WARNING! This Computer Has Multiple Personality Disorder
Simon Pope and Matthew Fuller
This paper comes largely out of our experience in the production of the hyperactive electronic zine I/O/D. So firstly then, we should explain what I/O/D might be. Technically it is a Macromedia Director Projector with associated files that is small enough to be compressed onto one High Density disk. That we choose the size to be restricted by the limitations of the most mundane and cheapest storage device is important, because it means that I/O/D is very easy for people to copy for their friends - or surreptitiously leave on the computers of their enemies. It also means that because of its relatively small size it is quite feasible for it to be made available over computer networks such as the internet and on Bulletin Board Services. Distribution over the networks is in fact the major way in which I/O/D gets moved around. It is also worth noting that within the internet, where degrees of access are stratified, we make I/O/D available via a variety of protocols: ftp; gopher; and world wide web, in order to ensure that as many people as possible have the option of downloading it. Alongside the sites that we maintain a direct connection to we are encouraged to find that I/O/D is also being independently distributed by people we have had no contact with. Additionally, we should state that I/O/D is not on the nets in order to advertise anything but itself. It is specifically an anti-elitist contribution to the development of the nets as a 'gift economy'. Consequently, it is also a way of producing some effects whilst avoiding getting too enmeshed with the humourless circus of reputation and career making that the techno-theory genre is fast becoming.
I/O/D is put together by a production team of three, based in London. Individuals or groups whose work we feel an affinity with either contribute independently or are asked to submit some work. In most cases these will be people who do not have specific knowledge of multi-media design but whose activity as text, graphics or sound-makers correlates with some of the dynamics we are playing with in the construction of I/O/D.
Before we return to a more detailed discussion of I/O/D though, we need to situate it within an episodic context of some ongoing antagonisms around the nature of a technologised physicality.
- Inhuman Potential
The mind as an interface is no longer viable. McLuhan's assumption that the media-net would become merely an extension of the human nervous system with the humanoid core remaining its 'same old self' has provided a touch stone for both the liberation rhetoric of writers such as Howard Rheingold and for tele-vangelists seeking the redemption of the free market through the virtual corporation: a model of business as the management of flows that is at once homely and sublime - yet not of course lacking in sadistic perks.
Envision, if you can stomach it, Nicholas Negroponte, graced by smart cufflinks "communicating with each other via low orbiting satellites," each with, "more computer power than your present PC"1. The human-in-control becomes a neurological disaster area. Can any amount of attention from ambient computers dispensing technological anaesthetics stifle the screaming pain of communication: Rwanda on line three.
- Surgical Strike Cartesianism
Hans Moravec gathers together all the kilobytes of his consciousness and downloads into your smart cufflinks, announcing: "Body-identity assumes that a person is defined by the stuff of which a human body is made. Only by maintaining continuity of body stuff can we preserve an individual person. Pattern- identity, conversely, defines the essence of a person, say myself, as the pattern and the process going on in my head and body, not the machinery supporting that process. If the process is preserved, I am preserved. The rest is jelly."2 Imagine how good this would sound to Walt Disney stuck in a freezer somewhere in California.
Disembodied intelligence of this kind is always a con. If these glowing elite minds migrated into data-space we can be sure that at some point they would have to recognise a co-dependency with the material world, one composed primarily of minerals, electromagnetic sensation perhaps, and a new kind of physicality would emerge - possibly something akin to what Ballard imagines in his repeated metaphor of the supercession of 'civilisation' by the crystalline. The mind always emerges from the matter. The entropic, dirty, troublesome flesh that is sloughed off in these fantasies of strongly masculine essentialism is implicitly interwoven with the dynamics of self-processing cognition and intentionality that are relegated to a substance called "mind" - as Kevin Kelly points out in 'Out of Control':
"We know that our eyes are more brain than camera. An eyeball has as much processing power as a supercomputer. Much of our visual perception happens in the thin retina where light first strikes us, long before the central brain gets to consider the scene. Our spinal cord is not merely a trunk line transmitting phone calls from the brain. It too thinks. We are a lot closer to the truth when we point to our heart and not to our head as the centre of behaviours. Our emotions swim in a soup of hormones and peptides that percolate through our whole body."3 Moravec's idea of the self as pattern repetition is echoed rather differently by another cybernetician, Norbert Wiener, "We are but whirlpools in a river of ever flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves"4 And out of this river, perpetually muddied with peptides, hormones, immune response systems, viruses, pesticides, sugars, and illicit substances emerges the cognitive body. However, lest this should materialise as a 'holistic essentialism' that swaps meat-fearing disembodiment for a dread of the machinic body we should move on to acknowledge that homo sapiens evolved as a result of a deep, co-evolutionary intimacy with the 'inhuman', with tools, with the machinic. At the very core of our development as a species is the gradual bootstrapping of the brain, the supposed Slot In Memory Module, which according to neodarwinian evolutionary theory is itself possibly the result of a possibility-space opened up through the development of the opposable thumb5. A mutation in one part of the body, with far-reaching side effects on all others, that opens it up to a combinatorially explosive array of relations with other forms of matter. Thus, we are always already deeply post-human.
That information processing technology is being touted as the 'next opposable thumb', generating the possibility-spaces that we are currently living through, does not of course lead us in an automatic loop back to a glorious disembodied life on the outer reaches of some computer's sub-directory. A survey of most contemporary multimedia work however, might convince us otherwise. From Automated Telling Machines, through the freebie CDs on the covers of computer magazines; corporate presentation material and 'high-end' games such as Myst, contemporary multimedia constitutes presence in relationship to this post-human body as a process of exclusion. What we mean by this is not that your much-prized beigeware friend is some kind of digital Schengen Area that cruelly excludes your disruptive meat, or that we need to start picketing the offices of Apple for myoelectric implants to be packaged with every CPU in place of a mouse, keyboard and monitor, but that the models of presence that do come bundled (but tellingly unseen) with most current multimedia incorporate highly stratified and tightly channelled notions as to what this relationship might be.
Computers are embodied culture, hardwired epistemology, and in the area we are focusing on two parallel sequences are occurring. They are implicitly related but whilst twisting in and out of each other, operate in different ways. The bureaucratisation of the body into organs and the privileging of the eye in multimedia is one. The renewal of encyclopedism is the other.
- The bureaucratisation of the body into organs
Much has been made of the notion of the eye as primary organ, (and primary also in the genitive sense) around which bodies (literally), organise. From Dziega Vertov's cruise missile approach to Berlin6, to anti-sex feminism's abhorrence of pornography the eye is seen as a unifying and explanatory media in its own right. Perhaps a certain apotheosis of the privileging of the eye is reached in the writings of Guy Debord7 where he simultaneously assigns an immense life expropriating power to 'The Order of Appearances' whilst simultaneously positing a different type of image, the printed word, (of his writing of course) as the catalyst for the destruction of this world of relations mediated by images. Sight is the most theorised, most contested over, yet in some ways least contested of the bureaucratised senses.
Within multimedia, the desire to transfer information without transforming its integrity has remained strong, and the senses have been prioritised and valorised in order that this system should work efficiently. With the eye situated as the locus of authority, assurance is passed to the other senses, which are called upon to further validate the evidence presented before them. Following the sales mantra "image, text, sound, video" , graphical interfaces reinforce this rigorous separation of the senses into a hierarchy of feedback devices. In other words, as you will see when using anything from Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopaedia to the Arts Council's Anti ROM interaction is fed first and foremost through the circuits of sight.
Within the sight-machine of contemporary multimedia then, the mind has to be re-thought or re-programmed as a simple processor of Information Graphics. Once recognised and regulated, sense can be made and order imposed on data; it can be subjected to the strictures of simple structuralisms where sign = signifier and all's well with the world. Under the heading comes the sub-heading, under which comes the sub-sub-heading, until all complexity can be understood at a glance from somewhere outside the filing cabinet...
Through this representation stacking, it is hoped that a mind-melding transparency can be achieved: interfacing the disembodied mind and disinterested data. The mind is immersed into the encyclopaedic data-space, as charmingly freed from visceral distractions as a bottle of deodorant. That the eye sloughing off the cankerous meat in an attempt to fuse mind and data, one electronic pulse with another, chooses to confirm its conferred status shouldn't be a suprise. The eye, released from constraint, with a mind of its own, 'can take any position it wishes'. What is remarkable is that this pursuit of the monadic eye realises itself in most contemporary multimedia as nothing much more than a subset of behaviourism: with users barking, whining, and slathering at the interminable (once in a lifetime) chance, to point and click their path to dog-food heaven.
- The Renewal of Encyclopaedism: Pavlov's Menu
At the centre lies the desire for the enforcement of meaning. The encyclopaedic organisation of data preserves a point of privilege from where the eye can frame the objects of its desire. There are no obstacles in this space, only straight paths cleared to open unimpeded vistas. Within this space, intention steps toward the user, to be understood without the hindrance of cumbersome literary convention. All can be conveyed from within the universal iconic language, a visual, pre-linguistic key, clearly carrying reference to the ciphered world. This virtual architectural space has been constructed by an unseen author, whose intention is usually to impose a closure to a narrative, to provide the goal to be reached by means of one of many approaches, the reader/user/participant/player, (choose according to theoretical preference) can wander, but must not stray from the intended thoroughfares. From any point it is possible to look back along your path, holding on to Ariadne's thread, taking solace in the fact that all you have seen is recorded, marked, referenced and ultimately retraceable.
As an aside, the theoretically critical academy has in parts too been enthused by the possibility of hypertext under the rubric of the Renewal of Encyclopaedism. Through the would be Grandpappy of Hypertext Studies, George Landow,8 we are already seeing a drive to standardise linking protocols and the types of connection that can be made from text to text, the centre is already attempting to ossify meaning production into a regulated and standardised practice.
Don't worry, be happy - everything is under Control.
Rather then, than urge multimedia as a potential grounds for the renewal of spectatorship, representation and simulation, terms borrowed most closely from cinema and devolving power to the primal eye, or to engage in the Renewal of Encyclopaedism's drive to suburbanise multimedia, we are perhaps more interested in developing something that is synthetic. Specifically: a process of playing with process.
- material processing
"Leroi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) once made the comment that what black people needed was a typewriter that responded not only to the hand but to gestures. That way, said Jones, Black people's full involvement in their lived space could be shown and not the pale white version which he claimed writing alone gave."9 We would like to suggest that this comment has resonance beyond the important and suggestive point that Baraka makes here. Configurations of flesh that have been disarticulated, that are The Unspeakable, are particularly attractive to us. With I/O/D we are in part attempting to articulate some of those configurations that have been erased from the
multimedia vocabulary. However, with a nod to Anti-Oedipus, and as a concession to anyone who has had the fucked up experience of using I/O/D, we must give a body-swerve to some of the essentialism that Baraka's statement avers and note that "Desiring-machines only work when they break down."10 In disrupting notions of a 'transparent' interface, and in investigating the possibilities of physicality in multimedia we are not therefore proposing to formulate any new paradigm of multimedial correctness. Nor do we find as with any amount of 'artists' that merely scattering computers, camcorders, movement sensors and monitors around a gallery in a vague utopian gesture towards interactivity deserves any response but stolen equipment. We propose neither a new disciplinary regime nor an abstract vacant 'creativity'. If meaning-construction always takes place at the margins of a system - and meaning-enforcement at the centre - then computer networks, where margin is folded in upon margin, in an economy of fecund, yet excremental exchange are currently a useful place to find oneself. In part it is this sense of margin rippling into margin that I/O/D as a border zone process attempts to play with.
What has been marginalised as incidental in behaviourist multimedia: the flitting of a user's hands over the keyboard, the twitching of the mouse, repetitive or arrhythmic events, noise, confusion... accretes into a secret history of makeshift, unimagined conjunctions. I/O/D then is an intensely haptic space. In issue two for instance, the arrow-head cursor is largely abandoned and replaced both by position indicating sound and by the springing into life of the sprite that it would previously have been needed to animate. Within the boundaries dictated by the hardware of an average Macintosh computer we are coaxing out what has been disarticulated: different types of mouse movement; exaggerated clicking routines; the slashing and burning of Macintosh Operating System norms; larger than screen interfaces; repetitive strain injury; sloppy directories; a physicality of multimedia that correlates with what Ronald Sukenick has termed "fertile nonsense"11; the feeding back of an action in one sense into another to produce a cross-wiring synaesthesia... And it is perhaps as synaesthetics, the neurological disordering of smart-cufflinked control, that within the abstract machine what we have here reviled - text and image 'as truth', the renewals of spectatorship and encyclopaedism, the privileging of the eye, - will loose themselves as the prime loci of authority to be superseded by pattern finding and dynamic engagements with material processing. A dynamic that at once both infests bodies and that actually opens itself up to positively engaging with a bodily contamination that has always been operative, but bubbling away in the background.
I/O/D is available to download from the internet at:
©Simon Pope and Matthew Fuller 1995
1Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, Hodder and Staughton, London, 1995
2Hans Moravec, Mind Children: the Future of Robot and Human Intelligence,
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).
3Kevin Kelly, 'Out of Control', 4th Estate, London, 1994
4Norbert Wiener, 'The Human Use of Human Beings, cybernetics and society',
Free Association Books, London, 1989
5 The opposable thumb bootstrap is a transcendent myth of origination which
has, as a close relative, the sequence of the ape picking up a thigh bone
as the first weapon in the cosmology-rich film 2001 A Space Odyssey
6 Dziega Vertov, Man With a Movie Camera (Film)
7Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Detroit, Black and Red, 1977
8George Landow, Relationally Encoded Links 333; Rhetoric of Hypermedia 83.
9Robert Cheatham, VIRTUAL ORPHICALITY:Telepathy, Virtuality and Encysted
Sense Ratios, perforations, Public Domain, Atlanta
10Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Athlone, London, 1984
11In conversation. but see Doggy Bag, Black Ice Books, Boulder, 1994