Artlink, August 1999

Who's afraid of the prosthetic?


You are sitting at a screen, interacting with the FuzzyLove Dating Data Base The machine is asking you to describe yourself in three words. It asks you to select what you want most from a technologically mediated liaison is it : 'desire and trouble, communication, networking, mutual fetishism, exploration, or psychic symbiosis'? Some of the questions require a plain yes or no, for instance it asks, 'do you often sit down and brood over death, sickness, pain and sorrow' (yes/no) or, if you really needed to buy something 'would you give your credit card number over the internet'? (Yes/no). The machines that you are sitting at also has a small camera mounted on the top of it, which allows you to take a photograph of yourself, and also allows you to choose which one you think best represents you. After you have been through these processes and answered some other questions, you are now a member of the FuzzyLove tm Dating Data Base designed by Starrs and Cmieleweski. The project works as an installation, where you get to sit at a booth, or parts of it can be accessed through the net (web address). At the end of the process, you can get a printout if you wish which provides a sort of profile, and also carries a snap of the person:

'This person's pet name is Vix.

Vix wants to get Desire and Trouble from a technologically mediated liaison. Vix describes itself as: irreverent, intellectual, sexy, but is that the whole truth?

Vix doesn't brood over death and sickness, wouldn't give a credit card number over the internet and doesn't have muscle spasms when sitting at a computer. White blood cells is Vix's favourite bodily fluid, and Vix has chosen mind fucking as a sexual preference. If you want to find out more about this person try contacting them at......' and there's an e-mail number. Obviously it does work as a sort of dating base, and the feeling of some sort of organisational or critical agency behind it is encouraged through the addition of colloquial interjections - 'but is that the whole truth? another printout the text reads at this point...'which doesn't sound quite right'..) However ultimately the central relationship is not that of the implied one between the human participants, but between the human participants and the machine.


In writing this, I wanted, at this point to make a reference to a famous computer program/project which gave the impression that the computer was in fact listening and quantifying its responses to the human interlocutor. Not having access to my books I used instead a cd rom developed and produced by Stephen Jones called the Brain Project. This too has a linked web site (web address) which expands and builds on the material in the disk. The Brain project is an extraordinary scholarly and open-ended undertaking which aims to explore collate and map ideas of consciousness. It contains: 'chapters on various issues relating to the nature of consciousness, plus papers on video and other matters of interest, including language, cybernetics, interactivity and computing machines ' (from the introduction page of the Brain Project) It has the feel of a lifetime's work, and its depth and complexity is added to through its hypertextuality. Click on a certain highlighted word, 'reflection' for instance in the section 'emergence of consciousness', in turn a component part of 'Organised systems', and one is translated to a reproduction of the title page of Locke's 'An essay on Human Understanding' accompanied by a quotation and a precis of his ideas on 'reflection'. The work (CD? Text? Project?) is labyrinthine and dense in its layerings of reference and self reference. As someone who has failed to finish reading popularisers in the field such as Penrose and Pinker, never mind the primary texts that Jones so liberally and confidently explores and extrapolates I am unable to comment authoritatively (or indeed in any other way) on the themes explored and elucidated. What I did find interesting was that I was unable to find the reference that I was looking for (although I would be at least 50% certain that it would be mentioned somewhere). The CD and the structures of the information did not allow me either access to an index, nor the sort of situational guess work that a linear narrative allows, where you dip in to get an idea of context and the development of an argument, then use this information to triangulate a guess where something might be. And why does this inability to locate a reference feel significant? (rather than just a confession of a klutz.) Because somehow it seems to act as a small metaphor for the core and engine of the work, which is to do with the humans relationship with the machine. Jones's magnum opus contains an almost Borghesian conceit where the technology is operating as a platform for an extended meditation on the relationships necessary for the production of the text/project. Jones talks of networks whilst generating networks, writes about interactivity in a way that is nearly interactive. The very seat of the authoratorial voice and its relations with its various expressions becomes the subject of the text. Although expressing themselves in different and various ways (and indeed maybe from different premises) both the FuzzyLove data base and the Brain Project use their location in a technological matrix as their source of energy, of anxiety. And in both cases, whilst seeming to address something else - consciousness, and interpersonal relationship - it is the matrix in which this is taking place that we - the user, and the authors - inevitably keep on bumping into. In doing so the works help articulate certain of our rhetorics, aspirations and fears that we now place in information and its technologies.


In an essay by Umberto Eco called the 'future of literacy ' he tells the following story. According to Plato he says, (in the Phaedrus) Thoth or Hermes, the alleged inventor of writing, presents his invention to the Pharoah Thamus, praising his new technique as one which will allow human beings to remember that which they would otherwise forget. The Pharoah however is less than satisfied. He says to Thoth that memory is such a great gift that it ought to be kept alive by training it continuously, and with this new invention such a thing will no longer be necessary. People won't have to remember things through their own effort, but through being able to access some external device. As Eco points out, we can understand the Pharoah's concern, writing, like any other new technological device would have in part replaced the ability that it extends, just as cars - not to mention the remote control - have made us less able to walk (to the extent that the gene for muscle speed seems to be becoming redundant). These concerns, although voiced ironically by Plato, now have a new site of operation, that of information technology. No longer do people think that writing will replace the mind generating a petrified soul and a machine memory, on the contrary we see them as machines (from a golden age) which provoke and generate new thoughts, and of which we are still in control. However once that writing starts happening in time, is dispersed, made to a degree active: exists as information in an electronic construct, all of a sudden we behave as if we have invented the Golem. All of the popular paranoias about computers and intelligent systems concern issues of autonomy, displacement, and replacement. If there isn't a technical medical term for a fear of the prosthetic, now might be a good time to find one


Such concerns and fears seem to have been reinforced through the approaching millennium, and it seems fitting that, in a largely secular age that the anxiety is no longer a fear about the end of time and the division of the world into the dammed and the saved, but is instead is located in our relationship to information. No longer angels descending but aeroplanes plummeting down through an inability to tell what date it is - a rather different version of the end of days.


In a way this focus of concern is an inevitable response to the relocation and redefinition of information (and its tools) as an Industry. We have become so inured to this as a linguistic trope that we forget what an astounding and unsettling change this is, and how far it removes us from the understandings of our Victorian forebears. To Julian Huxley, to Darwin, to Saussure, such a phrase in relationship to information would have been nearly without meaning. Indeed, (outside a military context) the implications of such a phrase would have been alien and beyond them as they were from an ethos, which encouraged and depended on the free flow and exchange of information, rather than its ownership and commodification. (Outside of the protocols of 'naming' that is, Darwin only published the Origin Of The Species only after hearing that Alfred Wallace was thinking of publishing similar research, so to prevent Wallace getting credit.) We now find ourselves in a situation where Bill Gatesowns the 'digital rights' to a significant area of our cultural and visual environment, and a multinational can patent the description of a gene.


The formulation of information as An Industry has radiated so as to shape and inflect other understandings. We now have the 'culture industry'. This idea may have the dubious benefit of making some of those involved feeling more 'grown up' and of the 'real world' akin to 'captains of industry, ' but outside of this slight balm to amour propre, the phrase and concept has had a distorting and reprehensible effect. It conflates the complex and subtle activities of art or poetry with the production of merchandise, and positions this as an activity which is subject to - and, by implication should cater for- the dumb imperatives of market forces. The 'culture industry' is a phrase which manages to reflect the philistine fear of the economic rationalists towards that which cannot be quantified within their parameters, and the (post) Marxian fetishisation of 'real' labour, and a hatred of the (intellectual) elite. From both positions, it is simultaneously about control and marginalisation.


Greenberg in his essay Avant Garde and Kitsch, posited that, in the invasion of the cultural sphere by the mass media, which concentrates on effect, art has increasingly tended to establish itself as an activity which makes a public show of its own production processes. He was of course referring to (and helping construct) a practice in which a consideration of it' s own imperatives was seen as paramount: the flatness of the picture plane, anti-illusionism etc. But even under post modernism, or perhaps particularly in post-modernism. the concept still has currency. However it now has to reflect upon other conditions of its own being the position in the culture which it occupies, the languages used, it's relationships to other commodities: how it is owned, constructed, and used.


The computer and related technologies and activities have become the stage for the generation and playing out of these various and interacting forces. They are the tool and site of the information industrial complex, and, at the same time, the sites of models of resistance or alternative to these drives and dictates. The Fuzzy Love Data base and the Brain Project, in their very different ways make visible, or voice the conditions of their own production, and the implications and trajectories of the matrix within which they exist. Both foreground our relationships to the ideas of information, making problematic the exchanges and heirarchies generated in our various interactions with this protean 'other'. The two projects remind us that the way we understand and shape exchanges of information, and the models by which we define our understandings of trade and commodity are crucial not only to the technologies but to our future definitions (and therefore possibilities) of ourselves.