Alan Julu Sondheim on Wed, 18 Jun 1997 02:33:44 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> space.architecture.linux.unix


Phenomenology of Linux / Unix - 

Beyond the traditional division of graphic user interface (GUI) and text- 
based interface, the unix and linux system/s create a unique environment 
problematizing machine, boundary, surface, and structure.

The environment has implications far beyond a kinesic study of a partic- 
ular technology; these tend towards an (un)accountancy of splintering or 
sputtering, stuttered linkages, micro-sutures, scanning intention across 
or among traditionally "isolated" platforms. Begin with the apparent file 

1. Working within the files, there are several domains: the formal tree- 
organization of the operating system (beginning with the root and ascen- 
ding/descending); the _accumulation_ or _heap_ of files within the local 
directory (these files may or may not be related beyond their common 
path); and the _imminent domain,_ the file or files currently open or in 
the process of being modified (these are non-exclusionary).

2. The graphic interface opens to shells as well, and since the inter-
face devolves from a _blank screen,_ there is simultaneously _potential_
(click anywhere on it) and absence (nothing visible), reflecting upon the
human operator / monitor interface as well. 

3. _Errors_ may or may not be characterized by _error messages,_ which 
are inscribed by a process evolving from the root cause; there is then 
both the symptom (program _x_ misbehaving) and the message (Error: 
<etc.>) which intersect: the message may be the (only visible) symptom 
and the symptom itself may carry the message.

4. It is easy to assume that source code is equivalent to bones and oper-
able binaries to flesh; or the kernel as fundament, and file structure as
slough. I would rather argue for a system of cubist plateaus of intersec-
ting information regimes, with vectors / commands operating among them. In
this sense it is information that is immanent within the operating system,
not any particular plateau-architecture. 

5. Language moves among performative, declarative, and neutral /dev/nul 
regimes; again, the boundaries are blurred, even on a technical level. 
Programs, more properly _scripts_ (an apt word, since code is inscribed) 
call up different languages, shells, other programs, internal or external 
conduits (see below); internal and external interpenetrate here.

6. The division between GUI and text-based Net access is blurred; shell 
accounts use IP and can open X Window and browsers, just as browser GUI's 
can share window space with shells. 

7. The _space_ of the operating system is problematized since machines 
carve out what I call _fractal channeling,_ ports and commands rapidly 
shuttling back and forth between traditionally external Netspace and in- 
ternal vehicle space. Channels may open to other shells which may open to 
other channels; loopback channels operate within the local vehicle (in- 
ternally), for example, and may be used to communicate with incoming on a 
local talk application. In shell-to-shell, both are equivalent on the 
screen: think of this as _screen-resonance_ or system of strange attrac- 

8. Furthermore, within the screen-resonance there are the spaces of the
user/s on the system, partly application-dependent, shuttling among per-
sons, tenses, and semantico-grammatical categories (Whorfian in other
words). Two linked talkers may be opened in relation to a Net browser on
an X Window while top (a program monitoring machine processes) is also
running, and files are being transferred from a cdrom to hard drive. At-
tention moves among these spaces/applications, blurring distinctions; the
talkers, for example, may demand considerable psychological investment,
while anomalies in one or more of the other applications also call for
immediate examination and response. If errors etc. appear, the anomalies
(in relation to the normative ongoing chat) may best be described phenom-
enologically by Schutz' relevance theory, consider life-world strata,
projects, and presentifications - in spite of the fact that all of this is
primarily _read_ and _written to,_ inscribed and counter-inscribed. 

9. One might argue that the fractured domain in its entirety is never 
grasped - nor is there a "domain" and "entirety" at all. If we extend 
inscription and counter-inscription, taking into account fuzzy and frac- 
tal channeling (deconstruction of category object/arrow theory), we can 
work towards a loosely-defined sememe undergoing continuous and fairly 
rapid transformations which are not necessarily charted from either in- 
terior or exterior (meta- ) positions. The traditional metapsychology of 
the user splits, just as it splits beneath the sign of morphing gender in 
MOOs and IRC; it is always already possible for theory to take morphing 
into account (as if morphing is _being-accounted-for_ and therefore 
_accountable_), but this is a posteriori; in fact the splitting proble- 
matizes _any_ metapsychology insofar as the mind is considered a somewhat 
closed (hydraulic model) frame, as opposed to a fuzzy communicative sys- 
temics paralleling the description herein of the operating system itself.

10. It is not difficult to see, not the operating system as mind, but 
both mind and operating system as challenging dyadic conventions of in- 
terior/exterior, grammatical tense and person, etc. As I have mentioned 
before, Merlin Donald takes steps in this direction; one can also con- 
sider an accumulation or sememe of _flows_ moving among bodies, organs, 
etc., along the lines of Deleuze-Guattari.

11. Within and without all of this, the _cyborg_ model, based on the sut- 
uring of disparate epistemes, becomes oddly antiquated; it accounts well 
for prosthetics, robotics, and machine/organism navigation, but remains 
based on traditionally separate ontological domains. Instead, think of 
spread epistemes and ontologies - for example, the distinction between 
declarative and performative becomes oddly confused in the case of basic 
html coding (i.e. without REFRESH or Javascript), which flows texts 
around screens. 

12. Finally one might bring up postmodernisms, with their flows, part-
objects, relativities, multiculturalisms, incommensurability of commen-
surable languages (and commensurability of incommensurable language) - as
well the postmodern architectures, with their deconstructions, skew-
lines, and exposures/doublings, baring the systems, decomposing them. And
it is true that such architectures have their equivalent among the oper-
ating system architectures; the operating system kernel for example may be
equivalent to the control center of a building, and the communicative flow
through a building has its equivalence with the fractal channeling
described above. Nevertheless, I would not want to push this analogy, to
the extent that the postmodern is representative of a _stage_ (i.e. post-
fordism among other things), and not necessarily the (de)construct of a
broken episteme more or less permanently on the (broken) horizon and al-
ways-having-been-present. For the operating systems under consideration
may be likened to the production of a _scanning electron microscope,_ a
case in which scanning is related to phenomenological intentionality in-
stead of the discrete world of envisioned objects and flows described in,
say, Gibson's work. The difference, yet to be accounted for, never to be
accounted for, lies between the optical circularity of the phenomenology
of the image produced by the light microscope, and the exaggerated dim-
ensionality and exploratory scanning of any electron microscope, such as
the tunneling or even the recent development of the scanning probe, which
promises to "image single electrons," one might almost say, bits and their
own architectures down to that very level. (Sci. Am. 7/97.)


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