Simon G Penny on Mon, 18 Aug 1997 02:50:13 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Digital Tools 1/3

herewith, in three postings, is excerpts from an essay forthcoming in
CAA~Art Journal, without the footnotes. The essay concerns modes of
artistic knowledge, embodied cogition and  dualistic paradigms of
computer science. Some of you may have heard or read parts of this
previously, I~ve been developing it for a while. I look forward to
Simon Penny


Digital Tools, Body-Knowledge and the Virtualisation of Art Practice.# 

When artists engage electronic and particularly digital tools, a
negotiation occurs between methodologies of traditional art practice and
the value system inherent in the tools themselves. This negotiation is
implicit and rarely discussed. The nature of artistic practice, the
artistic product and the consumption of the work is thereby changed and
is at variance with conventional understandings in pre-electronic
artwork. The goal of this essay is to make explicit some of the
characteristics of the value system which structures  these new tools
and thus the nature of the negotiation that is taking place, on the
level of both individual practice and historical trend. The
virtualisation of artistic practice by the use of simulatory tools
implies the eradication of kinesthetic or somatosensory awarenesses and
skills. I will argue that an holistic relation to the self (mind/body)
is central to traditional artistic practice, but that the philosophical
tradition around which the computer is built inherently affirms the
Cartesian duality. Contrary to the popular rhetorics of ~convergence~, a
dramatic philosophical collision is occurring because the goals and
methods of  the discipline of engineering are at odds with traditional
artistic methodologies. 		

Transcending the Body via Technology
~I don~t share your nostalgia for the body~, so spake an attendee at Ars
Electronica 1995.# The notion that the body is ~obsolete~ has
inexplicably become particularly fashionable in cybercultural circles.
This desire to transcend the body via the technology of the day is to my
mind not only peculiar, but much less futuristic than contemporary
adherents would imagine. The privileging of ~mind~ over ~body~, the
abstract over the concrete, is a strong continuous thread in western
philosophy, from the Neo-Platonists through Christian theology to
Descartes and beyond. I~ve observed previously that when William
Gibson~s cyberpunks proclaimed that ~the body is meat~ they neglected to
notice that their desire for transcendence of the flesh was by no means
a novel notion. It is perhaps the most consistent and continuous idea in
western philisophy.# Roboticist Hans Moravec has envisioned a future in
which we upload our consciousnesses into galactic gas cloud digital data
banks and live as immortal disembodied digital entities. But he neglects
to observe just how similar this idea is to ~going to heaven~.#
Australian performance artist Stelarc has argued for the need to hollow
out  and dry out the body, to develop synthetic skin and generally to
reengineer the body to make it amenable to a symbiotic union of
technology and biology.# 
Where and when did the desire to transcend the body become identified
with ~technology~? What are the implications of this identification on
artistic practice with technological tools? The premises of this paper
are that the Engineering World View perpetuates Cartesian Dualism and
that the computer, the technology around which we focus our practice, is
the epitome of this world view. The power of the computer in our
culture, simultaneously economic and discursive, has made this idea
newly current in popular discourse, although it is philosophically
In case parts of the ensuing discussion might be found to be affronting
to engineers, I hasten to clarify that my critique is levied not at
persons but at the accumulated and often implicit ideology of
engineering, an ideology which we are all inoculated with. My argument
is, at root, an internal debate. I, like most of us in the West, have
internalized the scientific method and the Engineering World View as a
way to live my life. It would be absurd for me to criticize engineering
per se, since I take part in (and enjoy) the practice every day. What I
aim to question is the limits of the relevance of its ideology.#  

The Engineering World View
Although Science and Engineering are not an homogeneous entity, there
are core ideas which unite the scientific method, the logic of
industrial production and capitalism. The first of these ideas,
reductivism, allows that phenomena can be usefully studied in isolation
from their contexts. This in turn allows that a holistic system can be
rationalized into chosen vectors, vectors which maximise productive
output, and hence profit, with respect to input: materials, energy,
money and labor. This way of thinking is an ~article of faith~ for
western culture for very pragmatic reasons: the instrumentalization of
this method has led to industrialization, hence to wealth and power in
the modern period. I would argue that (contrary to the usual direction
of argument) the privileging of scientific discourses in our culture is
entirely due to this wealth generating power. Noah Kennedy has argued:
 ~In a sense, the mechanical intelligence provided by computers is the
quintessential phenomenon of capitalism. To replace human judgment with
mechanical judgment- to record and codify the logic by which the
rational, profit maximizing decisions are made- manifests the process
that distinguishes capitalism: the rationalization and mechanization of
productive processes in the pursuit of profit...The modern world has
reached a point where industrialization is being pointed squarely at the
human intellect.~ # 
These ideas are hallmarks of a nineteenth and (early) twentieth century
scientized approach to the world: that mind is separable from body; that
it is possible to observe a system without that observation affecting
the system; that it is possible to understand a system by reducing it to
its components and studying these components in isolation (that the
whole is no more than the sum of its parts); that the behavior of
complex systems can be predicted. When these ideas are instrumentalised,
they become the ideology of efficient production, what I call the 
~Engineering World View~. I argue below that the values that
characterise nineteenth century engineering ideology find their purest
expression in the digital computer. And if the pinnacle of engineering
is the computer, then the pinnacle of that pinnacle is Artificial
Intelligence.  (It is now necessary, for the purposes of my argument, to
give the briefest possible potted history of Artificial Intelligence and
robotic navigation).
In the sixties, the perceived failure of the cybernetic approach of
modeling organic systems such as reflexes and neural networks led to the
exploration of automated logical systems. The early triumphs of
Artificial Intelligence such as Newell and Simon~s ~General Problem
Solver~ found their success in rigorously confined logical domains, but
difficulties arose in attempts to generalize these systems to deal with
~real world~ problems which have no such bounded domains. The ~General
Problem Solver~ stunned the mathematical world by producing a proof for
a previously unproven theorum in Russel and Whitheads~ Principia
Mathematica. Computers excelled at logically complex but bounded
problems such as playing chess, but were unable to deal with the day to
day tasks such as crossing the road. It became clear that abstract
logical reasoning was easy to automate, in comparison to the underlying
substrate of learning which we call ~common sense~, a type of
~intelligence~ ignored or unacknowledged by the AI community at the
time. I would argue that abstract logical reasoning is easy to automate
because the discipline of engineering and hence the structure of the
computer such has its roots in such reasoning. They are isomorphic: like
knows like.  
Typically, when AI techniques were applied to problems of robot
navigation, data was gathered by sensors and an internal map of the
environment of the robot was generated, over which a path was planned.
Instructions were then sent to the output devices. As the robot
proceeded down this path, the environment was remeasured, position
plotted on the map, and the map and path corrected if necessary. This
method falls within the ~Top-Down~ paradigm. This paradigm has its roots
in Enlightenment dualistic abstraction: the ~map~ is  a pure, true,
abstract representation, from which decisions about the world are made
without recourse to the world. In practice such systems were very slow.
It was observed that a cockroach was better at crossing a road than the
most powerful computer! Rodney Brooks observed that cockroaches don~t
~map~ and iconoclastically proposed that AI should stand for Artificial
Insects. This kind of thinking led to a range of new studies varoiusly
known as: Bottom-Up Robotics, Alternative AI, Complexity theory,
Artificial Life, Genetic Algorithms, studies of Stigmurgy and
distributed systems, as well as a new generation of research in neural
It should be noted in passing that the Top-Down paradigm with its
centralisation of control inherently perpetuates panoptical models.
Furthermore, its dualism exactly replicates and reinforces the
traditional dualisms of master and slave, general and soldiers, boss and
workers and more abstractly,nature/culture, body/mind, form/content and
hardware/software. ~Bottom-up~ theories, on the other hand, seem to
oppose vertical authoritarian power structures and endorse horizontal
and rhizomatic power structures. 
This is not to say that new research in the bottom-up school avoids
philosophical pitfalls. A basic premise of Artificial Life, at least in
the words of one of its major proponents, Christopher Langton, is the
possibility of separation of the ~informational content~ of life from
its ~material substrate~.  This position is as much premised on the
hardware/software dichotomy of Computer Science as was Watson and Cricks
model of DNA. In the sixties, Watson and Crick explicitly described DNA
in computer terms as the genetic ~code~, comparing the egg cell to a
computer tape.Though this is still the dominant paradigm, there is a
trend away from reductive and dualistic thinking occurring at every
(biological) level. New embryological research indicates that the self
organising behavior of large molecules provides (at least) a structural
armature upon which the DNA can do its work. That is: some of the
~information~ necessary for reproduction and evolution is not in the DNA
but elsewhere, integrated into the ~material substrate~. Alvaro Moreno
argues for a ~deeply entangled~ relationship between explicit genetic
information and the implicit self organising capacity of organisms.# 
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