Simon G Penny on Mon, 18 Aug 1997 02:53:58 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Digital Tools 2/3

Out of Engineering
 Carolyn Marvin has documented the nineteenth century valorisation of
the discipline of Engineering and the person of the engineer. She quotes
an essay entitled  ~The Mental and Moral Influence of an Engineering
For some generations ...[correction of]...natural depravity has been
left to ministers, lawyers, editors, the mothers of families, to anyone,
in fact, but the engineer; and this is where society makes a mistake.
The best corrector of human depravity is the engineer...No other man in
the world has such stern and unceasing discipline, and so it comes about
that no other man is so safe a moral guide as the engineer, with his
passion for the truth and his faculty for thinking straight.# 
As the character of the engineer became a model of virtue, so
engineering itself came to have enormous discursive power in social and
cultural realms. The incursion of the logic of engineering into social,
cultural and educational domains has continued unabated, as various
authors, from Theodor Roszak to Manuel De Landa have noted. Techniques
developed for industrial production became ~paradigmatic technology~ (to
use J.D. Bolter~s term).#  When abstracted they were applied as models
and techniques for social  control. Browsing a university course
catalog, I was stunned by its similarity to an industrial parts catalog.
this caused me to reflect on the rather industrial paradigm of liberal
arts education in the USA.#  The history of the  proliferation of
~sciences of control~ and the demise of the basic premise by complexity
theory is fascinating in itself but beyond the scope of this paper.# 
The modern serial processing computer can be thought of as an assembly
line for digital data. In our time, the computer has become a
structuring metaphor, the ~paradigmatic technology~ in a wide range of
human activities, including study of the human mind itself, through
computationally inspired disciplines such as  the style of cognitive
science called ~Cognitivism~.#  In  a recent commentary on cognitive
science, Varela, Thomson and Rosch  discuss the ubiquitous presence of
the computer metaphor in cognitive science and the ensuing absence of
the body as an object of concern or consideration. They assert that
cognitive science has come to an impasse due to the inability of
cognitive scientists to reconcile the results of cognitive science
research with their own lived experience. They observe: 
 ~the central tool and guiding metaphor of cognitivism is the digital
computer ...a computation is an operation performed or carried out on
symbols, that is, on elements that represent what they stand for...
cognitivism consists in the hypothesis that cognition, human cognition
included, is the manipulation of symbols after the fashion of the
digital computer. In other words, cognition is mental representation:
the mind is thought to operate by manipulating symbols that represent
features of the world or represent the world as being a certain way.~# 
 The authors propose an alternative approach to the study of cognition
which they call Enaction, which concieves cognition as an ongoing
self-organising and groundless lived process, based on the idea that
~cognition has no ultimate foundation or ground beyond its history of
embodiment.~ #  This rejection of the possibility of objectivity and
simultaneous rejection of the stability of the cognizing subject,
arising from the sciences , resonates with the writings of many feminist
and post-structuralist theorists.

 I have heard specialists of all stripes talk of the mind as ~the human
information processor~ and of the mind ~applying algorithms~ and
~uploading programs~. When asked why the brain is thought of as a
computer, a psychologist and cognitive scientist responded: ~We don~t
even ask such questions anymore, we know that it is the case~. Such
metaphors drift quickly into popular language. The danger exists not in
the construction of metaphor, but when the description is no longer
understood as metaphor. How has this metaphor become transmuted into
fact? A machine is designed which can process data, the concepts of
hardware and software are invented, and various terms such as ~memory~
are borrowed from human experience to describe behavior of the machine.
These newly defined descriptive terms are then folded back on human
experience, redefining human behaviors in terms of mechanistic models.
Its rather like the drawings in science text books of 40 years ago in
which the digestive system is depicted as a factory full of conveyor
belts and little men in overalls with shovels. 
 This linguistic ~sleight of hand~ is endemic in computer science, and
serves no useful purpose except to garner large research grants. Terms
such as ~Artificial Intelligence~ and Knowledge Engineering~ make
inflated claims for the techniques they describe. The case of ~memory~
is particularly poignant. In borrowing a term from human activity (and
subsequently dropping the quotation marks), computer scientists caused a
lot of confusion, especially when the computer paradigm  was absorbed
into humanistic disciplines, as noted above.# Computer ~memory~ is a
digital filing cabinet. Human memory is more than data storage, in fact,
it can be argued that it is qualitatively a different phenomenon.
Robotics researchers Kerstin Dautenhahn and Thomas Christaller are
attempting de-naturalise the computer science notion of memory by
drawing upon phenomenological understandings:#  They note : ~there is no
memory but the process of remembering... Memories do not consist of
static items which are stored and retrieved but they result out of a
construction process... The body is the point of reference for all
remembering events...#  Body, time and the concept of self are strongly
Because of the power of the computer as the paradigmatic technology in
our culture, explanation of human capability in machinic terms subjects
people to measurement in terms of machine capability; and causes the
elision of aspects of personhood which are not functions of the machine.
If the measures and definitions for human faculties are modeled on the
computer, and the computer is an embodiment of a value system predicated
on industrial methods of production, profit and control via the
techniques of  efficiency, optimisation and rationalisation, then the
person has been successfully reduced to an entity only assessable within
these criteria: her worth is determined by her productivity, her worth
is purely economic. The history of the encroachment of mechanisitc logic
upon the social and cultural realm begins perhaps with the application
of machine-divided time to the social order. The moment when it became
~normal~ to divide time into parcel with assigned tasks was the
beginning of time and motion studies and ~human factors~ engineering.
To differing degrees, we internalise and subject ourselves to the regime
of the Engineering World View. We are socialised to divide our days and
years into units of time for specific tasks. I measure myself in terms
of tasks achieved per unit time. I subject myself to a rigorous
discipline of efficiency and optimisation.  

Clever Meat
 I want now to argue for a seemingly absurd proposition: that ~mind~
does not exist, that ~mind~ is nothing but a linguistic construction, a
concept. The assumption of the existence of something called ~mind~ has
led to the building of an entire conceptual and linguistic edifice. To
argue for the non-existence of mind is an elusive task, not because mind
does exist, but because the mind-body split is fully installed in our
language. It is difficult even to discuss this issue without resorting
to concatenated neologisms such as the ~lived body~, ~mind/body~,
~think/know~ or ~being in the world~. The necessity for such
concatenations demonstrates precisely how the terms ~mind~, ~body~ etc
are entirely inscribed within, and instantly imply, a specific argument.
I will not argue that we should privilege ~mind~, nor that we ought to
privilege ~body~. This would be to perpetuate a dualistic model. To
argue against dualism, to propose alteration to the heirachical
relationship of mind and body, creates a philosophical impasse. It is
nigh impossible in western philosophical discourse to discuss ~being~ in
away which does not assume this duality and  heirachy, because the
dominant streams of that discourse are predicated on dualism and
privilege the abstract and transcendent over the embodied and concrete. 
Long before the era of european trans-oceanic exploration, polynesians
in wooden canoes were successfully navigating vast distances between the
tiny islands which dot the pacific. It is said that they could sense, by
the effect of the ocean swell on their canoes and hence on their bodies,
the location of islands over the horizon. This is not the kind of
thinking valorized in the western intellectual tradition, this was not
calculation or deduction, they certainly had no sextant, compass or
chronometer. It is a kind of intelligence inseparable from the body.
Hubert Dreyfus argued many years ago that the fault at the root of what
he called ~Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence~ is that we
understand the world by virtue of having bodies and a machine without a
body would never understand the world the way we do.#  If Hubert Dreyfus
maintained that we have a human mind by virtue of having a human body, I
want to argue more radically that any attempt to separate mind from body
is flawed and that the presumed location of the mind in the brain is
Why do we believe that consciousness is located exclusively in the
brain, when, contrarily, we put so much faith in ~gut feelings~? Why do
we describe some responses as ~visceral~? Why do ancient Indian yogic
and Chinese martial traditions locate the center of will in the belly?
We believe that we think with our brains, because we have been taught
that this is the case. What if we believed otherwise? How differently
would we live our lives? I want in all seriousness to argue that I
~know~ with my arms and with my stomach. To maintain that the activity
which we call ~knowing~ is isolated to a subsection of the body, is
folly. Why am I pursuing this line of thought? Because firstly, the
redefinition of human capability in terms of the computer resoundingly
reinforces the separation of mind and body. And secondly, because dance,
sculpture, painting and the variety of other fine and performing arts
are premised on bodily training, bodily knowledge which implicitly
contradict the mind/body duality. 
 It has been observed that in certain manual activities of high skill,
such as playing violin, the action is so fast that the nerve signals
could not travel up the arm, into the spine and brain, and back again.
Motor ~decisions~ have been shown not to pass through the brain, but to
remain in the limb. A neural closed circuit: the hand is ~thinking~ by
itself! Sten Grillner has proven, at least in the case of a simple fish,
that the muscle coordination which results in locomotion arises not in
the brain proper, but in entirely in the spinal chord and the adjacent
muscles. He notes: ~Some mammals (such as the common laboratory rat) can
have their entire forebrain excised and are still able to walk, run and
even maintain their balance to some extent~ # 
Recent neurological research has shown that the human stomach is
neurally far more complex than had been supposed.# It is feasible that
the stomach might make some decisions ~by itself~. If the stomach is
thinking, then why not the liver and the kidney? And if the arm can
function as a neural closed circuit, then perhaps the organs are
chatting amongst themselves. This kind of ~bodily anarchy~ is
antithetical to the conventional notion of the brain ~controlling~ the
body and to the top-down model of panoptical control common to the
engineering-inspired disciplines.
Early in embryogenesis, a formation called the ~neural crest~ splits.
Half forms the brain and the spinal chord. The other half becomes the
nervous system of the gut. It was presumed in medical science, under the
strong influence of Cartesian thought, that the gut, like  all the rest
of the body, was a kind of meat puppet, a slave of the master brain. The
model of the body ~controlled~ by the brain and the model of the
authoritarian state thus reinforce each other.
It transpires that the gut has over 100 million neurons (more than the
spinal chord). 


August97: Now firmly re-settled in Pittsburgh. From Jan-Jun97 I was in
residence at the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe
Germany working on a new interactive installation "Fugitive", to be
exhibited at Multimediale5, ZKM october 1997. 


Simon Penny
Associate Professor of Art and Robotics, A position jointly sponsorted 
by the School of Art and the Robotics Institute, 
Carnegie Mellon University
5000 Forbes ave. pittsburgh PA 15213-3890 USA
vox 412 268 2409 
fax 412 268 7817 (mark it : attn Simon Penny)

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