Simon G Penny on Mon, 18 Aug 1997 02:57:39 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Digital Tools 3/3

The entire intestine is sheathed in two concentric sleeves of neural
tissue, isolated with an equivalent to the blood/brain barrier.#  Just
exactly what the gut is thinking we don~t quite know, but if the gut
were wired up to a PET scan machine, I believe you~d find that the gut
partook in consciousness, or the neural activity from which it arises.
  The revelations of recent neuro-physiology leave no doubt that the
multiple organs of the brain interpret sense data, formulate concepts
and leave traces from which  memories are reconstructed, but this does
not mean that we must necessarily adopt a position in which the ~body~
is separate, secondary and subordinate to the ~brain~. Anthony Dimasio
has argued that the conditions which we consciously interpret as
emotions, for instance, are generated in the body proper, and the brain
actually has to check in order to determine what emotion is currently
being ~embodied~.# Here Dimasio reveals the degree to which he
(unconsciously?) adheres to the conventional wisdom: to say: ~the brain
interprets messages~ is just one way of conceptualising the process,
which puts the brain ~in control~.Why could it not be: ~the body tells
the brain...~? # 
At essence my argument is simple.  The engineering world view, via the
computer as a paradigmatic technology, perpetuates a dualistic model
with an explicit heirachy. The reductivist mechanistic model are, via
the engineering world view, inappropriately applied to the bodies and
lives of people. Contrarily, I mainitain that consciousness  (or what
gives rise to it) is ~emergent~, is a physiologically distributed bodily
thing and arises from the interdependance of parts in a decentralised
system. If this is the case, then the basic premise of Cognitivism: that
the brain, consciousness, etc, can be understood using the analogy of a
computer; is flawed.  To apply a mechanistic, reductive model to
consciousness is to imply that consciousness does not exist, because
consciousness is not amenable to reductive analysis.

Simulation and the Demise of Body Knowledge
If all traces of humanity were destroyed except for a computer shop,
visiting Martian archeologists would probably determine that humans were
monocular and had one hand with 29 digits on it.#  All the remaining
body senses and capabilities are irrelevant to the computer interface.
The interface ignores ways of knowing which are not compatible with it,
the interface is a filter which rejects  these aspects of sentience. By
defining intelligence in terms of the capabilities of the computer, the
(bodily) intelligence, of the painter for instance, is lost. One of the
least remarked aspects of the computer revolution is the way that the
development of software simulation has reduced a great variety of
various bodily activities into one. Although this process is in many
ways enabling:~we can prepare a publication, from writing text to
typography, image placement and page layout at the same desk. The down
side of this process is that it induces a ~bodily monoculture~, it
destroys ~cognitive diversity~, the complex ecology of body-knowledge.
To extend the ecological/pharmacological metaphor: In the same way that
pharmaceutical companies have suddenly (and rather cynically) become
conservationists, we may be killing off diverse body-knowledges before
we know what they~re good for. The Japanses tradition of making great
craftsmen and artisans  ~national treasures~ may make more than
sentimental sense.
The increase in simulation of bodily activities which result in a
depletion of the difficult to formalize ~intelligences of the body~
which make up the traditional  ~skill-base~ (as opposed to knowledge
base) of the visual art  is a problem. The traditional artistic
skillbase is in danger of being ~disappeared~ in the race to total
simulation.  To elaborate: previously, one learnt a set of bodily
behaviors in order to use a machine lathe, another set of activities to
set type, another to paint a picture and another to write. All these
activities are now achieved by tapping a keyboard while starring at a
video screen at close range.#  
When I teach ~Fractal Painter~ to a student who is an experienced
painter, a large part of the meaning in the simulated watercolor mark is
related to the physical experience of making such a mark with water
based pigment in a brush on paper. But if the student has never learned
to make such a mark, the meaning of the mark is entirely different
because it signifies no act. To put it another way: if digital tools
simulate analog procedures, can the basic concepts be understood without
practice on such tools? Does a chalk texture mean anything without the
experience of using chalk on paper?#  
Not simply is the range of body knowledge (body intelligence) being
vastly limited (the body is being de-skilled), but the process which
links conceptualization to physical realization is destroyed.
Manipulation of abstract, symbolic quantities is premised on bodily,
physiological experience. Why do we call a high note ~high~? Could it be
because when we sing a high note the physiological experience is in the
head, as opposed to the throat or chest. German psychologists have
observed that children who cannot walk backwards cannot subtract. Mark
Johnson argues: ~In considering abstract mathematical properties (such
as ~equality of magnitudes~) we sometimes forget the mundane bases in
experience which are both necessary for comprehending those abstractions
and from which the abstractions have developed. ...Balance, therefore,
appears to be the bodily basis of the mathematical notion of
equivalence~.# As Dreyfus~ argued, we have a human mind by virtue of
having a human body. Here my argument takes an ironical fold, for if
balance implies two sides, then in its very bilaterality, the body
embodies dualism.
Among young children, continuous use of computers, video games and TV
seems to impair the development of basic ~common sense~ and motor
skills. Certain German insurance companies now sponsor summer schools in
which children are ~taught~ that open flame and red-hot things can cause
pain and burns, that you can fall off a bicycle and it hurts, etc. # 
One assumes that the motivation of these companies is not entirely
philanthropic, that it saves money to help children avoid simple
accidents. This erosion of ~common sense~ by computer use is a curious
mirror of the ~common-sense problem~ which defined the limitations of
Artificial Intelligence. #  

Prosthetical Bondage and Mechanistic Mimesis
Freedom and Liberation are catch-phrases of cyber rhetoric, but what
price do we pay for the liberty of the virtual? Bondage of the physical!
# In order to make conquering strides across cyberspace, we sit, neck
cramped, arms locked, tapping a keyboard, our vision fixed on a small
plane 50cm ahead.  As the image becomes more mobile (VR) the viewer
becomes less mobile. Held in a bondage of straps and cables, the
question: ~are you a man or a mouse?~ acquires new meaning! In engaging
the computer as an artistic tool, the artist must consider the potential
conflict of interests between the value systems reified in the
architecture of the machine and the logic of the software; and the
interests of artistic practice. The very existence of artistic practice
with the computer must be seen in the context of these ideas as a kind
of ~intervention~ which brings into question issues such as those I have
been discussing: the conflict of world views inherent in digital art
practice, the demise of bodily knowledge, etc.   
Digital media artists are continually reminded of the fact that when
making digital artworks we are building virtual machines. Any machine
(soft or hard) is a mechanistic approximation of a narrow and codified
aspect of human behavior. On a day to day level, the task that confronts
us is how to ~shoehorn~ the kind of cognitive fluidity we enjoy in our
interaction with the world into the proscribed and proscriptive language
of the machine. This dilemma is no different whether writing code or
building a washing machine. The computer is as pedantic and rule bound
as any other mechanical contrivance. Tasks which are simple and open to
variation for a person must be specified and constrained when embodied
in a machine. 
All machines are contrived according to mechanistic codifications of
specific task domains which optimize a particular function. A chainsaw
cuts wood fast, but is useless for anything else. Cognitive prosthetics
such as robot vision systems, unlike human vision, are to a greater or
lesser extent, task specific. Computer programs are virtual machines,
indeed they are sometimes referred to as ~engines~ in the computer
science community. The same compartmentalizing reductive process is at
work. Such a method can never reproduce the holism of body experience,
it will remain just an accumulation of parts. By contrast, certain human
activities, among them the production and consumption of art, integrate
human faculties in a way that resists reductive compartmentalization.# 
Machines, hard or soft, are codifications of solutions to problems.
Often the sorts of problems artists deal with are as yet uncodified, or
are uncodifiable! I heard an architect observe that although CAD systems
allow architectural design projects to be completed more quickly, they
reduce the possible range of variation. The same may be said of any
software package. Software packages are packaged solutions to
pre-defined problems. The designer of the package deems which particular
problems will be supplied with packaged solutions. These choices may be
made because certain processes are computationally easy, rather than
because they fulfill the actual needs of artists. The degree to which
these chosen solutions and problems are useful to artists is entirely 
dependant on the degree to which the designer of the package understands
artistic generative process. Even then, use of such packages presumes
that artistic process can be defined and reduced to deductive problem
solving procedures. 
In 1990, Marvin Minsky made some remarks which for me epitomise this
dilemma: he proposed that we should ~go beyond these VR instruments and
implant a little computer in the brain and send signals back and forth
from it, which would give us the ability to extend our motivation and
the signals inside ourselves to cause things to happen in the outside
world~.  Although this sentiment is a familiar one in technological
discourse, it is nonetheless peculiar: I thought thats why we have arms
and legs and eyes and ears! Minsky went on to say of this implant idea:
~Maybe most of us who are not artists could be artists if we could
express our subconscious wants~.#  In this expostulation, Minsky
simplistically conflates the surrealists aesthetisation of the
subconscious with the engineering inspired dualisitc project of the
rationalisation of the body. It is interesting to learn from him that
artmaking is simply a matter of subconscious ~self-expression~, like
some sort of mucous secretion, without the intervention of either skill
or intellect! Seemingly (according to the perspective of traditional
artificial intelligence) the complex bodily practices and sensibilities
which define art practice can be easily dismissed as insignificant motor
skills, ~hardware problems~. Our ~subconscious wants~, once encoded as
digital data, could be realized by some mechanical prosthetic and this,
according to Minsky, would result in art! (I doubt if Minsky would allow
that a similar implant would enable us to be Artificial Intelligence

Simon Penny 1995-97


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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