Avatars and Icons -Adrift on the new Technological wave ?

Trevor Batten

June 2002

  • All It is Is illusion And delusion We communally create Together one False State (anon?)

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    As any problem solver knows: Many problems can be solved by implementing previous solutions, possibly in modified form -however, some problems require a radical change of approach with entirely new paradigms. 

    The current socio-economic situation -with a wide range of problems including global warming, the "dot.com" boom/bust, the economic collapse of countries like Argentina and the American "War on Terrorism" in combination with a global sense of cultural Dis-orientation would suggest that the need for new paradigms is becoming increasingly obvious. 

    Unfortunately, it is easier to demand radical change than to provide the required direction. One would be unwise to simply substitute a new set of mistakes for the old ones. Although cultural metaphors are important repertoire of traditional wisdom, some may be innapropriate for the modern age.

    So how do we determine what is useful and what is not? In order to take full (but critical) advantage of our cultural heritage we may need to re-asses the relationship between "form" and "content".
    The author offers no simple ready made solutions but attempts to weave a web of associations which may hopefully point in the right direction.


    1.  Current Directions -moving fast, going nowhere?

     1.1 A Caucus Race....

    Art, technology, economy and culture interact in many complex ways -many of which can perhaps best be characterized by the "Caucus Race" encountered by Alice during her visit to Wonderland. In both Wonderland and the real world there seems to be a lot of mutual chasing of tails -with an occasional pause for breath and sometimes an unexpected and mysterious changing of direction.

    Because participants are running in a circle there are no winners and no losers (although some may collapse from exhaustion) -the important thing is not to be caught running in the wrong direction.

    The idea that our behavior reflects that of the other players may give us a feeling of emotional satisfaction -but is chasing tails the best way to find effective solutions to the complex problems which seem to be developing while we remain so occupied with playing the game.

    1.2..... Within A Maze of Amazing Mirrors?

    Technological skills apparently develop simultaneously, in a number of different directions, in a continually accelerating cycle of mutually supporting discoveries as technological innovation encourages economic exploitation -which in turn fuels new technological advances.

    The speed and diversity of this expansion makes it difficult to control and the more technology escapes our control the more we are likely to feel threatened by it. Economic pressures mean that science is no longer an intellectual pursuit for contemplative intellectuals but is increasingly seen as a supplier of new directions for technology to expand.

    The universities are encouraged to become knowledge factories capable of supporting the technological and economic expansion. So what is the role of the artist in a world where technological advance and financial transactions clearly speak louder than words of reflection and caution?

    1.3 A dangerous schism:

    As if one caucus race in a house of mirrors is not problematic enough -there are actually two almost entirely independent races (often running in opposite directions) invisibly weaving through each other like two phantom alternative universal in a bizarre Science Fiction film.

    For most people brought up in the western philosophical tradition, there seems to be an inherent contradiction between Technology and Culture.

    Traditionally, Science and Technology are seen as being concerned with the clean and exact world of numbers while Art and Culture are presumed to be involved with the more messy world of language -two mutually exclusive (but complementary) worlds.

    Unfortunately, by separating the pragmatic and effective world of number from the introspective and increasingly socially powerless world of language, we seem to be separating the worlds of cause and effect in an extremely dangerous manner. As a result of this schism people are becoming increasingly alienated from their mental and physical environment as technological consumerism undermines their cultural infrastructure.

    Attempts to bridge the chasm generally appear socially unacceptable and so, in order to survive, people are often forced to join the bandwagon, which simply perpetuates the problem.

    The isolationist cultural strategy, developed in the 19th century by the English art critic Ruskin, can only reduce art to the passive role of joker in a technological society. Simply because it automatically places art and culture outside the sphere of effective action.

    Perhaps it is time to seriously challenge this mental schism, which places art and culture in one hermetically sealed universe and business, science and technology in a totally different one.


    2.   Aiming for Equality:

    2.1 The Original Equalizer:

    If we are to believe the Hollywood cowboy films, then the gun was the great equalizer in the 19th century American "Wild West".

    Armed with this clever bit of technology (the original "killer application") all skills except those of speed and aim were made redundant because even the cleverest of logical arguments became meaningless against the fastest draw.

    Those who shot first and asked questions afterwards soon discovered that there was nobody left to answer even the simplest of questions.

    For non-cowboys, it was presumably extremely fortunate that other economic processes with different cultural paradigms -such as "east-coast intellectualism", continued to develop outside the Wild West. Eventually the technology of the railway economically undermined the existence of the cowboy and the rule of law took over. The farm and the fence finally defeated frontier anarchy.

    Unfortunately, in the meantime, the gun and the train had played an important role in the almost total destruction of the indigenous culture.

    Despite the demise of the cowboy (and the Indians) as economically viable ways of life, the mentality seems firmly embedded within American culture on many different levels. It is difficult to imagine a Hollywood blockbuster, which does not involve goodies and baddies chasing and shooting each other (on horseback, in cars or in spaceships).

    The fight between good and bad still has a powerful attraction -even if one can spot little moral difference between the two. Sometimes, one may even suspect that the mythology of Rambo is the main inspiration for American foreign policy.

    2.2 Thatcher and the Beatles -the Social Equalizers:

    The famous 60's phenomenon (in Britain) was rather complex, especially in terms of class relationships. In some ways it represented a down market movement of the aristocracy-and in some ways an up market movement of the working class.

    However, the common factor was probably the (bourgeois?) rejection of social rules in favour of apparent personal freedom.

    Although "Reganomics" represented in Europe by Margaret Thatcher is, in many ways the social antithesis of the sixties -one could also claim that the new economic freedoms merely represented an implementation within the sphere of economics of the social attitudes towards freedom which were already developed in the sixties.

    This substitution of (local) traditional values for (universal) Bourgeois individual (economic) freedoms seem to be a pattern, which is now globally manifest -although it maybe difficult to distinguish cause from effect.

    Presumably, as people become more socially disorientated the more open they are to commercial exploitation -and the more they are exploited the more socially disorientated they become.

    If I am correct regarding the similarities between the apparently left-wing sixties and the apparently right-wing eighties then it is difficult for the left to pretend innocence and blame the right. It would seem that both left and right have conspired to destroy a belief in social values and the rules, which support them.

    The collapse of the Soviet Union seems to have destroyed all practical and ideological alternatives to global consumerism.

    2.3 The new Commercial Equalizer:

    Modern digital communication techniques, initially developed to provide a robust system for military use, were adopted by academic systems and later adapted for commercial use.

    These expensive networks were originally the esoteric tools of the military/industrial/intellectual complex but when miniaturization allowed them to be linked into industrial production and mass marketing techniques they became the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

    Commercial interest in the potential of a "global dematerialized universe" must be obvious.
    Digital technology became the new social equaliser -but like all other consumer products, it needed a market.


    2.4 Bread and Circuses:

    Although initial investments to develop communication networks are high, once they are in place, operation is relatively cheap.

    In many cases one can use existing telephone technology and update as circumstances allow or demand. This means the cost of transmitting digital signals is relatively cheap, especially compared with the transport of material goods.

    However, the laws of supply and demand also applies to digital signals: In order to create a profitable business one needs to supply a desirable product and one needs a paying public who desire it. Presumably, the transmission of military, academic and business information is chicken feed in comparison to the mass entertainment business.

    The international distribution of digitised spectacle must surely be the modern equivalent of the oriental spice trade, which had so effectively fueled European expansion in the 17th century.

    Sport and Art are ideal providers of international spectacle.

    Modern satellite communications allow sporting achievements to be broadcast worldwide. Young kids from around the world have a chance for fame through sport -providing they can develop the talent.

    The same applies to artists -although they have the extra advantage that in some cases the whole product might conceivably be produced digitally and so the influence of unreliable and expensive humans can be reduced to a minimum.

    Science and technology are increasingly being harnessed to the challenging question of improving the spectacle provided by art and sport.


    2.5 The Artist's Nightmare becomes the User's Friend:

    Most sporters are extremely grateful for the situation which enables them to improve performance as a result of scientific research on many different levels from physiology to material science -all funded by the international media marketing system.

    Unfortunately, within the arts community, the horrors of the Victorian industrial revolution had previously created a romantic tradition, which made most artists extremely suspicious of machines and the industrial process.

    If artists (and the culturally orientated community) were going to play a significant role in the post-industrial media revolution, then either the artists (and the cultural  literati)  needed to change their attitudes -or dramatic changes must be made regarding the perception of the computer as a complex and potentially threatening technological machine.

    The conceptual breakthrough came in 1984 with the marketing of the Macintosh computer. A machine with a, for that time, commercially unique graphic user interface -which allowed the computer to be marketed as a simple, user friendly machine which could be operated with one hand.

    For the first time in history, the (more affluent) consumer could have a modern version of the genie in the bottle sitting obediently on their desk.


    3.  Changing and Challenging Times:

    3.1 Minding Your Own Business?

    The Apple Macintosh soon became popular within a small circle of people (often musicians) already involved in exploring the potential of (analogue and digital) technology for the contemporary art scene.

    Composers working in the big electronic music studios (like IRCAM in Paris) quickly discovered that they could work quicker and more effectively on a individual desk-top machine than on a centralised time-sharing system.

    Rival systems, such as the Amiga and the Atari also managed to develop niche markets. The Amiga became popular in the "desk-top video" business -while Apple was popular under graphic designers, especially those involved in "desk-top publishing". Built in support for the Midi sound system made both Atari and Apple popular by people working with audio synthesizers.

    Despite the relative success of Apple and Amiga within their respective niche markets, these innovative systems were largely considered as toys by the general business community which was largely reliant on IBM mainframes for data processing.

    However, the concept of personal computing was gaining ground and IBM decided to join the market with a machine which (without the popular graphic interface) was rather boring compared to the more "consumer" orientated machines. 

    3.2 The Rise of the Digital Consumer Democracy?

    Life is never as simple as many may wish. There are many different players in the economic game -and they often have different commercial interests.

    IBM had gained a good reputation as a reliable supplier of ready-made solutions for commercial data processing problems for companies without the technical knowledge to solve these problems themselves. As a result -the new IBM "PC" was considered to set the standards for personal computing -although its price was a barrier to commercial success.

    This last problem was solved by (largely asian) companies who were happy to produce cheap IBM "clones" .

    IBM, threatened by large financial losses as a paradoxical result of the success of their new design, tried to stop the flood of copies -but legal loopholes defeated them and production continued.

    Apparently, there were many commercial advantages in decentralising data management within companies. However, there were also many problems involved. One important problem was the problem of persuading relatively low-level personnel to operate such a potentially alienating machine.

    The obvious solution for resistance to the machine was to allow employees to take the machine home and play with it.

    However, this meant that the previous barriers between the commercially responsible and the consumer seductive markets needed to disappear. Presumably, employees would not only loose their resistance to the machine but they would also develop useful skills if they could take their machines home to help their kids with their housework and play games with them.

    Paradoxically, it was the successful expansion of the business machine into the consumer market that killed off the creative approach, which had made this expansion possible in the first place.

    Ignorance and commercial propaganda lead consumers to believe that they were supporting innovation -while in fact the systems they were making commercially irresistible were actually forcing the real innovators from the market.

    3.3 The Anarchist's Friend?

    Just as the gun could be fatal for those who could not shoot fast and accurately enough -so can digital technology be a disaster for those who do not understand it.

    Implementing technological solutions can be more of a problematic question than a sure-fire answer.

    Although all animals may be equal -some are apparently more equal than others. Ultimately, it is the individual or collective skill in using the technology that is important -and not the technology itself.

    Strangely enough, the battle of the commercial giants has lead to a situation where for a relatively modest investment -every individual (whatever their field) has the potential to become an important player on the global market via the Internet.

    Politics and economics are closely interwoven. Not only can politics act as a defence system for the less successful -but to a certain extent, economic success can also be seen as a practical test for the decisions made by politicians.

    On the other hand, commercial exploitation of the communication media -whether via the Internet or the more traditional distribution of books and films =is impossible without cultural imagery and political ideologies becoming involved as part of the subject matter to be marketed.

    Digital communication technology has the potential to become the modern political and commercial equaliser.


    3.4 Big Fishes or Little Fishes?

    In many ways the current developments are the result of fundamental processes,which have been developing for centuries within western culture -partially defining it.

    Paradoxically, there is a long European tradition of parallel developments -leading towards individual responsibility, global commercial monopolies and democratic governmental control.

    Since the renaissance there has been a constant growth away from a land based aristocracy towards bourgeois, money based, trading system involving individual responsibility, intelligence and initiative. It was the 17 th century international shipping trade which stimulated the growth of the banking system and prompted the development of speculative investment and ameliatory insurance systems. It were also the attempts by national governments to correct the problems caused by their internationally operating trading companies which started the process of colonialisation.

    Although big international companies have an economic power, which defies comparison with small businesses and individual free-lancers, the sum total of small business transactions was historically often greater than the total sum of the larger companies.

    Although they obviously lack the advantages of size, smaller companies are often more flexible and frequently need to be more innovative in order to survive.

    In the height of the industrial revolution a town such as Birmingham, in the English midlands, hosted a nexus of small businesses which developed as a support system for the larger industrial companies. A similar situation would have been found in the major seaports in support of the local transport systems.

    Nowadays, businesses tend to conglomerate around airports and telecommunication centers -although modern communication systems also tend to make this unnecessary.

    However, there is still a danger that the large commercial conglomerates (and the war on terrorism) will reduce the freedom of the net, converting it to a closed system only accessible by paying customers -who will then only be able to access authorised material.

    It is highluy possible that the results of a centrally controlled commercial system could be very similar to those created by a centralised communist system

    In practice, the theory of the free market can only operate effectively within a system of small businesses, as the larger monopolies are able to control the market in their own interests.

    It may well be in the interest of the larger companies to encourage the growth of smaller and more experimental models of business -to provide the sea in which they can swim.


    4.  Cultural confusion:

    4.1 The Baby and the Bathwater:

    Traditions of snobbism and class-division have historically separated practice from theory, artist from artisan and the social from the technical.

    Considering the history of divide and conquer apparently inherent in western culture, it cannot be surprising that we have problems in culturally adapting to the forces of integration and equality apparently created by the computer.

    We may need to forget about imposing our will -and learn to listen instead!

    One major problem is that the computer appears to be many different things in different contexts -even simultaneously exhibiting contradictory tendencies.

    In some ways, for example, the computer is generating a process of integration while in other ways it is isolating and alienating people.

    Dealing with this paradox is very difficult for a culture, which has grown out of the idea of one absolute and universal truth -where something cannot be true and not true at the same time.

    Unfortunately, the intellectual reaction against the conceptual hegemony of western culture tends to deny all difference and has thus reduced the complexity of the world to a single homogenous mess with no useful (relative or fixed) points of reference.

    Without points of reference it becomes difficult to orientate, individually or collectively, within the rapidly expanding maze of mirrors -so we are easily exploited by those who do claim to know the way forward.

    Increasingly often this leads to disastrous results.

    So which distinctions could provide us with useful points of reference -and, which are simply confusing?

    On what basis can we distinguish between trivial divisions and valuable ones?

    Who is to make these decisions?

    How can we bridge ancient but undesirable differences -and how should we deal with significant ones that might point towards new insights?

    4.2 Digital Integration:

    Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the rise of "digital technology" is the way it appears to unify things -by appearing to subsume everything in sight.

    In many ways, digital technology appears to have become the modern conceptual (and intellectual) equaliser.

    Unfortunately, most theories intended to help us deal with the new phenomenon seem intent on reducing the complexity of the real world to a frightening digital banality, We are encouraged to believe that the universe is simply a loose collection of digital bits that can be played with endlessly but often meaninglessly thanks to the latest piece of commercial wizardry.


    4.3 Digital Disintegration:.

    The ability to reduce different types of data and information to a common digital format creates the illusion that material "context" doesn't matter.  The commercial pressure created by the economic potential of a single global market for information has encouraged the myth.

    Comparing completely different objects or phenomena (like chalk and cheese) can be extremely difficult without a common conceptual context. Paradoxically. essential differences often become clarified only when attempting to reduce data and information to a similar format.

    However, a close examination of digital phenomena reveals that there are still some major discontinuities -many of which may be highly significant and may present problems in a truly multi-media context:

    Painters and photographers are interested in images which are easily digitized and transmitted electronically -but what about the concept of space which is so basic to a sculptor?

    Is "virtual reality" sufficient for them -or do they need something more substantial than renaissance pictorial perspective in a new jacket?

    Although painters are often concerned with the representation of space, sculptors may be more concerned with the organisation of space. Many sculptors seem totally disinterested in representing a third dimension when working on a flat surface.

    Sound and image may be digitally processed in similar ways but that does not make them identical. One still needs a loudspeaker to hear the sound while the image appears on a screen (or via a projector). Although both sound and image can be transmitted and stored in similar formats -we still receive visual information via our eyes and aural information via our ears.

    Although we can dream of other possibilities the physical construction of the human body remains important. It will remain so until we can change our own construction -and probably only then will we be able to understand clearly exactly how important the physical body is in relation to our percepual and conceptual systems.

    There are also cultural implications regarding different media: Painting and sculpture are united in a tradition based on the static object.

    Time based systems (music, theatre, opera, film) tend to be more expensive collective activities (and often more commercially organised). Musicians are used to working collaboratively and are used to operating within a tradition of formal rules of composition and harmony, which go back hundreds of years. Their adoption of the analogue and digital systems happened fairly naturally because there is perhaps little difference in writing instructions for human or electronic performers. In fact, in some cases, composers actually preferred machines because, unlike human performers,  they did not complain about music which was impossible to play.

    However, visual artists have a different tradition -only fairly recently (within the last 30 or 40n years) have mechanical processes such as film and photography been accepted as part of fine art (largely under the influence of commercially available portable video equipment).

    The rise of multi-media productions poses the question of which tradition will dominate -will visual artists become more theoretically orientated or will musicians become more intuitive and informal?

    Will a variety of new traditions develop -or are we facing a new homogeny of practice?

    Presumably, the lack of tradition has advantages as well as disadvantages: Traditions provide useful contexts -but they can also be inhibiting. Paradoxically, in the late sixties, early seventies, there were more simple electronic music studios (perhaps with just a small synthesizer) in art colleges than there were in schools of music.


    4.4 Socio-economic Exclusion:

    The increasing availability of various archives on the net allows their contents to be consulted and compared with less effort than previously required. Conversely, easily accessible digital archives will probably be used for reference more often than physical ones.

    Although the internet does offer wonderful (equalizing) opportunities for communication to those who are connected, it also creates huge barriers between those who do have access and those who do not.

    In some cases, access is limited by financial constraints. In other cases it may be more the result of political restrictions imposed by frightened governments -or conceptual restrictions imposed by lack of technical knowledge based on educational and social background.

    Sometimes financial and conceptual restrictions combine to form insurmountable barriers. As educational systems become more dependants on commercial sponsoring, one may suspect that programs which support the perceived interests of the sponsors are more likely to be supported.

    Automatic data collection and monitoring systems make social and environmental surveillance much easier -so the question remains: Who will benefit the most from this information?

    The internet does offer previously unknown possibilities for individual freedom but also for collective control. We should not forget that human nature does not change easily.

    To realise the full potential of the internet it is essential that political and commercial systems never get the power to decide who may be connected -and what they must be connected to!

    4.5 Historical Discontinuities:

    The permanent tension between the individual free creative spirit and the collective beaurocratic system required to justify the investment of governmental or commercial funds is also reflected in the social history of computer technology.

    The rise of new technologies have often helped the economic emancipation of groups which were previously excluded from society. The computer is not unique in this respect.

    In the days when computers were large expensive, esoteric dinosaurs hidden in the depths of military, scientific and commercial institutions one needed a good reason to justify the expense involved in using one. Because computer time was rationed, one needed to have a reasonable theoretical and technical understanding of what one was intending to do -and this understanding had to fit in with the aims of those responsible for allocating resources if one was going to gain access.

    The rise of the personal computer broke the power of the centralised system and encouraged individuals to pursue their own ends in their own ways but it also fragmented the theoretical support systems, which were in many ways essential for progress.

    Hopefully, the rise of the internet will introduce a new age of connectivity, which can assist in the development of the necessary conceptual infrastructures while preserving individual freedom.


    5.  Avoiding the Rhetoric of Technological Determinism:

    5.1 Opaque forms of Transparency:

    "A software system is transparent when you can look at it and immediately see what is going on. It is simple when what is going on is uncomplicated enough for a human brain to reason about all the potential cases without strain." says Eric Steven Raymond

    "To me, a transparent user interface is one in which the user is presented with all the information they want in a form that makes sense in light of their mental model of what's going on. The operations of the program should be consistent within the constraints of that model. One that isn't transparent just provides data with little context or model of where it came from or how it was derived or how to make adjustments." says Dan Bricklin .

    "Transparency is perhaps the most frequently used property in distinguishing a distributed system from a centralized system. It is a goal motivated by the desire to hide all irrelevant system-dependent details from the system's user. " says Peter Kulczycki .

    These three viewpoints seem to shift the interpretation of "transparency" from transparent to opaque!

    Does transparency enable us to clearly perceive the innermost working of the system, does it merely confirm our own (ignorant?) image of the system -or does it actually prevent us from seeing what is actually there?

    5.2 Space and Cyberspace:

    "Cyberspace" is another popular expression used to remove the internet from the realm of daily experience in order to create a totally new form of existence accessible only to the expert. An exclusive area where academic carriers can be made and commercial fortunes can be built upon the ignorance of outsiders.

    However, "Space" is probably one of the most poorly understood concepts within western culture -despite a heavy reliance upon it.

    Space is generally conceived in terms of "distance" -which allows us to derive "time" from the apparent transition which is apparent when we "move" from one point to another (within the space).

    However, since Descartes formalised the coordinate system -we should understand that "space" is in fact "an address system" -a set of labeled coordinates which allow us to locate and retrieve objects and information, which are located within the system.

    Unfortunately, our cultural conditioning has prevented us from perceiving how ignorant we are concerning space. Generations of school children have been taught to accept and believe that flat Euclidean space is the only physical reality -despite the fact that most intellectuals would agree that the world is not flat but a globe.

    We are conditioned to believe physical space is limited to three dimensions -and therefore find it difficult to believe that our actual experience of space is through our physical movements -and to understand that these movements cannot be described in terms of Euclidean space -simply because our physical bodies move in complex ways that are not based on the three right angles which form the basis of our conceptualisation.

    5.3 The Mythology of Immateriality:

    If computers are so immaterial as we are lead to believe then why is computer and telecom technology still fairly expensive?

    Why do we still need to buy computers and mobile phones -and why do we need power-lines or batteries to drive them, if all is immaterial?

    Why is the apparent loss of materiality blamed on "digitalisation" and the computer?

    Doesn't film and video also present an equally "dematerialised" world -certainly compared to the theater.

    Aren't verbal stories the ultimate in "immaterial media" -even though they are older than almost all other media?

    If one was blind and lived in an isolated cell then a network of friends or associates could still give one access to all the information in the world in a single format via the telephone. But how much of the world would one be missing?

    Film and video are already capable of reducing the world to a set of moving images which can be easily transmitted around the world via tv. Text and static images can also be transmitted via the television -so multi-media digital systems are not that revolutionary when it comes to immateriality and single formats.


    5.4 Creating Information from Data:

    Measurement is an important pragmatic tool -technologists and scientist could hardly function in any recognisable since without the collection and manipulation of data.However, measurement is a waste of time if one does not specify the units of measurement used. "Information" always requires context if it is to be meaningful.

    Most normal people find numerical data rather boring and prefer to deal with more "meaningful" information. We are even told that we live in an "information society" -that the "information highway" is at least as important, if not more so, than physical highways and that "information technology" is the economically essential factor within the so called "knowledge economy".

    Despite the popularity of the term -few people seem to realize what "information" really is.

    Information has been defined as "The difference, which determines the difference". The significance of this confusing but clever statement lies hidden in the double use of the word "difference" which actually refers to two different differences: If "information" is to be useful -then we must first be able to distinguish between the (different) signals that transmit the information -and secondly, there must be some significant difference concerning the system that we are being informed about.

    In other words, it would be silly for us to agree with a friend who was wearing Wellington boots that he would wiggle his toes when signaling to us -and we would probably not be too interested if he decided to use this system to communicate to us whether or not he was wearing a hat.

    However, we might be grateful if he signaled to us by taking his hat off that people whom we wished to avoid were in the area. On the other hand, if he was listening to the radio, he could also use the same signal to signify that an important football match had just begun -assuming that we were interested in knowing this.

    For some reason, it often seems to be forgotten that "information" does not have any absolute value -it is the context within which we interpret it which gives it its value.

    It is the context that transforms data into information -and it is our ability to expand our understanding of the context that transforms information into knowledge (and perhaps points us towards wisdom). To understand information -one needs to construct a context within which the information will be interpreted. If one changes the context, then the significance of the information will also change. In some contexts it may even no longer be considered to be information.


    6.  Information in a Knowledge Economy -the Finger and the Moon:

    A Zen saying warns us not to confuse the moon with the finger that points to the moon. This sounds pretty obvious -the "image" is clearly not the "object" -one may try eating a painting of a peach but the chances are that it will not provide the necessary vitamins.

    Despite the apparent obvious difference between object and image -we still seem to fall into the trap of believing that the digitalisation of information destroys all conceptual categories.

    When the invention of the film camera allowed the entire visible world to be captured on film -most people did not immediately assume that the whole world had been reduced to a single conceptual category. We still make divisions between story telling films and documentary films -which are usually further subdivided into scientific, political and cultural films.

    In the words of the song "It ain't what you do, its the way that you do it "!

    6.1 Form and Formality:

    Although formal systems usually form the basis for scientific and technological advance, most contemporary cultural theorists have rejected the idea of "formality".

    It may be useful to consider what has been rejected.

    A formal system has two main characteristics: Its behaviour follows rules -and the rules are explicit.

    Despite the social rejection of formality, two main contemporary phenomena are firmly based on formal systems: Both sport and the computer are systems, which rely on explicit rules -although, obviouslly, this is relative. The computer is clearly more constrained by rules than a football player, while the moves in a chess match are more formalised than in a football match.

    6.2 Image and Process -Reproduction and Simulation:

    It is strange that digital theory seems to ignore the history of the image.

    As a "reproductive" medium the computer is not unique.

    Neither is it unique in the way it allows us to subjectively modify the image. Before the fairly recent invention of photography, all images were constructed by human hand -and were therefore subjective representations of the world.

    Even photography is not as "objective" as we are encouraged to believe. The use of lighting, different lenses, chemical and optical processing all allows a wide range of subjective expression into the medium.

    Although scientific studies of movement via film were of great scientific interest, many early filmmakers such as Georges Melies were fascinated by the possibility of film as an illusionary medium.

    One may even suspect that the growth of "artificial" films (both animation and narrative) grew out of attempts at artificial enhancement necessary to deal with subjects which were difficult to film with early equipment under normal circumstances (such as microscopic images or dangerous war scenes).

    However, although the image is highly dependant on the image making process -the image itself is a form of reproduction and not a process. There is still a difference between watching a game of football or chess and actually playing the game.

    For some reason, when discussing the role of the computer in society, the computer as a system for data retrieval seems to get a greater emphasis than its potential as a dynamic simulation machine. Despite the propaganda -and the commercial interest in digital "video on demand" there are probably more computer games sold than digital TV systems.

    In practice, this is not surprising because it is the capability of the computer to simulate dynamic processes in real time, which represents the truly unique contribution of the computer to modern culture.


    7.  Navigating the Complexity:

    7.1 The need for metaphors:

    Although there are many shades of understanding -there seems to be only one shade of confusion. Chaos represents all that we are unable to describe in terms of structure.

    The confusion which arises from a lack of understanding often seems similar whatever the context -even though the complexity which causes our confusion may actually demonstrate one of many different forms of structure.

    The more abstract or unfamiliar the complexity is -the greater becomes our need for metaphors to help us to describe and understand the new.

    The recursive complexity of a Russian Doll, for example, is different from the tangled complexity of a Celtic knot -which in turn is also different from the ambiguous complexity of an Indian Mandela. The deterministic and linear complexity of a chess game is again different from the non-linear complexity of the weather or the synergetic growth of an embryo.

    Metaphors do not fit exactly -but they do function as conceptual  touchstones and help to suggest the directions in which we might look for ways of modifying existing patterns to get a more accurate understanding of the new situation.

    7.2 Avatars and Icons:

    The on-line dictionary gives the following definitions:

            'Avatar' n. Syn. [in Hindu mythology, the incarnation of a god]
                 1. Among people working on virtual reality and cyberspace interfaces, an "avatar" is an icon or representation of a user in a shared virtual reality.
                         The term is sometimes used on MUDs.
                 2. [CMU, Tektronix] root, super user. There are quite a few Unix machines on which the name of the super user account is `avatar' rather than `root'. This quirk was originated by a CMU hacker who found the terms `root' and `super user' unimaginative, and thought `avatar' might better impress people with the responsibility they were accepting. Source: Jargon File 4

             'Icon' n
                 1: (computer science) a graphic symbol (usually a simple picture) that denotes a program or a command or a data file or a concept in a graphical user interface
                 2: a visual representation of an object or scene or person produced on a surface; "they showed us the pictures of their wedding"; "a movie is a series of images  projected so rapidly that the eye integrates them" [syn: picture, image, ikon]
                 3: a conventional religious picture painted in oil on a small wooden panel; venerated in the Eastern Church [syn: ikon] Source: WordNet (r) 1.6, (c) 1997 Princeton University

    7.3 The Mirage Mirrored:

    Mirrors reflect -but they also reverse the image.

    Perhaps it is interesting to compare the current meanings of the above two popular terms with their original meanings:

           The internet interpretation of "Avatar" is the, usually visual, representation, of the real or imaginary character of a "De-materialised" Internet user. Because they are not physically present -the Avatar is capable of taking on any form the user wishes (or can imagine).

    In Internet terminology -the Avatar allows the user to express a presence while moving effortlessly through immaterial space -so it acts as a kind of conceptual "visiting card" presenting information regarding the person's projected, if not actual, character as well as announcing their presence when involved in direct on-line communication with other computer users.

    However, in its original form, the Avatar appears to represent the "materialisation" (in physical form) of a (Hindu) God which presumably cannot normally be experienced by human beings.

    So although the modern interpretation involves a dematerialised representation of a physically existing individual, the original meaning was exactly the opposite and involved the materialisation of an immaterial set of abstract characteristics.

          The current popular use of the term "Icon" is derived via semantic theory, where it was used to mean a "symbol which represents itself" -i.e. the "image" of a pen is symbolic for the concept of a pen (or by extension, the function of a pen -something pertaining to writing, or text).

    However, the original meaning is a holy painting which refers not to itself -but to some metaphysical reality outside itself.

    If current usage of the terms Avatar and Icon can be so opposed to their original meanings -then perhaps our image of the Internet is also the opposite of what it really should be.

    7.4 Abstractions and Materialization:

    Although Avatars and Icons come from different religious traditions -they both originally seem to have had similar functions: The materialisation of abstract concepts in order to make them more easily understood by humans with their limited understanding of the universe.

    In both cases, it seems that somehow an inversion of meaning has taken place.

    On an abstract level, Avatars and Icons show similarities -although on a more specific and concrete level of interpretation they exhibit great differences.

    So should we be impressed by the abstract similarities -or confused by their concrete differences?

    This simple question actually has a deeper cultural significance than may be apparent at first glance.

    This is because much of our knowledge and behavior is based on a belief in "abstraction" which assumes that it has a universal validity -so that we need not bother with troublesome specifics.

    Most people tend to use the abstraction to determine how to deal with the specific and rarely use the specific to question the abstract principle -so the discovery of a potential dissonance between the abstract generalisation and the materially specific can be quite threatening to entrenched beliefs.

    Unfortunately, these entrenched ideas apparently cause us to be blind to the fact that in practice -much of our knowledge comes from a dialogue between the generalised concept and the specific implementation of that concept.

    Both in scientific investigation and the pragmatic experience of life -it is when things in practice don't match up to expectations that life really starts to get interesting and we have a chance to make new discoveries.

    7.5 Symbolists and Mystics -Suits and Heads?

    So if conceptual metaphors are so important to our understanding of the world -how interchangeable is the metaphor and the reality?

    Logically, the metaphors must be old and familiar -while the complexities they should clarify are generally new and relatively unknown.  So how can we be certain that the new fits so easily into to the pattern of the old?

    For example, is the familiar desk top really a suitable metaphor for the computer -or does it fool us with false impressions and a false feeling of security because it enables us to believe that nothing has changed in our familiar world?

    If we need to use a metaphor to point to the moon exactly because we do not understand the moon, then we clearly do not understand the moon itself -and if we do not know the moon, then how can we know the difference between it and the metaphor which is needed to clarify it?

    Perhaps the only way to solve this conundrum is to admit that we can never understand the moon -until we are able to actually visit the moon -and maybe even then we may not understand it completely.

    It seems that many people have an intense need for security -a need to believe in the symbols they use to understand their world. Interpreting these symbols within specific contexts enables the believer to create a new conceptual world, which grows out of the specialised language and ritual -often excluding those who have not been initiated into this cult-like universe.

    This process works on many different levels -it is the basis for formal systems such as mathematics and logic, but also artistic and religious systems. It creates closed systems of knowledge in technology and science -but also in education, commerce and politics.

    In all these cases, the different worlds constructed by the various symbolic systems exists only in terms of these symbols -the adepts keep their worlds in existence by interpreting all experience in terms of their own tautological constructions. How then can the believers ever escape their world to check the view from outside -and how can the skeptical outsider ever penetrate the jargon to check things out from the inside?

    For good reason perhaps, some people remain suspicious of the truth expressed by symbols in any form, believing that unless one already knows how to interpret the symbol -then its use is (literally) meaningless. Without a living tradition to explicate the meaning, then even the wisest of words may loose their wisdom.

    Those who believe in the importance of a living tradition generally understand that it is not the symbol itself, which is important, but the attempt to understand it, by interpreting it in specific contexts, which yields the understanding.

    Knowledge is not a fixed, eternal and universal, quality -but a subtle game of hide and seek -of invented half-truths and experimental hypotheses which mutate from context to context.

    Although computers have long been associated with serious businessmen in dark suits (or mad scientists in white coats) who develop and support the status quo -computers have also long been the playthings of long haired "freaks" who see them as subversive machines offering a gateway to new and unknown worlds of ideas and experience.

    This division between the "symbolist" who believe in absolute values and the "mystic" who believe in fundamental limits to human understanding is highly significant -because although the symbolists seem to be the pragmatic people and the mystics seem of little social relevance -it is only through the questioning of existing systems of belief that one is able to discover new ones.

    As computers became more economically significant, the experimental mainstream was forced into a nerdy "underground" existence . Unfortunately this seems to have lead to a nostalgic romanticism and not a progressive reaction.

    Expensive research networks have developed where even artists have a role to play, although the emphasis mainly seems to be on providing a technological playground for artists -in the hope that their games will produce something commercially exploitable -or at least will help make products socially and commercially acceptable.

    No wonder that the excitement of the early experiments is increasingly degenerating into alienation and boredom -although it is surprising that nobody has thought about the economic implications of the difficulties involved in exploiting technological innovation while maintaining total control over the innovators.


    8.  New Directions?

    8.1 Tradition and Change -the dynamic dilemma:

    The value of the experience and wisdom of those who have lived through life's important events is generally obvious in static or slowly changing society.

    Where social change is rapid, however, 'wisdom' can seem redundant and 'experience' irrelevant.

    What use is knowledge of the past if the past is no longer with us?  What use are the aged -when only the youngest have the openness of mind to grasp the complexities of the new situation?

    On the other hand, perhaps one needs the experience which only comes with age to understand that in many cases, the more things appear to change -the more they actually remain the same.

    Although fundamental changes do occur when circumstances change so much that previous behaviour has become inappropriate -in general the way of doing things may change as new technologies develop -but basic human needs tend to remain the same.

    However, it is difficult to understand (observe and/or test) this process of evolutionary change -if one knows only the new -and has no other experience or material for comparison. Perhaps we need to develop a sense of continuity in order to understand the complexities (and the possible underlying simplicity) of the new.

    8.2 the Human Procedural Trinity:

    Freudian psychology is not as mainstream as it used to be. Even before the computer became so universally popular within the social sciences Freudian psychology had already been superceded by a more cybernetic approach.

    In many ways the messy "emotional" Freudian approach is directly opposed to the more sterile cybernetic approach based on interactive bargaining to achieve unspecified goals, the rational market place has replaced the emotional witches cauldron.

    However, even within a procedural model there is one Freudian idea, which may be usefully adopted and adapted: The idea of multiple levels within the human psyche.

    The id, ego and superego division is perhaps difficult to clarify in procedural terms -but the idea can be easily adapted to fit into a procedural system if we consider these divisions (or variations on them) as representing repertoires of three different types of rules:

  • Rules derived from the physical characteristics of the individual'
  • Rules learned from other members of the social environment
  • Rules which the individual has discovered for themselves.

  • Clearly, these rules can come into conflict with each other:  For example, we might be socially expected to work ten hours a day in a coal mine -but our bodies may not be able to conform to the expectations of others (or even ourselves).

    If our specific circumstances make it physically or emotionally impossible to satisfy the rules and expectations of society -should we then become outcasts, or can these individual experiences become important sources for inspiration and knowledge within society in general?

    8.3 Big Seas, Small Boats:

    It is said that medieval Irish monks used to cut themselves adrift in small boats, with no sails or oars, allowing themselves to to be taken by wind and tide to unknown destinations.

    Non-believers may doubt that this process was really controlled by the will of God -but in any case, it was a clever algorithm, which allowed the monks to relinquish conscious control in an attempt to open up the possibility of discovering new territories to explore and convert.

    Perhaps we can interpret it as a stimulating metaphor suggesting that it may be an interesting experiment if we suspended our obsession with "expressing" ourselves -and learnt to cut ourselves loose from our preconceptions in the search for new experiences, which lie outside our normal pattern of expectation.

    Certainly, loosing control can be an interesting psychological or artistic experiment but is it a good model upon which to base the organisation of our entire lives, our government and our society?

    Do we all really enjoy the feeling that we should live our lives in ways entirely dependent on forces entirely outside our control?

    Wherever our preferred balance between chaos and order may lie -it is certainly bizarre that many of the social and commercial developments, which seem to threaten our freedom of choice, have actually developed as a result of commercial exploitation of the western humanist tradition based on the idea of individual freedom.

    8.4 The Universal Simulation machine:

    Most people have only experienced the computer through the use of commercial products.

    The increasingly "pragmatic" nature of our educational system also tends to emphasis the practical aspects of the computer. Students are encouraged to operate the system within the limits already defined by the providers of commercial software. They are not often encouraged to philosophise about the fundamental nature of the machine.

    So what is a "computer"?

    The techniques of calculation via the manipulation of mathematical and logical symbols have developed over the centuries. Mechanical calculators were also commercially available for a short period before electronic machines were possible. However, it is now generally accepted that the history of the computer begins with the capability of an (electronic) machine to store its own programme.

    So, despite the apparent synonymity of the computer with the internet and interactive systems -the computer is basically concerned with operating within a set of pre-defined (programmed) conditions. In practice, it allows us to explore the logical consequences of these definitions.

    Because the computer operates on symbolic representations of objects and not the objects themselves, it is capable of simulating anything (whether it exists or not), which can be represented by the symbols of the programming language used.

    As a universal simulation machine the computer offers a unique opportunity to explore the practical consequences of our theoretical concepts -if only we can translate our ideas into a suitable symbolic language.

    If the computer has proved to be an important tool for the storage and retrieval of information -how much more valuable is its potential as a medium to explore the consequences of the different conceptual contexts within which this "information" must be interpreted and applied?

    The role of the simulation is also important because it is our minds which usually determines the way we interpret the conditions of our existence, but the mind is easily fooled -how can the mind control and correct itself?

    We need some way to externalise ourselves -so we can see ourselves more clearly in the mirror.

    8.5 The Logic of Abstract and Concrete Contexts:

    To be considered "not logical" is an insult to most people -but what do we mean by "logical"?

    Basically, the term has two interpretations: One (formal) definition is -the application of "proven" rules to test the validity of statements. The other (pragmatic) definition is -to be consistent with the world, as we know it.

    Clearly (although that was presumably the original intention) these two definitions need not always be in agreement: The application of "logical" rules may lead to conclusions which are outside the world of our daily experience and the world may be less "logical" than we imagined it to be.

    In fact, we are confronted with the dissonance between the two definitions every time we encounter an "abnormality" in the world. What must we think of "madness", for example, which is generally considered to be less than than "logical" -and yet, if it was entirely without its own internally consistent rules it could never be studied and treated?

    Conceptual fragmentation and specialisation often destroys the context -even though it may be the context that we need to understand in order to correctly evaluate the specific.

    How can one change the social context, which surrounds the computer in order to develop new ways of dealing with the machine when the language, within which this context must be developed and presented, actively prevents the exploration of new languages and contexts?

    Alternatively, one can question the point of developing a new language -if nobody is able to understand it.

    To a large extent, formal systems allow one to avoid this problem -because they allow you to formally change the rules and explore the result -through pragmatic but playful experiment.

    Unfortunately, modern cultural and artistic attitudes axiomatically reject the value of formal systems -and so the problems may be unsolvable (a procedural "lock out" in computer programming terms) without a change of attitude.

    Because, snobbism within our culture has taught us to love the aristocracy of abstractions and to ignore the more plebian concrete practice it is difficult for us to understand how the two interact. Often we do not see how simple but confusing changes can occur when an old idea gets applied in new contexts.

    Exploring the transition between abstract theory and concrete practice could be an interesting and important area for exploration by our universal simulation machine.

    8.6 Art and Philosophy -Conceptually Convergent, Materially Divergent:

    "Culture" is a conglomeration of mental survival techniques, which have evolved throughout history as a result of the specific local circumstances of the people involved. Our collective images, myths and stories are a valuable repertoire of potential metaphors to help us understand the complexities of existence.

    "Technology" is nothing more than the application of techniques that make life physically easier for us.

    Basic "home-crafts" such as baking pots, the weaving of cloth or the baking of bread also involve "technology" -just as much as the more high-tech applications in computers, space craft or biological systems.

    In many ways "technology" expands the range of available opportunities and "culture" helps us to decide which choice to make.

    When Art is removed from the context of trivial entertainment, decoration, or the pointless expression of the artists ego and placed within the context of a powerful and fundamental tool for conceptual research -the connection between Art and Philosophy becomes easier to see. Through public exhibition and discussion -Art, in all its various manifestations, becomes a part of public awareness -and like Philosophy, shapes that awareness in the process with time as it is accepted into culture.

    However, on one important level, Art and Philosophy are traditionally quite different.

    Modern theory emphasises the conceptual aspect of Art -but this may be a terrible mistake. It is important to remember that Philosophy explores the world of abstract ideas -so we may not really need Art to do the same.

    Art traditionally presents us with concrete metaphors to explore and examine -while Philosophy usually remains an untested (and untestable) abstract dispute.

    In this sense they are similar in their relationship to that between the abstract Hindu god and the physical avatar -or the iconic representaion of higher principles.

    It may be that the most important function of Art is to present us with a specific (and explicit) manifestation of our conceptual systems. Compared to physical experience, our images appear immaterial and abstract -but compared to our fantasies they are concrete and specific. It is this ability to make ideas concrete and therefore explicit which links art to formal systems. In both cases,  it is the technique of making the rules explicit which enables us to explore the implications and consequences of these rules objectively and openly in order to understand both the rules and our assumptions about them better.

    Indeed, previously both art and society were more "formal" in nature -they were certainly rule based -although these rules were different in different societies and often less explicit than in systems such as mathematics which are more conventionally considered to be formal systems.

    It is the authors' belief that the significance of this formality needs to be explored more thoroughly. How does it relate to the way art, science, religion, philosophy and magic seem to have a common background?

    Have we progressed or regressed by focusing on individual expression, which is considered opposed to rule based systems?

    What are the consequences of the social and cultural divisions between "formal" science and "informal" art?

    It is possible that we cannot understand the social implications, or even the art and the society involved, if we are not prepared to consider the nature and function of "formality".  Maybe the "formal" nature of earlier art and culture may hide important lessons for our present situation -if we know how to find the key.

    We now have the technology -but can we also find the wisdom to understand the implications?


    It was a dark and stormy night.
    Man went searching for fire with a lantern.
    If he had known what it was he would have found it earlier
    (Anon Zen)



    Cultural Mythology:
  • Avatars in Hindu Mythology
  • Dictionary definition "Avatar"
  • Dictionary definition "Icon"
  • Digital Art History & Practice:
  • Digital Art Museum -Technology timeline
  • Professor John Lansdown
  • INFORMATRIX A Book of Figurative Dialogues by Edward Zajec
  • Ars Electronica Catalog Archive
  • The Dublin University Computer Arts Society
  • Multimedia, Content, Tools, eContent and Internet Action Plan
  • Early and later classic electronic and computer Music:
  • Roger Doyle (b. 1949, Dublin)
  • Index of Papers published in Interface Journal of New Music Research (1972-1993)
  • The Institute of Sonology; "His Master's Noise" Recordings
  • IRCAM Centre Pompidou
  • Research Networks:
  • C A T -Communication, Art & Technology network
  • Institute for media Communication
  • Content Integrated Research in Creative User Systems
  • Nostalgia:
  • Apple/Amiga/Atari -Where Older Macs Still Rock!
  • The 'Classic Amiga' Range
  • Back to the future for Atari games
  • The NTK/Mute Festival of Inappropriate Technology
  • Time's Up
  • The Life and Work of Konrad Zuse
  • Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon) (1902)
  • Conceptual  Frameworks:
  • An Atlas of Cyberspaces
  • Artificial Life
  • Socionics
  • The Post-autistic economics network
  • Batten -Philosophical Statement "Formalism, Truth and War"

  • Text Originally published: <http://www.soundtoys.net/a/journal/texts/tbatten.html>
    Text originally written for an on-line magazine 0n Irish Culture

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