The Affective Interface

The Affective Interface

1997-03-01

Lorne Falk retells the allegory of Arachne, the divine weaver, netted in le cabinet virtuel

The affective interface is about a certain tension between physical and digital matter and space - about a two-sided membrane which forms their common boundary and which is increasingly permeable to the senses, permitting a flow of information that carries expression, intelligence, and personality in both directions, and more significantly perhaps, into the interstices between the two spaces that the membrane defines. Critical Ecologies

Thoughts on the status of digital culture

Last October, at a conference in Beijing on the use of computers in education, Xerox PARC’s John Seely Brown talked to an international audience about the Internet as a medium and not, he said pointedly, as a network of computers. That Seely Brown felt compelled to make this remark and that his audience found it so compelling left me wondering, among other things, about our understanding of modernism and our deconstruction of its utopian impulse. The deeper I go into digital culture, and especially at moments like this one in Beijing, the more I feel like we are living in a period of re-invention.

There is a certain turn-of-the century feel to the social formation of information technology that I like. What I don’t like is the gold rush mindset that is exploitative, colonizing, myopic, and sometimes just ugly. There are Wall Street dramas. There is software complexity masquerading as real innovation and there are software solutions posing as real design, and it all infects the Internet and its development. There is an idealism about creativity and digital technology that resembles the Linked Ring Society’s idealism for photography at the turn of the century, and the idealism for television and video in the 1960s. Howard Rheingold also wonders about the Internet’s legacy - if it will follow other examples, like the automobile and television. Back in Beijing, Seely Brown seems to read Rheingold’s mind. “No other previous technology has adequately addressed social and kinesthetic intelligence,” he muses for the audience. “The question is: Will this one?” (To the dismay of many of us in the audience, Seely Brown doesn’t elaborate on this important remark.) ^1 The Sixth International Conference on Computers in Education, Beijing, China, 14-17 October 1998. Theme: Global Education on the Net.

The answer from the pages of Wired magazine and from most science fiction is upbeat: Of course it will! The sentimentalism of 1980s’ cyberpunk aside, there is some fine speculative fiction about information technology’s address of social and kinesthetic intelligence. In Sage Walker’s novel Whiteout , a group of friends run a virtual company described as:

a mosaic….an interactive group of ideas and personalities,…a collection of disparate talents that can define answers and then come up with questions for people to ask about them. We want to work with the psychology of attractions, with the science of spin-doctoring, with virtual realities that can compact and condense amounts of information that would have staggered us in our childhood. ^2 Walker, Sage. Whiteout. (New York: TOR Books, 1996): 83.

Of course, science fiction isn’t the only discipline to speculate on the nature and potential of digital culture. In 1991, Nell Tenhaaf and Catherine Richards coined the term `bioapparatus’ to represent the site of complicity between body, mind, and apparatus. They see “virtuality” as one extreme instance in a long history of the bioapparatus. They helped organize a ten-week residency ^3 The residency was one of a series that I organized for the Art Studio at The Banff Centre for the Arts between 1990 and 1994. See: Virtual Seminar on the Bioapparatus. Edited by Catherine Richards and Nell Tenhaaf (Banff: The Banff Centre, 1991). which explored the cultural, social, and philosophical foundations of virtual environment technology, and set the discursive stage for a flurry of work by artists around a project called Art and Virtual Environments that in turn resulted in a Banff-MIT anthology called Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments. ^4 This was originally published in Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments, edited by Mary Anne Moser, with Douglas MacLeod. (Cambridge, MA and London, UK: The MIT Press, 1996).

In 1992, Jeanne Randolph and Bernie Miller involved a group of artists and intellectuals in another residency called Rhetoric, Utopia, and Technology. They were interested in the continued reclamation of utopia and the utopian impulse from its longtime association with the strictly technological. Unlike pastoral utopian models which seek their cornucopia in Eden, Paradise, or the Promised Land, Randolph and Miller prompted, the modernist version relies on technological deliverance and liberation. The “technological ethos” (an ethos privileging technique) forms a pervasive nexus of thought that organizes activity and production around a search for the “one best way” to obtain objectified goals. This conception of utopia-through-technology, they concluded, warrants reconsideration. ^5 Randolph and Miller’s reflection on utopia comes from a brochure for the residency they helped to realize. An anthology with contributions from artists and writers in the residency was also produced: The City Within, Produced by Lorne Falk, edited by Jeanne Randolph (Banff: The Banff Centre, 1992).

How do we situate the (current) aesthetic gap between art and technology? If telepresence, for example, mediates the interface between physical space and cyberspace, it’s critical to ask, “The presence of what and of whom?” ^6 “Tracing the Passage Between Here And There.” In The Trace: Remote Insinuated Presence. (Madrid: Fundaciõn Arte y Tecnologia, 1995): 14-15 (English; Spanish). Creative telepresence, like creative writing, supports the desire of intelligent beings to communicate and to make deep contact - to commune. It foregrounds those interior realities of the body that are always so much more complex than everyday life, and the gap between interior and exterior realities is (a) relational space, a space where meaningful representation occurs, and even effervesces. To occupy relational space proactively is to ask what kind of behavior really is interesting. To look at this behavior from another perspective, whether it is beautiful or social, the Internet should at least bathe representation in the healthy glow of body-based interactive aesthetics.

Interactivity is by now a venerable buzz word in digital culture and yet, for all that, there’s not been nearly enough exploration of potential models for interactive aesthetics. ^7 “Demo Aesthetics.” Co-authored with Heidi Gilpin. Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies (Luton, UK) 1, no. 2 (Autumn 1995): 127-39. http://www.luton.ac.uk/Convergence/ In VTEXT (Hong Kong: Videotage, 1997): 16-23 (English, Chinese). Thomas Aquinas believed that aesthetic experience is formed by an extensive understanding of the world of the senses acquired through the agency of the intellect. This agency is one of the keys to interactivity, and although interactivity remains largely a potential in digital media, it has, to paraphrase Umberto Eco, sparked fresh ways for the social imagination to express its values, ideologies, and therefore its known cultural codes. ^8 Eco, Umberto. The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988): 215-216. And since art has always been psychologically interactive, the enthusiasm for interactivity may indeed be better perceived as an opportunity to revise our concepts of social integration. However, art critic and psychoanalyst Jeanne Randolph offers a note of caution:

Psychoanalytically, it is impossible for a person not to interact with an object that engages one or more senses. Sensory interaction with any object presupposes bringing conscious, preconscious, and subconscious to that object. If it takes the invention of so-called cyberspace to find out you are interacting with an (art) object, you are in deep shit. ^9 Randolph, Jeanne. “Curating and the Technological Ethos: A Psychoanalysis,” author’s draft, February 1995, 3-4.

Now it is 1999, and I’m back in Beijing listening to John Seely Brown admonish academics to regard the Internet as a medium, not as a network of computers. I sit there wondering why the pundits of information technology ignore so much of the rich discursive and creative work that has been done to establish the Internet not just as a medium, but as a cultural space. It seems to me that it is time for the Internet to grow up. It is time to let more people into cyberspace, to shift from the comforts of re-invention to something more promising and more hopeful. It is time in other words for a post-digital culture - a culture in which the interfaces between realities and the interactions they spawn are supported by a more transparent, less intrusive approach to technology. ^10 I first heard the term “post-digital” from John Frazer, Head of the Swire School of Design, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong. “The future starts now,” he writes in an online conversation. “We are entering a new post-digital age. A different kind of reality is in the offing as new analogue techniques, new chemical and biological forms of computers, free us from the tyrannies of the digital world that dominates the end of this century. We are going to see new exercises in imaginative intelligence that take full advantage of the marriage of the virtual and the actual. “Remember,” Frazer adds, “the binary system was only introduced because transistor technology at the beginning of the computer era was unable to cope with subtle differentiations of voltage. Instead of developing better transistor technology, large numbers of crude devices were thrown together to form families of logic gates which then underpinned a whole generation of machine code level languages.” Also see: John Frazer. An Evolutionary Architecture (London: Architectural Association, 1995).

How then do we articulate the membrane that is the site of perceptual tension between realities?

The status of the membrane

Visualize the border as a colossal, two-sided, mirror-like screen on which the endless spectacle of cultural differences is played. ^11 Excerpts from “The Border Prism.” semiotext(e) canadas In (New York: Semiotext(e), 1994): 12-23. http://www.autonomedia.org/

A game-site for aggressive linear movement, the border line has the habit of inspecting the spectator as a racial object and a cultural receptacle, and simultaneously stamps her as the figure of its xenophobic closure. But with the accelerated transmigration of people in contemporary society, it is becoming more difficult for the border spectator to be satisfied by a simple, unique act of identification with these subject positions. Not unlike the woman spectator watching a classic Hollywood film, the border spectator feels forced, but does not wish, to associate with one of two positions: the (male) cultural-racial-hero subject or the (female) obstacle-matrix-frontier Other. ^12 Perron, Mireille. “Quand Méduse sourit.” (French with English translation), Parallelogramme, ANNPAC/RACA, Toronto, Winter 1988-89, Volume 14, Number 4. The border spectator’s identification therefore swings between the terms put into play by the border apparatus - the look of two cultures and their affirmations on the border, the subject and the object of the border gaze. ^13 De Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn’t. (Bloomington: Indiana Press, 1984): 142 (paraphrased).

The border spectator experiences a state of dislocation as he oscillates between activity and passivity - identifying simultaneously with the cultural subject and the political context of the border, as well as with the confrontational structure of the border line and its xenophobia. This double figural identification is an interactive, perceptual process that formalizes the border as a mental object in the mind of the border spectator.

(I’m talking here about border culture because its theory and practice elucidate so well the complexities of describing and constructing culture, identity, and social space. So when you read “border” and “border culture,” think of the membrane between realities that might arise in a post-digital culture.)

The edge of the border percept is widening, and the old mirror is mutating into a many-sided prism… a border prism that diffracts the mental image of the border into a rainbow of many realities. Though the border apparatus continues to act like a two-sided mirror, cultural identification no longer behaves like a reflection. Theresa de Lauretis offers insight into this behavior: “This manner of identification would uphold both positionalities of desire, both active and passive aims; desire for the other, and desire to be desired by the other.” ^14 Ibid., 143.

For the people who live in border culture, this “manner of identification” is effervescent.

“There are many borders, too many,” writes Guillermo Gomez-Peña.

Some are mythical and others are too real. They exist in history, politics, language, and art, as well as in sexuality, geography, and dreams. Some are visible: like barbed wire, pilgrimages of dogs, and helicopters; others are invisible, between fear and fiction, between desire and reality.

Border culture is a project of “redefinition” that conceives of the border not only as the limits of two countries, but also as a cardinal intersection of many realities. In this sense, the border is not an abyss that will have to save us from threatening otherness, but a place where the so-called otherness yields, becomes us, and therefore comprehensible.” ^15 Gomez-Peña, Guillermo. “Border Culture: A Process of Negotiation Toward Utopia,” The Broken Line/ La Linea Quebrada, a Border Arts publication, San Diego-Tijuana, Year 1, Number 1, May, 1986.

If a new definition of the border (remember this could be the membrane between realities in a post-digital culture) would have cultures “on edge,” constantly forming and dissolving one into the other, it is because the desire for cultural identity is shifting and unstable at the game-site of the old border narrative. And if the border spectator is searching there for an expression of cultural difference, then aspects of this shifting identity cannot be explained solely by what is stored in his or her racial memory. The presence of the multiple-other in the border prism provokes a re-cognition that it is possible to describe cultural differences differently. The border prism does not confront and polarize; more like the cognitive processes of memory or imagination, it is agonistic, participatory, and paradoxical. In other words, the border prism represents the symbolic vision of a deterritorialized world.

Contrary to the two-sided border narrative, border culture describes the potential to transform not only the perception of cultural differences, but their place of storage as well. The border spectator thereby begins the painful process of transfiguration into a multicultural or, better, a transcultural participant. And then, considering that the Internet is another such (storage) place, the question arises: How can this transformative potential be represented in discursive formations of the digital kind?

Every time we log onto the Internet, we don’t exactly leave our place of origin, but we don’t remain at home either. Steven Shaviro says this experience is heterotopic, a concept that he brings to digital culture from the instrumental work of Michel Foucault, who used the pirate ship, not the Internet, as an example of a heterotopia. ^16 Shaviro, Steven. “Pavel Curtis.” In Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction About Postmodernism. (New York/London: Serpent’s Tail, 1997): 135-46. The pirate ship is governed by its own social law and order, yet constantly engages other social groups that possess their own laws and orders. The pirate ship’s identity cannot exist without the identity of the Other. It’s a compelling insight into the nature of the Internet. But is it transformative enough for the model of border culture? As Emily Hicks warns: “When one leaves her or his country or place of origin, everyday life changes. The objects which continually remind one of the past are gone. That’s when nostalgia, or reterritorialization, begins.” ^17 Hicks, Emily. “What The Broken Line Is Not.” ^17 Hicks, Emily. “What The Broken Line Is Not.”, San Diego-Tijuana, Year 2, Number 2, March, 1987.

In her essay, “Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace,” Loretta Todd offers another view of the Internet. Cyberspace, she says, is a 2,000 year project of Western consciousness based on a fear of nature, an aversion to the body, and a desire for salvation through transcendence. ^18 Todd, Loretta. “Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace.” In Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments, edited by Mary Anne Moser, with Douglas MacLeod. (Cambridge, MA and London, UK: The MIT Press, 1996): 179-94. By articulating how aboriginal narrative differs - a profound respect for nature, a passion for the presence of the body - Todd’s intervention opens a gaping hole for the deterritorialization of the Internet, a hole which assures that the permeability of the membrane is bi-directional.

And yet, as much as I want to believe that deterritorialization of the Internet has begun, there is another side to the discourse, which belongs to the science and technology that is responsible for the 1s and 0s that form the electronic stuff of the digital membrane itself.

Michio Kaku, for example, speculates on the development of the membrane in the next 20 years. “Invisible computers will converse with each other,” he writes, “eventually creating a vibrant electronic membrane girding the earth’s surface.” Kaku goes on to speak of this membrane as a Magic Mirror, “endowed with an intelligent system complete with common sense and reason, and very possibly a human face and a distinct personality that may act as an adviser, confidant, and aid.” ^19 Kaku, Michio. “The Intelligent Planet.” In Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century. (New York: Anchor Books, 1997): 55. Kaku’s tool envy is Loretta Todd’s nightmare. In Kaku’s vision our affects seem to disappear in favor of what the machine might spawn; Todd’s vision of cyberspace is… socially and kinesthetically intelligent.

Here is another compelling example from the discourse of the technological ethos. Apparently, IBM has left a senior researcher free to pursue a project that combines global positioning technology that can resolve a 3-dimensional point in space a cubic meter in size with new URL address technology that will allow each of those cubic meters to have its own unique IP Address. In an online article called “What Comes After the WWW?” Jim Spohrer writes:

WorldBoard is a proposed planetary augmented reality system that facilitates innovative ways of associating information with places. Short-term the goal is to allow users to post messages on any of the six faces of every cubic meter (a hundred billion billion cubic meters) of space humans might go on this planet (see personal web pages when you look at someone’s office door; label interesting plants and rocks on nature trails). Long-term WorldBoard allows users to experience any information in any place, co-registered with reality.

What does it mean to have every cubic meter of the Earth tagged with accessible and modifiable digital information? Does WorldBoard want to reinvent geography using the same technology that has signaled the death of geography? ^20 Paul Virilio suggests that the growing sense of disorientation that we are now experiencing because of the death of geography may have as profound an effect on our conception of the world as the birth of geography. See: Open Sky, translated by Julie Rose. London/New York: Verso, 1997. See also: http://www.georgetown.edu/grad/CCT/tbase/virilio.html and http://web5.netculture.net/~ork/virilio/ I can imagine a matrix of new geographies that layer onto familiar knowledge architectures, but I can’t decide if I should be enthusiastic or terrified about the outcome. As immanent as technology like this might be, huge ethically-based content-oriented issues have yet to be resolved by the people who make and use it. Byron Henderson, Director of the EOE Foundation, provides an insightful spin on the issue at this moment:

Too much, we try to adjust what we need to do to fit what the tools can do. Too much we place ourselves in the thick of thin things. As we do this, we flail from one spot of weakness to another and then wonder why we feel a deep sense of aimlessness, lack of control, and fractured purpose. Technology is essentially centrifugal; our use of the technology has to provide the centripetal forces that bring meaning and value.

Technology speaks always to itself. Just when you think that it’s listening to you or bringing you in, you realize that it’s really speaking to the image of itself reflected by you as a representative of your community. It’s narcissistic in all senses, and to this degree, the membrane between the two streams of reality only works in one direction. Technology can come out and absorb some of the other world that it is exposed to - those worlds are “old” enough to have holes in them that provide permeability. But information technology is still so young and unformed that it provides very little permeability for discourses that don’t have the full code for digital DNA. ^21 From an ongoing email conversation between Byron Henderson and the author. Byron Henderson is Head of Community-Centred Technology in the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, and Director and Distinguished Scientist of the EOE Foundation.

Meanwhile real people living in telepresent neighborhoods, live buildings, and hot rooms are using the interfaces they have been given to negotiate their way back and forth between realities. Wired and unwired people living in an archipelago of digital niches, they are a brave new audience who want the interrelations between themselves and artificial life-forms to be symbiotic, to be something mutually beneficial and natural to do. Their project is to model their own affects and transfer them to their computer presences, which currently exist as mostly dull, unintelligent data scrolls (credit histories, medical histories, passport logs) created by location technology. Their disposition is adventurous, compassionate, and consequential - hence, brave.

These people use transparent systems to construct their own identities, a process that might be called le souci de soi digital: the care for the digital self. In the spirit of Michel Foucault, le souci de soi digital is not a selfish or narcissistic desire, but a true social act grounded perhaps in what Byron Henderson calls community-centered technology.

I began by saying that I felt like we are living in a period of reinvention. But maybe our time is more akin to the medieval period in those (representationally awkward) moments just before the doors of the Renaissance opened. Perhaps this is the point: while we wait for the affective interface to mature, and with it an ethics of perception, we have the choice to participate in its formation, or not. As Tom Moylan put it in his call for a critical utopia, “The (task at hand) is a form of speculative writing that disrupts the limits of the present ideological system.” ^22 Moylan, Tom. Demand The Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. (London: Methuen, 1986): 65. The theory and practice of border culture is one model for such disruption.

Le cabinet virtuel (what the brave new audience is constructing)

^23 I want to conclude with something more fanciful: a Polypersona that invariably appears in my writing whenever I try to come to terms with the Internet as a cultural space. This excerpt is from “The Urgent Time,” in The City Within (Banff: The Banff Centre, 1992): 95-105.

Sitting on the back of Sleeping Buffalo, Meridian tried to imagine what Poly might have been. She wondered what it might have been like for her. What Poly might have experienced, if experience was the word to use, since she had been little more than a telltale state of mind.

Poly is hanging inside le cabinet virtuel. Le cabinet virtuel is an hermetic ethos. A dead space, empty and inert. It is home.

She is ready to listen to what has previously been a silence, a silence in which there are voices who have never spoken. Or voices who have never been heard to speak. She listens, more carefully than she has ever listened before, for voices that have been dematerialized. She listens for the unfixed being of the saying and the said, and in the listening, waits patiently for the tingle of paradox. She waits to bring the sound to mind through noise - a maelstrom of muted voices locked in the flux of hearsay. She waits for her interface with them.

Into this agonistic allegory comes a moth. (Chaos can be so generous.) Holes appear, then space and time. Still she listens. Holes clutter le cabinet virtuel like neurons. A string takes shape. A net. A constellation. Lace. And there is, at last, a first thought. “I am in le cabinet virtuel.”

Poor moth.

She moves like the divine weaver, Arachne. Storytelling is her crucial desire. Viral metaphors proliferate, provide spin, form a semiotic body. Le cabinet virtuel swells inward, implodes. A pod of viral metaphors release into the promiscuous winds of the Net.

But she doesn’t know this. She cannot hear. Poly is utterly and only preconscious - a narrative circumstance of which she will shortly become aware.

Footnotes