fictional assessments. Little has been published considering the tension between what is emerging as a form of cataclysmic millennial utopianism and a reactionary anxiety about the disruptions and fantasies of techno-culture. In an era in which the inversion of avant-garde and corporate intention further blurs the already hazy legitimacy of any notion of the avant-garde, it comes as little surprise that politics, spectacle, technology, revolution, violence, and Luddism meet in a perverse ecological system in which the police, militias, terrorists, artists, corporate visionaries, and futurists join in survivalist tactics that are on the border between retroactive legitimation and terminal compromise.
How else can one confront the historical complexity and contingent certainty of the Rodney King incident, the Oklahoma bombing, the Ruby Ridge murders, the Waco debacle, the ethnic cleansing and Western response in the former Yugoslavia, the Gulf War (whether or not it happened), the massacres in Rwanda, the decimation of students in Tianamen Square, the renewal of nuclear testing by the French, the neo-nazi trial in Austria, the barbaric hanging Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eco-activists in Nigeria, the mega-mega mergers in the telecommunications, cable, computer and entertainment industries, the excessive status of the technologies of the artificial, the technological evidence, police misconduct, and racism revealed in the O. J. Simpson verdict. It is clear that a siege mentality pervades, one that is burdened by its all too real historical proportions and whetted by its appetite for a virtual solution to an already artificial system. This juncture, of the promise of technology and the actuality of events has initiated profound discontinuity in the shaky stability of the electronic ambience in which we live. Relentless crisis haunts the public sphere.
Pervasive, and often welcomed, surveillance, tele-and other forms of -terrorism, vigilantism, drive-by technology, and viral metaphors stand firmly astride new PC architectures, the pseudo-counter cultural hallucinations of born-again hippies, cosmetic psycho-pharmacological drug industries, the hapless and dangerous conflation of Chardin's Noosphere with Minsky's neurosphere, the perverse ecology of agents without a critical understanding that they are subversively surveilling every action for an invisible database tracking our every move (And I think I'm quoting MIT researcher Patty Maes correctly when she said: "Privacy is something we want to keep in control)... as you understand, this list goes on and on.
In this deeply alienated environment, the retreat into the soft worlds of simulation and computer networks seems as much like a last stand as it does an act of extension and limitless communication. But for all the hyperbole about the network version of Mcluhan's parasitic and dominating global village, little of the predicament of culture has been ameliorated. Communities have become an order of affiliations mediated by secure sockets, guaranteed insulation, predetermined sociability, absolute ambiguity, ubiquity surrounded by the aura of universalization, and lets not forget a smidgeon of corporate profitability. This is not the era of "Being Digital" (as Negroponte suggests), not residency in "the City of Bits" (as Mitchell writes), nor one-ness in the architecture of cyperception. This is a mode of both domination and communication in which the transformation of the polis as a site of agency, imagination, and history is nearing completion. The network has emerged to sustain and extend community as information and has become the locus of the virtualization of reality in the electronic age. If a theory of representation can be sustained in this environment it will come hand-in-hand with a series of after-shocks linked with closure, destruction, and the omni-present prefix post (post-industrial, post-literate, post-photographic, post-political, post-journalistic, post-historical ...). It wont come as much of a surprise that a conference in Karlsruhe called The Second Modern emerged to reinvent a kind of born-again totality masked as tele-modernity and attempting to recreate legitimacy in the face of the continuing shocks of cultural dissulution, or that Newt Gingrich will gain the support of the Toeffler's looking to ride the third wave as it washes clean the slight cultural effects of the 1960s with the purgative of privatization. Rather than tele-modernity, here we find tele-phobic modernity. Whatever he cannot lick, Enzensberger wrote, "the reactionary critic will join and even think thereby to demonstrate magnanimity...." and, he continued "with every one of their anathemas, they attest to their lack of authority."
On Interface 3 radio in Hamburg, we had a discussion of the relationship between paranoia, subversion, seriousness and hope. Well, we didn't actually get too deeply into the hope part of it. There was a sense, though, that the network has offered a sense of alternatives for the building of dispersed affinities. Of course, as Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble reminds us, it is also the site for dispersed domination. I was reminded of a remark by Armand Mattelart, writing about the revolutionary media in Allende's Chile: "Every creative act which seeks to question the apparatus of domination runs the risk of continuing to carry within itself the imprint of the system in which the creator is inscribed." Never has this been more true than in the web - where the social infrastructure is so neatly supplanted by the technological circulatory system. Too often in this media, we fall into the trap of the mystification of universalization, not remembering that deterritorialization is not always a signifier of nomadic empowerment. In the agencies of communication, the illusion of power can be as seductive as the fall into utopia. And while the colonization of cyberspace by artists and theorists is a sign of tremendous creativity, the linked forces of privatization and control are breathing down our necks. Playtime is over. Candidate Bob Dole has already attacked Hollywood, Newt Gingrich, Dick Army, and Jessie Helms are attempting to purge the cultural life of the imagination. Beneath these public attacks lies a substrate of materials finding there way across the porous borders of the network that disseminate neo-fascist, christian reactionary, and nationalistic materials that ground events like the rise of militias, vigilante police, and even the support of separatist anti-semites like Louis Farrakhan. And while we consider the vectors of whether VRML will actually render space in a browser, or whether Hot Java will actually not continue to crash Netscape, the mobilisation of the network is occurring, not for the dissemination of wonderful and creative hyper fiction and quicktime movies, but for the tactical ambiguity of dispersed power. Indeed, the metaphor of dispersal, along with invisibility, is a crucial aspect of understanding the politics of the network. As Debord wrote: "Secrecy dominates this world, and foremost as the secret of domination."
Aligned with the revolutionary shifts in expressive media have come some equally expressive metaphors: connectionism, parallelism, nanotechnology, associative systems, fuzzy mathematics, chaos, distributed or ubiquitous computing, immersion, interactivity, hypermedia, biocomputing, networking, smart technologies, tele-fill in blank -an intelligent ambience of a set of interfaces redefining a relationship with language, memory, the body, aesthetics, politics, and communication. The promises and pitfalls of a cybersphere obstruct some of the essential cultural issues of digital media in the yet vague hope that matters of access and meaning will fulfill themselves in the future. This is a difficult presumption of technology and creativity linked with the scientific view that a problem is not so much surmountable as it is contingent and evolving. For so much work utilizing electronic media, the characteristics (often seen as limitations) of the delivery system represent a hurdle to be overcome rather than a form to be interrogated.
Digital media presupposes a communicative system that assumes the assimilation of representation into the technosphere, the neurosphere, and the genosphere. Responses to the stimuli of experiential phenomena are being replaced by study of the neuro-reflexive activities of the brain-as-operating system. In this system, cultural representation is less significant than psychological representation. The cognitive system becomes a more pertinent subject than the communication system. Systems supplants cultures.This metaphor goes hand-in-hand with the connectionist models being utilized to link everything from the internet to the electrical impulses of the neuron. Networked communities, the emergence of biocomputing, and genetic mapping, represent fields in which information has become essentialism. Evelyn Fox Keller writes that even while researchers in molecular biology and cyberscience displayed little interest in each others epistemological program, information, either as metaphor or as material (or technological) inscription could not be contained. (p 103) The collision of these disciplines in the fast-growing fields of networking, DNA based computer programming and nanotechnology suggests the reconceptualization of the subject of computing. Rather than the human-computer interface, the thrust of research is bio or neuro-informatics, the constitution of identity not in terms of the relationship between machine and person but of the conceiving of technology within the formation of ideas and meanings.
Listen to Marvin Minsky on neuro-technologies:
Why should we keep the brain in the head? Already there has been some research on connecting computer directly to brains: for deafness, to insert audio directly into the auditory nerve; for vision, to inject picture information directly into the primary visual cortex. Still primitive today, but no fundamental obstacles. So imagine a person, some decades from now, purchasing a brain-direct interface. Using simple nanotechnology, a needle is inserted into one of the fluid-filled cavities in your brain, and a powerful computer is inserted. Then it remains there, watching what happens in your brain, patiently lurking in your brain, your implant computer uses powerful AI techniques to recognize the intentions represented by the patterns of your brain's activity. As we endow the interface with increasing domains of competence, the boundary between mind and machine grows indistinct.
This summer a report in the journal Physical Review Letters described work accomplished at the Max Planck Institute. The headline in the New York Times was "Neuron Talks to Chip, and Chip to Nerve Cell." The Times reported: "The accomplishment announced Monday (August 21) has thus established a signaling channel between a nerve cell and a silicon chip that works in both directions..." Suddenly, the circuit between the neurological organism and the silicorganism has the potential to be switched on, and the implications of A-life, AI, and genetic programming can no longer reside in the blithe neurotality (that's neutrality) of closed systems. Zelinsky was right in citing the link between Kant's "subjective" and Wittgensteins "border." Wittgenstein's proposition "The subject does not belong to the world, it is a border of the world," is a powerful realization too often mapped out of the thinking of technology in which the subject is more or less a system to be adapted rather than an adaptive system!
As a historically developing means of control, technology itself is mutating into meta-technology meta-control. Questions of machine intelligence and political empowerment are becoming questions of artificial life and massive, albeit invisible parallelism. Rather than an encounter with technology as the crucial mechanism in the culture of the late 20th century, the discourse is shifting into the implementation of software solutions that veil the staggering impact of machine culture. Instead of radical questions concerning the sundering of ethics and the refiguration of communication, we are hypnotized by innovations in imaging and processing that unhinge so many of our assumptions about the fallacies of progress that yet hold our imagination in the balance.
Subsumed in the immaterial space of information, culture, the sphere of public action, is destabilized as a sphere of knowledge, a sphere of discourse, and a sphere of difference. Ubiquitous computing, the intelligent ambience, the wired world, only serve to suggest the clear fact that the triumph of technology has already occurred, that the shift from agency to behavior has become the focal point of technology research. Rather than liberating, the trajectory of so much of this work is to map, to record, to simulate, and to produce behavior. The cold war metaphor of command and control and communication (so evident in the work of von Neumann and Wiener) has found new metaphors. Top-down access and software implementations now mediate almost all forms of communication and are implicated as much in the discourses of on-line chats as they are in the development of digi-genetic therapies. No history of electronic culture would be complete without revealing the power dynamic that roots new media. Cybernetics, information theory, and the internet itself have emerged from military strategies for dispersed forms of command and control whether it is tactical or psychological. Maturing in corporate r & d, the spin-off technologies of networking or bio-genetics represent a no less cogent instance of both privatization and deregulation. Indeed, the recent debate and legislation concerning network content presupposes surveillance and precipitates yet greater hesitations about the first amendment guarantees of free, and not unregulated, speech. But the camouflage of communication policy overshadows more substantive issues concerning information, computing, biology, culture and freedom.
Over the past year a number of books have emerged suggesting that the coincidence between the end of the millennium and the culmination of the technologies of the artificial are linked. Mike Smulka's War of the Worlds, Sven Bierkert's The Gutenberg Elegies, Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil, Neil Postman's Technopoly and more recent book on Education, and Kirkpatrick Sales' Rebels Against the Future. I mention Sales work last because it dovetails with the recent publication of the essay by the eco-terrorist called the unabomber, a figure responsible for some 17 bombings, numerous injuries and several killings. Targeting technology, the unabomber has bombed an institute at Northwestern University, a geneticist in California, a computer store in Utah, and a computer scientist at Yale. Last month, after intensive debate, The Washington Post and The New York Times, decided that the potential benefit of publishing a 67 page (35, 000 word) text from the bomber, in exchange for a vague promise that the killing would cease, was sufficient grounds for bowing to terrorist demands. The essay, widely available on the web, is titled Industrial Society and Its Future. The essay is a manifesto of anti-technology ideology. Its 232 sections advocate a revolution against the industrial system. But the enemy is not only technology but the adherents that fostered it, an enemy identified as Modern Leftism. "When we speak of leftism," he writes, "we have in mind mainly socialists, collectivists, politically correct types, feminists, gay and disability activists, animal rights activists and the like, and makes it clear that the left is characterized by two psychological tendencies: feelings of inferiority and oversocialization. The left has low self esteem, feelings of powerlessness, depressive tendencies, defeatism, guilt, self-hatred and tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful. They hate America, they hate Western civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality...the leftist is anti-individualistic and pro-collectivist, dismiss reason, science, objective reality and insist that everything is culturally relative, they protest by laying down in front of vehicles, they intentionally provoke police because they prefer masochistic tactics, they invent problems in order to provide themselves an excuse to make a fuss. The system has disempowered. Decisions are made by public officials or corporate executives, or by technical specialists...while most individuals are unable to influence measurably the major decisions that affect their lives. There is no way to remedy this in a technologically advanced society." The essay goes on to outline the threat that technology is on society and concludes that "revolution is the only alternative" that "Technology has gotten the human race into a fix from which there is not likely to be an easy escape....The technophiles are taking us all on an utterly reckless ride into the unknown." Kirkpatrick Sales wrote in The Nation, left voice in American Politics, the week following: "The central point the Unabomber is trying to make--that the industrial-technological system in which we live is a social, psychological. and environmental disaster for the human race--is absolutely crucial for the American public to understand and ought to be on the forefront of the nations political agenda....I say this as a partisan."
Compare this with the tract published following the Washington symposium, Virtual America, sponsored by The Progress and Freedom Foundation, the public relations arm of Newt Gingrich, A Magna Carta for the Information Age. Written by George Gilder, Esther Dyson, Alvin Toeffler and others, the Magna Carta outlines another vision of culture. Its preamble states: "The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter. In technology, economcs, and the politics of nations, wealth--in the form of physical resources--has been losing value and significance. The powers of the mind are everywhere ascendent over the brute force of things." Using Toeffler's Wave theory of change, the first two waves (the agrarian and the mechanical) is supplanted by a new the third wave "in which the central resource...is actionable knowledge. But the Third wave will not deliver on its potential unless it adds social and political dominance to its accelerating technological and economic strength. The system in which this transition exists is that of digital media. More ecosystem than machine, cyberspace is a bioelectronic environment that is literally universal: It exists everywhere there are telephone wires, coaxial cables, fiber-optic lines or electromagnetic waves. This environment is inhabited by knowledge. Cyberspace is the land of knowledge, and the exporation of that land can be a civilizations truest highest calling....Cyberspace is the latest American Frontier. But, the complexity of the Third Wave society is too great for any centrally planned bureaucracy to manage. Demassification, customization, individuality, freedom--these are the keys to success. ...The Third Wave sector includes not only high-flying computer and electronics firms and biotech start-ups. It embraces advanced, information driven manufacturing in every industry. It includes the increasingly data-drenched services - finance, software, entertainment, the media, advanced communications, medical services, consulting, training, and learning. The people in this sector will soon be the dominant constituency in American politics."
Technocultures spectacle is that of distributed thinking, distributed identity, distributed text, distributed politics, and distributed identities. In the many metaphors that are emerging, the fragmentation of form and the prioritizing of content are the most obvious. But amid the numerous rationales for the logic of distributed culture is emerging a renewed sense of totality too often identified as a unified theory, a sort of born-again modernism in the guise of mastery of the system of cognition, biology and social logic. Digital technologies present a range of immaterial solutions that reside within computation and that do not confront the issue of technology as a material force. Its physical insubstantiality though cannot be mistaken for a lack of meaning. What emerges in these technologies is the constitution of an experiential space increasingly formed by computation. But more than this, the boundaries between the body and technology are eroding to such an extent that the future of being is enveloped in systems thinking.
The issues raised by the relationship between the development of cybernetics, communication, urbanism, identity, and the network pose stunning challenges to the traditions of culture. Simultaneously, these issues once again accentuate the necessity to consider the whole function of culture within the technological conception of connectionism and distributed systems. It is clear that systems theories of communication, intelligence, biology, identity, collectivity, democracy, and politics will not fully suffice to encompass the meaning of electronic culture. Instead, theories of communication will need to be reconfigured in terms of interactivity, dispersal, and technological representation. This public sphere is taking shape amid tenuous cease-fires and the identity wars of the past years. Zealously promoted, the technologies of networked communication seem to offer remedies for the uprooted cultures of the first modernity and confrontations with the return of the polis to the condition of political affiliation and discursive collaboration. As much concerned with ideology as with identity, the netopolis is more than a new cyber-sociological issue. It stands as a possible location for the establishment of historical identity in terms of the conditions of dispersed affiliation and contingent power. The network breaks the grip of point-to-point limitations of telephony and shatters the dominance of broadcast media. In their place is a dynamic system in which the abandonment of location in not a signifier of placelessness, and in which representation is not a sign of the loss of the Real.
At least we can hope so.
©Timothy Druckrey 1995