Theoretical Reflections on the Digital Culture and Art

            Stephen Wilson, Art Dept, SFSU


            prepublication version of chapter 7.1 from

   Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science & Technology (MIT Press,2002)



Introduction: Areas of Analysis


Theoretical analysis of the cultural implications of digital technology has flourished in the last decade.   Theorists explain that computers can no longer be conceptualized merely as isolated office appliances.  Rather, digital technology and its underlying conceptual frameworks and associated socio-cultural infrastructure profoundly affect life and thought.  This section reviews theoretical analysis of the implications in several areas: basic conceptions of  reality and our epistemological ability to know it ; the meaning of bodies and physical space in a world increasingly dominated by virtuality; the nature of identity and gender;  the interrelationships between digital technologies and larger socio-economic-cultural forces; the historical place of digital technologies and media;  interactivity; and the special challenges confronting artists that work with digital technology.   This short review can only skim the surface of what has become an enormous corpus of scholarship. 



What is reality and how can we come to know it?


Throughout the history of philosophy, epistemologists have debated our ability to know the essence of reality.  For example, in the Dialogue of the Cave, Plato suggests that nature consists of a world of essential forms which can only be known imperfectly, like shadows on a cave wall.   In the Renaissance, scientific thought asserted a renewed faith in observation and reason as techniques to know reality.  For a few hundred years this epistemological faith was verified by significant practical and theoretical accomplishments.


Starting at the beginning of the 20th century physics and biology increasingly moved into worlds not accessible to direct observation.  Increasing reliance on sophisticated instrumentation and chains of reasoning renewed epistemological doubts.  The atom and the gene could not be seen.  Telecommunications similarly introduced situations in which faith in remote realities had to rely on electromagnetically reproduction and representation.   Contemporary theorists note that epistemological challenges are exacerbated even further by the spread of digital technologies.  By its very nature, digital representation requires the breaking apart of phenomena and their representation by symbolic bits.  Increasingly we rely on representations in all corners of life.


Sandy Stone describes the paradoxical situation of apparent increase in our knowledge at the same time relying on epistemologically shaky distant representations.  She suggests that the realistic accomplishments of the illusion factories of digital Hollywood help to undermine our faith in the images coming from scientific instrumentation.


We find ourselves in the paradoxical situation that the more we call "that which becomes known" by the name "reality," the further we distance ourselves from it. Because with time and increasingly sophisticated tools, reality seems more and more intelligible - as images on screens, images of events that we will never ourselves experience, subatomic collisions, the DNA helix, movement of ions within synapses. What's actually happening is that our understanding of the world and of "nature" increasingly becomes secondhand, like a story.   (Stone, 6)


In his essay "Digital Apparitions" Willem Flusser suggests that density of data points has been an underlying criteria for distinguishing "real" and synthetic worlds.  He notes, however, that research promises to continue to enhance that density to the point that we will not be able to distinguish.   The epistemological question then becomes prime.  The distrust derives also from the fact that the artificial worlds are human-made.


Flusser recounts the history of attempts to represent experience with images.  Eventually  science used calculation and geometrical analysis to represent the growing understandings.  Doubts arose, however, that the equations were imposed on nature.  The calculatory flexibility of the computer augments the doubts.  Since we can construct convincing worlds to represent theories, the realizations leads to a radical doubt:  "whether everything, including ourselves, may have to be understood as a digital apparition." (Flusser, 233)


McKenzie Wark reflects on the implications of telecommunications on notions of reality.  Wark notes that the speed of information flows relative to the movement of persons and things changes our relation to them.  They become less palpable and less important.


Deconstructing the history of image and representation, other theorists such as Druckrey show how the fall of faith in the power of unitary point of view to ascertain truth leads to more profound questioning of the possibility of knowing reality.  Moreover, consciousness and perception, the core tools of knowing reality, are  themselves becoming defined by technology.


If there is a common denominator within the divergent discourses of postmodernity, it is the concept that a system of scientific visualization and any totalizing model of either the "real" world or its representations cannot be put into place...The unrepresentable "real" collides with the unreflected "virtual." (Druckrey,20)


Wiebel similarly notes that digital technologies offer new kinds of flexible control over perception and representation that further undermine epistemological faith.  Phenomena cannot be separated from observers and their observational interface.  Wiebel notes that there is a price to pay.  Information is seen as floating and resistant to fixation.


The doubts cast by endophysics (subsequent to the theory of relativity, quantum and chaos theories) over the classical, objective nature of the world and its concomitant terms and programs amount to a description of our media and computer worlds Wiebel, 346)


What then is the role of the arts in this epistemological shaky world?  Wiebel suggests that the arts and media can provide a powerful setting for understanding the artificiality of even what was formerly called the real world and for experimenting with the observer effect.  (Wiebel, 346)


Flusser suggests, much like Feyerbend, the historian of science described in the first chapters, that science can be considered much like art.  Scientists rely on digitized data that is subject to radical epistemological doubt making them similar to the products of art.  No one can claim direct access to reality. 


What we call "the world," what our senses, by not entirely clear methods, have computed into perceptions, into emotions, desires, insights, even the senses themselves, are reified processes of computation. Science calculates the ' world as it has already been conceived. It deals with facts, with things made, not with data. The scientists are computer artists avant la lettre, and the results of science are not some "objective insights," but models for handling the computed. Understanding that science is a form of art does not debase it.  Quite the contrary: science has become a paradigm for all other arts.

(Flusser, 235)


Current research moves into areas that will further challenge faith in our perceptions even more.  For example, interface research into synthetic tactile, kinesthetic, and olfactory experience will destabilize our faith in these previously trusted, phenonomenologically compelling senses and precision stimulation of the brain to generate artificial cognition with render all perception problematic.


Although these analyses are popular in the arts,  many scientists still accept the ontological status of a real world.  The canons of scientific verification provide methods to increase faith in external realities even if they can't guarantee their existence.  Similarly the phenomenological experience of the physicality of the real world and the bodily sense of sickness, hunger, sex, and death speak strongly for a world outside of perception.   The arts would best be wary of prematurely taking sides in this digitally inspired debate about reality which promises to continue into the next decades.


Are Bodies and Physical Space Relevant?


Radical analysis suggests that the physical body and physical space are becoming increasingly irrelevant.  Digital technologies such as virtual reality allow people to inhabit simulated worlds of their own arbitrary design using  synthetic bodies.  These virtual creations can model physical reality or freely improvise from the imagination.   Digital communications and telepresence allow people to perceive and act at a distance, disregarding the old constraints of physical space.  As people spend more time in digitally produced environments,  these worlds become more realistic, and these worlds increase in their significance in people's lives,  the body and physical space may decrease in importance.


Historical Precedents:  Speculation about the relationship of virtuality and physicality is not new.  Some of the Greeks wondered if they should ban theatre because audiences became so involved in the artificial realities that they seemed to become oblivious to everyday physical reality.  Over time similar concerns were expressed by the power of novels, cinema, and television to kidnap participants outside of everyday life.


The tendency to deprecate the physical body has other precedents in Western traditions of mind body dualism and distrust of the flesh.  For example, Plato felt the body was imperfect and distant from the essential forms which were the most important aspect of the universe.  Christian traditions saw the flesh as a distraction from attending to more important spiritual concerns and saw the sojourn on earth in body and physical space as an unfortunate detour on the way to a more ethereal heaven.  In the enlightenment, the mind was seen as much more important than the body.  It is easy to see contemporary ascendancy of virtual bodies and places as a continuation of these themes.


The perfectionism does not need to be expressed in religious terms.  Rotzer reflects on the technoutopian dreams of downloading consciousness.  The body is seen as an imperfect vessel.  Ultimately some hope to bypass the body by intervening directly with the brain.  Frances Dyson deconstructs the great variety of narratives underlying the interest in virtuality and is expression of the desires for new kinds of sociality and metaphysical experience.


 The cultural imaginary propelling virtuality inhabits a curiously sophisticated rhetorical landscape, shaped by the endless permutations of futuristic, libertarian, psychedelic, cybernetic, anarchistic, subcultural, utopian, mystical and science-fiction mythologies permeating late-twentieth-century culture.  (Dyson, 27)


The nature of the virtual experience:  Marcus Novak's "Transarchitecture" attempts to prepare for the ascendancy of virtual space as our principal architecture.  He notes that the alien used to be experiences that were outside; the ability of virtual reality to spatially manifest our ideas means that "we will discover the alien that is so near as to be outlandish. We will become citizens in the spaces of our varied consciousnesses."   W. Katherine Hayles describes the phenomenon as the ascendancy of pattern over presence.    She describes the posthuman as a "coupling so intense and multifaceted that it is no longer possible to distinguish meaningfully between the biological organism and the information circuits in which it is enmeshed."  (Hayles, p 266).   Frances Dyson explores aurality and the phenomenology of sound as a tool for  understanding virtual reality's interest in immersion. Like sound, VR enables consideration of non dualistic, non-Cartesian modes of experience.


Like virtuality, the phenomenal invisibility, intangibility, multiplicity, and existential flux of sound challenges an understanding of the real based upon the visible, material, and enduring object. Sound cannot be held for close examination, nor can it be separated from the aural continuum and given a singular identity. In a constant state of becoming, sound comes into and goes out of existence in a manner that confounds ontological representation. Similarly, being both heard outside and felt within, sound blurs the distinction between the interior and exterior of the body, annihilating the distance between subject and object, self and other. (Dyson,29)


Doubts about liberation from body and space:  Debate rages about the possibilities of  the new technologies to experientially explore postmodern concepts of body and space.  Some are hopeful; some are doubtful.  VR provides some illusion of body awareness.  Typically VR travelers are imaged by body representations in the virtual worlds.  Also body suits full of sensors translate body actions into actions in the virtual world.  Simon Penny notes, however, that the real body is abandoned and that VR reaffirms traditional notions of space and dualism in spite of its rhetoric.


One leaves it at the door while the mind goes wandering, unhindered by a physical body, inhabiting an ethereal virtual body in pristine virtual space, itself a "Pure" Platonic space, free of farts, dirt, and untidy bodily is a clear continuation of the rationalist dream of disembodied mind, part of the long Western tradition of denial of the body. This reaffirms the Cartesian duality, reifying it in code and hardware.   (Penny, 69)

Arriving at a similar conclusion, Frances Dyson observes forces within technoculture that try to restrain VR's exploratory tendencies and draw it back into traditional conceptualizations of Cartesian space populated with rigidly boundarized entities.


 Rather than entering a "free-space," subjectivity is recontextualized within the programmatic grid of technology, and embedded in this grid are all those elements that drive the fixed and rigid reality, the prescribed subjectivity one might, through VR, be trying to escape. Causality , linearity, hierarchy, the discrete unit, the id one," the individual-all are situated within a teleology geared towards increasing control over systems of representation.  (Dyson, 32)


The Political Underlife of the Interest in Virtual Bodies and Virtual Places: The emphasis on disembodiment and cyberspace also can be seen as the manifestation of political narratives.    In "Code Warriors" Arthur and Marylouise Kroker describe the process of withdrawal induced by the cyberworld.  They see the emergence of a "virtual class "that uses the fascination with cyberworlds to discredit independent sensual experience and ease the path to domination. They describe the "bunker self" which dumbs down its participation:  "Privileging information while exterminating meaning, surfing without engagement, digital reality provides a new virtual playing field for tuning out and turning off. "(kroker, 249).  Physical place also becomes a shell.  Florian Rotzer describes cities as holding places for data communication.


In "The Information War" Hakim Bey draws parallels between the anti materialist bias of both religion and science.  He sees the growing etherialization  as helping support the evolution of the control and image manipulation potentials of the modern state.


the state now consists of no more than the management of images. It is no longer a force but a disembodied patterning of information....the Media serves a religious or priestly role, appearing to offer us a way out of the body by redefining spirit as information.  (Bey 370


Bey notes that money and media have already consumed the first world in abstractions.  He warns that this view has lost touch with the physical base of life and its reliance on others to do the physical work.


Americans and other "First World" types seem particularly susceptible to the rhetoric of a "metaphysical economy" because we can no longer see (or feel or smell) around us very much evidence of a physical world. Our architecture has become symbolic....we spend our leisure largely engrossed in Media rather than in direct experience of material reality. The material world for us has come to symbolize catastrophe....And yet, this "FirstWorld" economy is not self-sufficient. It depends for its position (top of the pyramid) on a vast substructure of old-fashioned material production. (Bey,372)


Artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena questions the typical presentation of cyberspace as a politically neutral/raceless/genderiess/classless "territo " open to all comers.  He suggests the sanitization of cybersapce from ethnic and other physical references serves to distract attention from important physical world phenomena.  Kevin Robins wonders about the implications of the dream of virtual reality on the "real" world.  He worries about the severance of  social relationships.


War, historically a very physical event,  becomes a testing ground for the attempted escape from physicality.  In analyzing the Gulf War, Frances Dyson notes that digital smart weapons obscure the consequences of actions in virtuality.


 hi-tech weaponry eliminates the "Vietnam syndrome" by sanitizing the body through technology. The body of the victor sparkles in its metal jacket, while the body of the victim disappears without a trace. With virtuality, the circuit is completed: floating above the carnage, the pilot initiates actions, the consequences of which are seen only via the snow of signal termination.  (Dyson, 69)


According to some analysts even those few remnants of life where the flesh in unexpendable will be brought under the discipline of digital infomatics.  Bill Nichols describes the impulse to control reproduction. 


As one expert in the engineering of human prototypes put it, reproduction in the laboratory is willed, chosen, purposed, and controlled, and is, therefore, more human than coitus with all its vagaries and elements of chance....These opportunities shift reproduction from family life, private space, and, domestic relations to the realm of production itself by means of the medical expert, clinical space, and commodity relations.  (Nichols, 140)


Optimism about liberation from body and space:  Others praise the liberatory possibilities.   Gravity and time can be defied.  One can explore fantasies that are impossible in the biological and material world.  One can break free from the Cartesian box.  One can encounter other people in unprecedented ways.  One can transform one's identity in countless ways.


Florian Rotzer sees the technology offering a new kind of imagination experience if it is developed in appropriate ways that avoid deterministic tendencies.  Some artists and theorists coming from a cyberfeminist perspective propose that the technologies might provide an intriguing counterpoint to traditional modernist ideas of mind/body split and a unitary self.   For example, Catherine Richards suggests VR may move against traditional ego boundaries.


I saw in such technologies as VR a site to try out and try on the projects reoccupying postmodern debate: the project of inventing  new images of the body where it could be seen as a threshold, a field of intensities rather than half of the mind/body dualism; and the feminist project of redesigning female subjectivity.  (Richards, 261)


Referring to Elain Scarry's research on pain, Diana Gromala proposes that pain provides a test case for VR.  It offers an intense body based experience that is difficult to share with others.  Gromala proposed to undertake a project to explore the limits of VR to deal with subjectivity and experiences such as pain.


The disembodied experience, combined with qualities of VR that seemingly do not replicate "reality," serves to upset notions in our relationship to the symbolic realm, as, well as binary mind/body, subject/object, and material/immaterial distinctions. (Gromala 237)


Digital Technology and Identity


Postmodern thought challenges traditional concepts of identity.   From the Enlightenment  Western culture fought to establish the individual as a unitary, volitional entity with powers of perception and action.  Its literature glorified the individual's metamorphosis and acts of self assertion and identity.  Critical theory suggests a less romantic, more complex view.   An individual's identity is fluid, shaped by circulating narratives of gender, class, nation, history, media, and situation.  Digital technology accelerates the process and provides a laboratory for experiments in identity.  The digitalization of information provides great flexibility in representation. Telecommunications and online environments sever the connection between physical persons and their communications.  Theorists have sought to elaborate these new views of identity and to analyze the impact of digital technologies.


Bill Nichols sees the self as a potentially outdated concept.  The old unitary self may have lost its relevance in a world dominated by digital representation and interdependency.


Liberation from any literal referent beyond the simulation, like liberation from a cultural tradition bound to aura and ritual, brings the actual process of constructing meaning, and social reality, into sharper focus. This liberation also undercuts the Renaissance concept of the individual. "Clear and distinct" people may be a prerequisite for an industrial economy based on the sale of labor power, but mutually dependent cyborgs may be a higher priority for a postindustrial postmodern economy. Nichols, 141)


In the essay "Digital Apparition" Flusser draws an analogy between modern physics and identity in the digital world.  He notes that personal identity can be viewed as confluent densities of information just as physical reality can be viewed as density of matter points.    Frances Dyson suggests that the virtual body acting in virtual space transgresses traditional notions of physical body boundaries and location.  In this fluidity it more radically challenges the basic western notions of dualistic demarcations, which underlie some concepts of identity.


Virtual online communities invite experimentation with identity.  These worlds are often constructed on the fly by participants and allow people to present themselves in any way they want.  They are freed from the physical body cues of gender, age, appearance to enact various personas.  Anonymity allows for people to try out idealized  or negative identities, to cross genders, or to manifest as multiple identities.  Commentators draw parallels between online and physical life.  Sandy Stone, well known for her writing and creative work related to identify experimentation, describes the experimental possibilities of on line representation: "They learn how to manipulate those personalities-take them out of the box, dust them, run them, put them back in the box, put them away, take out another one." (Stone 113)


In her books The Second Self and Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle investigates the anthropology and implications of online activities.  She sees online communities functioning as places to experiment with identity, much like psychotherapy.  She draws a connection between the online experiments with multiplicity and contemporary notions of the fluid postmodern self.


Virtual personas are objects-to-think-with. When people adopt an online persona, they cross a boundary into highly charged territory. Some feel an uncomfortable sense of fragmentation, some a sense of relief. Some sense the possibilities for self-discovery, even self-transformation....many manifestations of multiplicity in our culture, including the adoption of online personae, are contributing to a general reconsideration of traditional, unitary notions of identity. Contemporary psychology is being challenged to conceptualize healthy selves which are not unitary but which have flexible aspects to their many aspects. (Turkle,hershman,121-2)


Sigfreid Zielinksi proposes that multiplicity is built into the structure of digital communications, not just a feature of special online communities.  The speed and rapid reconfigurations of networks makes it difficult to maintain old style identities: "The Net is thus an impossible place... it is not a suitable place for intentionally acting subjects to stay, not even temporarily."   (Zielinski, 281)


Cultural Narratives at the Heart of Technoculture


Digital technology is often presented within a narratives of progress and revolutionary change.  Digital media is represented as a radical break with its precedents.  Analysts note that this is a mistake.  Technologies and media can be better understood as part of larger cultural trends.  Media history which tries to ignore larger cultural forces is doomed to be misleading and incomplete. 


Erkki Huhtamo, whose media archeology will be discussed in a following section, explains the need for an "anonymous history" of digital developments that does not accept the self definitions used by researchers and practitioners within the field.


Such an "anonymous history" should include not only the industrial developments, but also the social history of the computer user, the history of the computer as an object of design and as a source of style and fashion, the histories of the computer in counter- and subcultural contexts, the history of the computer's encounter and gradual merger with media culture..., and, indeed, the "mental history" of the computer -the computer as a "dream machine," an immaterial object of desires, fantasies, fears, and utopias. (Huhtamo, p 13)


George Legrady similarly notes that media technologies cannot be separated from larger cultural forces.  The relationship of technology and human consciousness can serve a multitude of functions --  "as an extension of the human body, as a mirror of the self, as a mediation between nature and culture, as a potential discursive medium or a tool of alienation and control.....All technologies distort. By expanding our abilities to perceive, they simultaneously diminish us."   (Legrady, 187)


Simon Penny focuses on the utopian rhetoric of the computer world.  Drawing on previous media history, he notes that the real impact may well be the inverse of the rhetoric.


It becomes clear that the realities of new technologies as they are actually implemented is generally in direct opposition to the rhetorics that heralded them into the market. Artists and inventors imbued with a sincere utopianism often become part of the mechanism by which such technologies become products....One of the classic techno-utopian myths of computers is that access to information will be a liberation, and its results will be, by definition, democratizing. The reality of this technology is an effective centralizing of power. This democratizing myth is strongly reminiscent of some that surrounded the introduction of television.  (Penny, 63)


Acting as a media archaeologist, Huhtamo explains that new technologies often cyclically recapitulate previous cultural themes.  The technologies are simultaneously new and old.  Their function in culture can best be understood by becoming aware of the prior historical "layers".  In several articles he reveals the power of this approach by unearthing historical trends underlying contemporary technologies.  For example, in "From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd: Notes Toward an Archeology of Media", he traces the history of  media spectacle through the 19th and 20th century.   He analyzes the similarity of audience amazement and "panic"  in the face of projected image stretching from 18th century Parisian Fanatmagorie shows, through early cinema, to Disneyland captain EO 3-D, laser extravaganzas.   He extracts "topoi", "cultural building blocks" which are molds for experience that continually get reactivated.  He asks what psychological and cultural purposes are being served by these phenomenon in different eras.


In another analysis he traces the history of the telectroscope, a precursor of television.  This 19th century proposed device would have allowed individuals to view each other from a distance as in a picture phone.  He explores the way television got diverted from this one-to-one communication model to the one-to-many model of broadcast TV.  He shows how rhetoric surrounding VR as a person to person communication device recapitulates some of the same themes.


In "Encapsulated Bodies in Motion: Simulators and the Quest for Total Immersion" Huhtamo analyzes the quest for "immersive" technology.   He notes parallels among diverse cultural phenomena such as computer games, simulators, theme park rides, drugs, eastern meditative experiences, and cinema virtual zoom travel scenes.  He documents historical advertising rhetoric for immersion in remote realities stretching from 1850's descriptions of stereogrphhic photography through early promotions for buying TVs and 1950's Cinerama.  He suggests that a historical analysis of the Victorian fascination of stereography offers insights into contemporary interest in technologies such as immersive VR.  Stereography provided an escape to physically inaccessible other places.  It allowed the male gaze to penetrate virgin lands.  He quotes Charles Baudelaire:  "A thousand hungry eyes were bending over the peep-holes of the stereoscope, as if they were the attic-windows of the infinite. '  (Huhtamo, pen.161)


Huhtamo ties in another historical thread by linking contemporary simulators with amusement parks, streetcars, and railroads.  Amusement park rides attempt to provide visitors with specially truncated and amplified experiences of bodies in motion.  The popularity of physical rides, however, cannot be explained only as physical thrill; rather they grow out of a metapsychological need for people to deal with increasing mechanization and control of the body.


Doug Kahn similarly analyzes sound technologies such as phonography, telephones, and sound film by looking at them in terms of deeper cultural and social practices.   For example, he identifies cultural themes implicit in phonography such as the severance of voice from the body,  movement of sound into the realm of representation, and the search for the voice of the soul.


Dominance of Vision


Tracing the cultural significance of perspective and the dominance of vision has been a major focus of many analysts.  In this view the development of perspective in the Renaissance was not just a technical innovation.  It instantiated cultural themes such as the importance of sight, the privileging of particular points of view,  the disregard of other senses,  and a faith in the ability to organize and dominate space,  The power of contemporary media and representation derive from this dominance.  Contemporary technological developments can be understood as parts of this cultural trend - sometimes recapitulating them and other times breaking new ground.  Timothy Druckrey explains the importance of vision in broad cultural issues of power and the role of technology in the process.


A politics of seeing, recording, and accumulation emerged. Experience was circumscribed by a series of stages in which the displacement of vision by representational systems was both scientifically legitimated and culturally necessary. Photography, cinema, and scientific visualization coalesced with systems of illusion, recording, spectacle, information, and the public sphere. In a panoptic culture, the management of visuality identifies consumption as passive and production as empowering - essentials in the system of capital. (Druckery 18)


Peter Weibel notes the importance of technology in making vision the dominant sense of the modern era.


The primacy of the eye, the dominant sense organ of the twentieth century is the consequence of a technical revolution that put an enormous apparatus to the service of vision. The rise of the eye is rooted in the fact that all of its aspects (creation, transmission, reception) were supported by analog and digital machines. The triumph of the visual in the twentieth century is the triumph of a techno-vision.Wiebel, 339-40)


Lev Manovich wrote a series of articles tracing the interrelationships of vision technologies and cultural practices.  In "Labor of Vision" he investigates how technologies of vision changed in the transition from modernity to postmodernity.  Drawing on Walter Benjamin,  he notes that broad psycho-cultural trends affect both leisure and work.  For example, the factory worker and the filmgoer confronted similar perceptual tasks of "of keeping pace with the rhythm of production."  In the contemporary world the perceptual task has changed in both leisure and work to monitoring data displays, ready for events.  This analysis is critical for understanding contemporary digital arts and media, which must be seen as part of a more general cultural focus.


Manovich traces the history of the human machine interface from Taylorism to cognitive science.   In the early part of the 20th century researchers studied the psychology and physiology of workers with the aim of increasing their productivity with machines.  In the late 20th century the focus has shifted to efficiency in mental work. Radar operators, fighter pilots, computer game players, and vr navigators are all working on similar perceptual tasks.


Sophisticated computer image recognition systems can correct distortions, focus and blur.  They can use understandings about contexts to extrapolate from visual information.  Manovich suggests that perspective is losing its ascendancy, becoming just one space mapping and visualization technique among many.


Analysts such as the Critical Art Ensemble assert that vision serves important functions of domination and control.  Vision technologies are used in military intelligence, surveillance, population control, and geographic management and also in maintaining the symbolic order through representation and manipulation of spectacle.  The war machine and the sight machine are closely linked.


The analysis notes that the "flesh machine" will eventually complete the triumpherate by bringing the body and biosphere into disciplines of control.  Vision again plays a crucial role by subjecting the "target' to surveillance and symbolic positioning.  It uses the military metaphors of "visual intelligence" to explain the role of visual surveillance in domination of the biosphere.


The significant principle here the one being replicated in the development of the flesh machine-is that vision equals control. Therefore the flesh machine, like its counterparts, is becoming increasingly photocentric....From the macro to the micro no stone can remain unturned. Every aspect of the body must be open to the vision of medical and scientific authority. Once the body is thoroughly mapped and its mechanistic splendor revealed, any body invader (organic or otherwise) can be eliminated, and the future of that body can be accurately predicted. (Critical Art Ensemble 396)


Relationship of Digital Technologies to Gender,  Class, and Socioeconomic Forces


Class and Ethnic Identity:  Arthur and Marilouise Kroker offer a critique of what they call "virtual manifest destiny."  Many atrocities to the human spirit are being committed in the name of digitally mediated "improvements".  They warn about the unacknowledged consequences of a mindless simplistic march to the digital utopia spearheaded by capitalists and digital visionaries, "a virtual war strategy where knowledge is reduced to data storage dumps, friendship is dissolved into floating cyber-interactions, and communication means the end of meaning. Virtualization in the cyberhands of the new technological class is all about our being dumbed down...." (Kroker, 254


Guillermo Gomez-Pena challenges the assertion that the digital world is classless, genderless, and free of ethnic discriminations.  He analyzes circulating stereotypes that characterize third world peoples as being incompetent and uninterested in digital developments.:  "we continue to be manual beings-homo fabers par excellence, imaginative artisans (not technicians)-and our understanding of the world is strictly political, poetical, or metaphysical at best, but certainly not scientific."   He attributes relative non-participation to lack of access instead of supposed cultural traits and describes the spread of digital culture into the third world.   (Gomez-Pena 176)


Some analysts seek to problematize the  neutrality of digital media.  Drawing on Walter Benjamin, Bill Nichols draws parallels with the cultural functions of film.  Benjamin claimed that mechanical reproduction technologies had the potential to revolutionize society.  The film industry served to "contain" this potential.  He sees a similar danger as the "explosive" potentials of digital culture, such as elimination of drudgery and promotion of collectivity,  get "defused" and channeled into controllable expressions.


Furthermore, historically internal processes such as intelligence and perception become incorporated as commodities.


the automated intelligence of chips reveals the power of postindustrial capitalism to simulate and replace the world around us, rendering not only its exterior realm but also its interior ones of consciousness, intelligence, thought and intersubjectivity as commodity experience. (Nichols, 131


Simon Penny similarly notes that consumer culture is embedded in the hardware and software systems.  He is skeptical about its revolutionary potentials.


At the computer, as in the supermarket, one submits to the interactive scenario and the limited freedoms it offers: total freedom among a set of fixed options. A postmortem capitalist paradise In postmodern times, we build a personal identity from novel combinations of manufactured commodities. "I shop, therefore I am.'

Computer technology, hardware architecture, and software design reify value systems.  (Penny, 56)


In an essay called the "Californian Ideology" Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron debunk the rhetorics of digital utopianism by analyzing its underlying libertarian assumptions and blind spots.  Historically they trace the origins of digital nirvana in the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s and follow the evolution of the ideas to their present state that posits a utopian world that could be ushered in by giving free reign to unfettered development of digital technologies, communication, media, and associated dispersed social structures and industries.  They call it "Californian" because many of the trends find their most extreme expression in places like Silicon Valley.


This new faith has emerged from a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley....the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies. In the digital utopia, everybody will be both hip and rich


Barbrook and Cameron raise several questions about this view.  They note that this digital future depends on the unacknowledged labor of  digital underclasses.  It is supported by a drive of capitalist expansionism and attempts to free itself from obligations to laborers.  The shadow side of the digital virtual class's freedom and individuality is a lack of connection to other workers and an unrealized acceptance of work as the main life value.  The virtual class has accepted the ideology of the free market and the withering away of government without careful analysis of the consequences.


In the more extreme visions, the digital elite narcissistically seek to become hyperevolved "extropians" - freeing themselves from the mundane details of everyday life and community interdependence and responsibility.  They believe in the possibility of robiticizing all labor, failing to acknowledge the ultimate reliance on human labor.


Cyberfeminist Critique:  Investigating the way digital technologies continue classic western approaches to visualization, cyberfeminists comment on the often unrecognized gendering of vision.  Digital environments such as VR often recapitulate the problematics of the male gaze with its assumptions of authority, privilege, and penetration.  Simon Penny describes the instantiation of the male gaze in VR: "what the eye wants, the eye gets" (Penny, 60)


Nell Tenhaaf notes that the modernist philosophies underlying technological development are essentially male and marginalize other female approaches to working with technology.


The philosophy of technology, however, has been articulated entirely from a masculinist perspective in terms that metaphorize and marginalize the feminine... The modernist philosophical framework for technology is the discourse of the will, specifically the will to power postulated by Friedrich Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century. Expanded upon by subsequent philosophers, in particular Martin Heidegger, this discourse views technology as the manifestation of an essentially masculine will that is the driving force of the whole modem era. In its language and imagery, the will to power is interwoven with a deeply entrenched and mythic concept of duality that describes commanding (and the power of the machine) as a masculine attribute, while submission (and the rule of feeling) is described as a feminine one. (Tenhaaf 219-20)


Sandy Stone's studies of people's interactions with computers revealed this same focus on domination.  She refers back to Francis Bacon's ideas that "nature was a woman who had to be seized and wooded and her secrets were to be wrested from her by the controlling man."  Nancy Peterson traces male attitudes about women and the power of knowledge back before the electronic era to examples in literature like Eve and Pandora.  The update links the danger to digital technology: "The power which these women wield is evil, technological and, of course, seductive." gopher://


Tenhaaf, Patterson, and some of the other feminist theorists discussed in the previous sections on the body and identify believe there are ways to work with technology outside of the narratives of domination.   For example, Sadie Plant in "The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics' draws analogies between software and weaving .  She considers new developments as the net and artificial life which defy direct control.  She sees them as manifestations of the unpredictable "Other" to be engaged rather than dominated.   Women must master the technologies and introduce new models that strike out beyond the patriarchal emphases  of much technology such as the military origins of the Internet or the violent goals of computer games.  Patterson asks what models might work.


Cyberfeminism as a philosophy has the potential to create a poetic, passionate, political identity and unity without relying on a logic and language of exclusion or appropriation....New electronic technologies are currently utilized to manipulate and define our experiences. Cyberfeminism does not accept as inevitable current applications of new technologies which impose and maintain specific cultural, political and sexual stereotypes. Empowerment of women in the field of new electronic media can only result from the demystification of technology, and the appropriation of access to these tools. Cyberfeminism is essentially subversive. 


Like artists such as Char Davies, and Brenda Laurel discussed in chapter 7.3, she sees the liberatory possibilities of VR and other digital technologies as a fertile area to work.  Cyberculture offer the opportunity to experiment with new identities for the self and to force others to interact without gender-bias.


 grounding themselves in personal physical experience. This skill will serve well as we venture into other dimensions and back home again. However skilled we become at navigating these spaces and temporarily leaving our bodies behind, it is doubtful that we will ever achieve immortality. Virtuality is patriarchy's blind spot.....Transgressing order and linear organization of information, cyberfeminists recognize the opportunity to redefine 'reality,' on our terms and in our interest and realize that the electronic communications infrastructure or 'matrix' may be the ideal instrument for a new breed of feminists to pick up and play.


Other cyberfeminist writers and artists believe interface conventions are not as neutral as typically presented.   They carry messages of domination and control often associated with male perspectives.  Interface models involving more aspects of the body allow for more convivial exchanges between humans and digital technology.  For example, in paper called "Posthuman or Para-ego? Interactive models  of human-technology relations" Zo Sofoulis explores an agenda in which physicality is emphasized.


She notes the growing interest in topics such as cybersex and teledildanics and the reliance on verbal mediation.   She is also interested, however, in other  relationships between the body and digital technology such as polymorphous corporeality.  Experimental art installations offer an opportunity for artists to engage audience bodies in unprecedented ways.   Latour's Actor-network theory provides useful concepts for thinking about the dynamic meaning that arises from exchanges between bodies and technology.


What it looks like and what it can do (its performative competency) is not determined in advance along some foregone technological trajectory, but emerges only through contestation, contingency, and a delicate 'dance of agency' negotiated within a heterogeneous network or assemblage of human and non-human agents. 


Sofoulis suggests that female artists have special perspectives to contribute to this analysis of the core of interface because of historical values of corporeality and relationship.


our capacities to make intimate connections with and through high tech equipment, capacities much celebrated in cyberculture...have little to do with the higher reaches of reason enabling transcendence of the flesh via technology into a post-human state; and perhaps have more to do with the agencies and competencies of our bodily beings, which are essential to our own humanity, a humanity understood as extending its sociality within a lifeworld shared with many other kinds of physical and virtual entities.


In "Cyberfeminism with a Difference" Rosi Braidotti analyzes the possibilities for a feminist agenda in cyberspace.  She explores the possibility of re-embodiment and parody but warns about the danger of reproducing patriarchal patterns.  She sees virtual reality as a possible space for feminist experimentation with inherent dangers.  Old feminist models of female identity may not address the realities of the cyberworld.  Women need to find new dynamic modes that use the technical possibilities in innovative ways.


Yes, the girls are getting mad; we want our cyber dreams, we want our own shared hallucinations. You may keep your blood and gore, what's at stake for us is how to grab cyber-space so as to exit the old, decayed, seduced, abducted and abandoned corpse of phallo-logocentric patriarchy; the death squads of the phallus, the geriatric, money-minded, silicon-inflated body of militant phallocracy and its annexed and indexed feminine other'. The riot girls know that they can do better than this....


I would like to argue therefore that the central point to keep in mind in the context of a discussion on cyberspace is that the last thing we need at this point in Western history is a renewal of the old myth of transcendence as flight from the body. (&&&need address)


Information Structures and the Fabric of Life


Developments of digital technology reduce everything to information and change processes of daily life.  There is expansion and acceleration but also condensation and loss.  For example, in "Between nodes and Data Packets" Florian Rotzer notes that telecommunications already started a process of spatial condensation.   As a consequence human relationships experienced an acceleration and intensification.  Communication and decision making became linked in an unprecedented way. (Rotzer, 249). 


Several theorists analyze the loss of information inherent in digital systems.  Friederich Kittler comments on the basic conundrum that real numbers and the analog values of nature can only be approximated in the digitizing process. 


Siegrried Zieleinski  draws on Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari to describe features of life that can easily be neglected by the net and other digital environments.  He urges engagement of the Other.   Digital systems exclude the contingent and the inconsistent.   He sees the value of adopting an agenda similar to Bataille - seeking to represent "everything that is excluded from the system and everyday routine; everything that resists being understood by science: the repellent, the vile, the violent, the instinctiveness of the death drive. "  (zielinksi,282)


In "From the Analytical Engine to Lady Ada's Art", Regina Cornwell warns similarly about the new dangers of rationalism and consumerism.  She deconstructs the kinds of perspectives promoted in digital systems to the exclusion of others.  She warns that the computer is not a neutral mind amplifier.  Digital systems privilege explicit vs. implicit, ambiguous, and metaphoric knowing; objective over interpreted; and data and information over knowledge and wisdom.


In his book Technosis Erik Davis proposes a different kind of analysis showing how sprititual and millenialist dreams and fears  of the last decades of the 20th century influenced digial and information culture and how the language and ideas of the information society have shaped contemporary spirituality.  The book suggests that a new "network path"offers pluralistic persepctives that are  capable of "grappling with some of the forces that are currently tearing us apart: spirit and science, modernity and nihilism, technology and the human."


Role of the Arts in Digital Culture


The contemporary world confronts the arts with significant challenges.  How can artists address the profound social and cultural changes implicit in the advance of digital culture such as the impact on concepts of truth, identity, body, economic structure identified in previous sections?  How does the fact that the tools of digital art are the same  that underlie commerce, government, military activities limit and empower digital artists?  Although this entire book addresses these questions, this section reviews theorist's reflections on these questions.


Limitations of Artistic Intervention:  In "Consumer Culture and the Technological Imperative: The Artist in Dataspace",  Simon Penny explains that aesthetic distantiation is no longer tenable when artists are engaging the same systems used in general communication and commerce.  Penny explains that artists cannot afford to ignore the ideological and consumer rhetoric surrounding the digital world.  Audiences will interpret the work in this context.  Even more artists themselves become part of the flow of this world -- for example, making aesthetic judgments based on innovation and underlying tropes of progress: "An artist cannot engage technology without engaging consumer commodity economics."   (Penny, 47)


Penny notes that artist involvement with the new technology creates dilemmas.  Artists often end up functioning as beta-testers for industrial research, generating ideas that result in products, for which they often do not receive acknowledgment or financial rewards.  If artists allow them to get caught in the fascination with research, then they run the danger of needing to constantly keep up.  Artist work that can be quite innovative and challenging when first invented can have its position as cultural provocation undermined by the arrival of consumer products which popularize and commodify the "innovation".   Because the artists' technologies are known in many other contexts such as entertainment and communication, audiences use many paradigms besides art to interpret what they encounter.


Richard Wright notes a similar development in the spread of computer imaging programs which embed aestheticized techniques that used to be available to only an art elite.  For example, the commercial program Painter automatically transforms images in the style of various painters.  He proposes that Walter Benjamin's ideas about loss of aura of art objects can be extended to the means of production.  He warns that technologized arts develop a dependence on industry that can compromise artistic agendas.  He sees some similarities with photography.


Artists struggle to develop aesthetics that move against the dominant modernist, engineering models underlying digital tools.  Artists working with digital systems often do not care about issues such as efficiency and clarity that interest the technical community.  Penny notes:  "Contrary to the clear and direct presentation of the technical community, these artists exploit innuendo, connotation, allusion, and sometimes self-contradiction."  (Penny, 58) He warns that finding an independence from the technological imperative is critical will not be easy for digital artists.


Peter Wiebel similarly warns about artists' uncritically accepting the industrial context and yielding to the seduction of techno-fascination.


The standardised weave of norms of technical apparatus, from frequencies to software, is accepted without criticism and provides standardises artistic packages. Instead of experimentally investigating artistic practice in laboratories, evolving discursive collages beyond and against the industrial empire, instead of investigating the conditions of production and consumption of art in a cultural laboratory, creating a new framework for an existence in the data world, most media artists become voluntary victims within the mighty text of technology. They celebrate their own fascination with fetish technology instead of developing a distance to this fascination.


Some artists and theorists believe that one way artists can work against the domination of the commercial infrastructure is by rejecting the off the shelf software and inventing new tools.  There is significant debate about the necessity of this approach.  For several years Ars Electronica paid special attention to artists who took this step.  The 1994 Ars Electronica jury issued this statement.


This year the jury chose to recognize with Honourable Mentions a number of works which represent the development of new software tools with potential for rich, artistic development. These new developments are very important, since most software systems have been created for commercial, scientific or mass entertainment purposes and are often not well suited for artistic work...The jury debated at some length about where the boundary between innovative software tools and artistic work might be, but finally decided that these kinds of works were of such artistic interest that their categorisation was secondary.


Other artists and theorists disagreed that this was essential and asserted that significant art could be generated within systems designed for commercial, scientific or other purposes.  For example, artist Henry See wrote an open letter to Ars Electronica questioning this approach.  Like Penny, See notes that artists are subject to new developments in hardware and software and  constantly changing demands for mastering new skills and of being in endless danger of appearing "out of date".  .


He warns, however, that the focus on  development of new tools runs the danger of accepting these cycles and values of the industry - a too facile branding of artists as "out-of-date."  He believes artists can develop artistic work with off the shelf tools without being dominated by the underlying assumptions of the tools


Potential of Artistic Intervention: In spite of these dangers, many theorists believe artists can significantly contribute to the discourse about technology and culture.  In "Media Art to the Rescue"  Derrick de Kerckhove writes that science presents a very limited view of man and misses the profound changes brought by technology.   Technological artists can enable us to see, hear, and feel more and to ensure that technology becomes a tool for enhancement rather than a chain of limitation: "The role of the artist today, as always, is to recover for the general public the larger context that has been lost by science's exclusive investigations of text."


In  "Art Making as Forging Evidence" Luc Courchesne suggests that artists can mitigate against the loss of faith in the ability to know the world.  Like many writers described in this chapter, Corchesne notes the dominance of vision in human knowing and the decay in faith in the senses brought on by scientific inquiry into the unseeable and the advent of chaos theory and critiques of science.  When reality is up for grabs, trust becomes extremely important.  "Beauty", in the sense of something standing out as special," can help build trust.  Because artists can create works that command interest and attention, they can become trusted sources:  " Artists, designers and other breeds of form givers are usually aware that the experience of beauty can transform forged evidence into facts and reality."


Mckenzie Wark believes part of the potential power of the arts comes from their ability to enter into the settings where the new technologies are playing out:  " Electronic artists negotiate between the dead hand of traditional, institutionalized aesthetic discourses and the organic, emergent forms of social communications."  (Wark, 9)  Soke Dinkla draws parallels with the art and life movements of earlier decades.  Artists sought ways to integrate art more with everyday life.  As life becomes increasingly technologized, then technological artists may find a way to realize that old dream.  Huhtamo sees digital culture challenging the high art, low art distinctions of earlier generations.  Young artists go to work in digital industries without angst about its status as art and digital industries begin to develop standards of quality that resemble those of the art world.


Many theorists believe digital work continues what many call "postphotographic" practice.  The interest has shifted from the precious object to a process of engagement.  Artists no longer believe in freezing particular moments in time from particular viewpoints but rather seek to explore multiplicity.  Kevin Robbins describes the power of digital techniques to explore postmodern concepts of fluid meanings and reality.  Roy Ascott suggests digital artists can help lead the way to understanding the evanescence of reality and the importance of levels below the surface.


Peter Wiebel similarly identifies the arts as an appropriate place to explore these new ideas about reality.  He calls it the "endo" approach which acknowledges the observer's role in shaping what comes to be called reality.  Electronic arts are precisely at that nexus where the features of the postmodern world can be made clearer and worked with.


Electronic art moves art from an object-centered stage to a context- and observer-oriented one. In this way, it becomes a motor of change, from modernity to postmodernity, i. e., the transition from closed, decision defined and complete systems to open, non-defined, and incomplete ones, from the world of necessity to a world of observer-driven variables, from mono-perspective to multiple perspective, from hegemony to pluralism, from text to context, from locality to non-locality, from totality to particularity, from objectivity to observer -relativity, from autonomy to co-variance, from the dictatorship of subjectivity to the immanent world of the machine. (Wiebel 342-3)


In developments such as quantum and relativity theory and psychoanalysis the culture experienced a series of shocks to conventional notions of reality.  The electronic arts with their focus on virtuality provide a laboratory for understanding endophysics and experimenting with the meanings of these changes and helping a culture negotiate change.


These trends have always found their way into the arts, where they were simultaneously promoted, lamented, delayed, aesthetically idealized, brought to attention, or ignored. An attendant sense of loss, be it aesthetic or epistemological, has been inevitable. It is the price each alteration of reality and any new era has to pay.  (Wiebel,346)


Artists can use the digital tools to investigate those messy features of life likely to be ignored in digital environments such as the Net.  Manuel De Landa, who wrote War in the Age of  Intelligent Machines, focuses on organizational structures in society and digital technologies.  He is especially interested in artificial intelligence and autonomous agents.  He sees a growing together of biological and machinic tendencies, represented especially in military technology.  He uses the term "strata" to describe self organizing tendencies in society and technology.  Artists provide an important possibility in moving against the ossification of these strata:  "The artist is  that agent (human or not) that takes stratified matter-energy or

sedimented cultural materials, and makes them follow a line of

flight, or a line of song, or of color.."


 Zielinski describes the ways artists can stand against and outside:  "I deduce that it is our aesthetic duty to take that which is versus, that which is turned over, that which is turned inside out, seriously and to combine it with diversity and incalculability."  (Zielinski, 284).  One important way to do this is problematicize the interface and other assumptions of the digital world - to make its apparatus visible and to work on alternatives such haptic, gestural, or spoken mediation.


Andreas Brockman, in an essay "Points of Departure" created for the V2's Next Five Minutes Conference, explores the possibility of Tactical Art Media.  Building on Guattari, he sees artists as potentially strong in making clear the domination of new media on culture and in developing counter measures.  Artists must analyze the media ecology and find places to intervene in those structures.  They must nurture disruption and hereogenesis (undoing the mass, unquestioning conformity).  He quotes Druckrey's warning that many are getting caught in the search for technological progress rather than engaging deeper questions about machine culture.


Rather than an encounter with technology as the crucial mechanism in the culture of the late 20th century, the discourse is shifting into the implementation of software solutions that veil the staggering impact of machine culture. Instead of radical questions concerning the sundering of ethics and the refiguration of communication, we are hypnotized by innovations in imaging and processing that unhinge so many of our assumptions about the fallacies of progress that yet hold our imagination in the balance....For so much work utilizing electronic media, the characteristics (often seen as limitations) of the delivery system represent a hurdle to be overcome rather than a form to be interrogated.


But neo-luddism does not provide a viable answer.  Rather artists must make themselves sufficiently knowledgeable that they understand the system well enough to countervail.  Artistic flexibility and willingness to pursue non standard paths are resources in this work.


yet, this interrogation of our tools should not lead into a new form

of Luddism. Seeing the symbolic and political implications of certain

technologies is an important prerequisite of identifying the cracks in the system, for identifying the breaks where usages can be moulded into new and productive forms and strategies....The potential of media to be machines of difference, to be machines of heterogeneity must be exploited by media tacticians in ways that find creative solutions for specific situations. In this, subjectification can function as a useful guide-line for the choice of tools and strategies....


The process is not easy.  The cultural forces driving digital development can easily assimilate many artistic gestures.  Artists must constantly reevaluate the effectiveness of their media interventions.


Interactivity and User Interface Conventions


Interactivity is often considered the distinguishing feature of computer based media.  The audience is invited to take action to influence the flow of events or to navigate through the data hyperspace.  In the early days  this relationship between the audience and work was considered quite radical.  Artist and audience were seen as co-creators and the likelihood of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic engagement was seen as heightened.  As the field has matured, artists and theorists have sought to deconstruct interactivity.  As discussed in my paper "The Aesthetics and Practice of Interactive Events", the mere act of making choices does not necessarily result in significant artistic interchange.  Also, the interactive paraphernalia of computing (e.g. menus, mouse navigation) cannot be separated from the history and conventions and social niches of computer use in the mainstream.  Conventional interacitvity comes out of the disciplines of computer human interface design and engineering, whose agendas focus on efficiency and producitivty rather than more artistic goals such as provocation, discovery, nuance, and exploration. Theorists have sought to investigate the constraints and elucidate the artistic opportunities and challenges. 


In his essay "It is Interactive -- but is it Art?" written for the 1993 Siggraph Art Show "Machine Culture",  Erkki Hutamo describes the rhetorical dangers of interactivity.   Interactive systems are not automatically  revolutionary and can be quite the opposite, disguising strategies for "marketing, surveillance, and exercise of authority" .


Artists can push interactivity in many ways.  Hutahmo is interested in art that provides metacommentaries on interactivity by using the technology itself to mythicize and deautomate the discourse.  He notes that many artist succumb to unquestioning celebrations of the technology and its underlying conventions.  It is not easy for artists to work with experimental technologies without being socialized into the researcher's frameworks.


Many artist believe they can simultaneously explore the frontiers of interactivity and not succumb to unwarranted assumptions.   For example, artists described in chapter 4.5 on artificial life,  such as Simon Penny and Ken Rinaldo,   attempt to create an unpredictable, evolving digital systems that generate a very different kind of interaction than the usual menu based systems.  Other artists such as those described in chapter 7.4 create kinematic systems that read a variety of human actions help determine the flow of events and challenge the solitary conventions of computer use.


David Rokeby, an artist who has won many awards for his interactive installations that react to the movements of visitors, has written extensively on interactive aesthetics.  His essay "Transforming Mirrors" reviews the history and psychology of interactive art and explores the difference between conventional and interactive works. He notes that interactive art derives its power in part from the history of "inert" art and only becomes interesting when it moves outside paradigms of control to explore "encounter."


Rokeby describes several kinds of interactive art including "Navigable Structures, The Invention of Media, Transforming Mirrors, and Automata."  His own work typically offers transforming mirrors, in which the users action influence but do not control the work.  Viewers typically learn something about themselves and others through the works.


By providing us with mirrors, artificial media, points-of-view, and automata, interactive artworks offer us the tools for constructing identities, our sense of ourselves in relation to the artwork, and by implication, in relation to the world.


Rokeby sees interactive installations as microcosms in which viewers can assume responsibility for their actions and reflect on their status in larger social systems.  He warns that utopian rhetoric can oversell and oversimplify interactive technologies.  Artists are  in a privileged position of understanding the tools but must avoid becoming merely public relations cheerleaders.  Their role is  "to explore, but at the same time, question, challenge and transform the technologies that they utilize."


In chapter 7.2 Jim Campbell describes his interest in interactivity that is not control.  He is interested in systems that are responsive but unpredictable in non random ways.  Many computer systems focus on maximizing control; Cambpell is interested in systems that respond are influenced by feelings and intuitions. 


Monika Fleishman, an artist known for interactive VR research, works on developing new kinds of interfaces that enable visitors to act on their imaginations.  She experiments with new kind of body sensors and rich spaces that allow visitor imagination room to shape events. She hopes to "tempt the viewer out of the role of consumer."


Known for his interactive kinetic installations, Perry Hoberman attempts to move against the commercial conventions  of interactive systems.  He finds the most interest in open ended systems, for example intersubjective systems that facilitate people interacting with each other, as in the Internet.  He also questions the typical mouse, keyboard, graphic user interface conventions.  In a talk offered at the "Seen & Heard Conference", he suggests involving more aspects of the body and moving away from multiple choice arrangements.  He defines part of the problem as how to get people to stop interacting to regard what they are looking at.


In the essay "An Invitation to Interactive Art" curator Itsuo Sakane introduced the Interactions 97 show by reflecting on interactive art.  He asks   "Where, then, in the long history of humanity did interactive art originate? And where is it going? What meaning does it have in the culture produced by human creative  behavior?"   Historically he notes that all art asks for audience interaction.  In this century he sees influences from Duchamp, happenings,  new art audience participation from the 50's and 60's, and MacLuhanism.


These trends culminated in a faith in the power of audience participation.  Drawing on Regina Cornwall's analysis of interactive computer art, Sakane traces the similarities and differences between games, military software, and interactive art.  He notes that self discovery is a key distinguishing characteristic.  Sakane sees interactive computer art as a step in the transformation of culture.  He sees play as a major cultural force  that can be integrated into art. 


people had begun to recognize the new power of the media, new hope emerged that through participation we might rediscover the world for ourselves through our own senses....even though they share common ancestors, the objectives and values embodied in interactive art, which were born of a liberated consciousness, are clearly different from those of the current video games, whose values are based on the marketplace....Because it is connected with the broader human reality and the joy of discovery, it should be seen in the context of Caillois and Huizinga's ideas of play as a basis of culture.


In "Interactivity Means Interpassivity" Mona Sakis suggests that interactive art may indicate a certain desire for passivity.  She links it with other human desires to avoid responsibility for one's actions: "The mania to deliver oneself up to 'technologically produced' intoxications is a tricky way to reduce one's responsibility."


Ken Feingold also traces the history of interactive art.  He notes that artists need not dominated by the military and video game origins of their tools.  He explains important precedents with the surrealists and Marcel Duchamp and emphasizes the importance of touching in human learning about the world and relationships.  He sees interactive art building on this biological basis:  "To touch to acquire, to investigate, to examine the results of ones production... to affirm ones own existence in the world - the earliest and most durable forms of agency."


Don Ritter, an artist described in chapter 7.5 who creates movement and touch sensitive installations, also questions the  conventions of interactive systems.  He notes that the normal situation of solitary person manipulating mouse and keyboard in front of monitor is extremely limiting and in part a reflection of economic constraints of the computer industry rather than a necessary part of aesthetic experiences.  He developed "physical aesthetics" as a way to analyze the physical situation of interactive artworks.  In his paper "MY FINGER"S GETTING TIRED: Unencumbered Interactive Installations for the Entire Body", he describes the need to attend to body experience.  He also notes that most experiences do not require people to act in solitary fashion and that many aesthetic experiences involve groups.  Again, he traces the solitary pattern to the efficiency, control, and economic needs of the computer industry.   He sees great opportunity in artists exploring interactive events that use the whole body and engage groups of people with each other. 


User Interface:  Several theorists seek to deconstruct interface conventions.  The system of windows, menus, icons, and mouse manipulation are only one set of cultural constructs out of many.  Paul Brown, an artists and organizer of the Fine Arts Forum, is known for his iconoclastic views about the "user friendly interface."  He warns that these systems come with many hidden assumptions that often lull artists and audience from a more radical critique. 


User friendly tools work by adopting existing paradigmatic metaphors. In essence they tell the user .. "there is nothing new to learn, your existing knowledge and skill can be applied to these new systems". It's not surprising therefore that they cauterise creative development and could possibly delay (and may even prevent) the evolution of new methodologies and critical dialogues .


In  "Cinema as a Cultural Interface" Lev Manovich suggests that the computer is becoming an interface to culture rather just a limited data manipulator as it becomes the main access point to ever widening forms of information - "All culture, past and present, is beginning to be filtered through a computer, with its particular human-computer interface." 


He analyzes the three conventions of printed word, cinema, and general purpose computer-human interface design that increasingly being conflated into the computer experience,  extracting the assumptions that underlie each for example HCI's emphasis on manipulation of objects and cinema's immersion in an imaginary world.   He explains the assumptions of each and suggests that


Hybrid cultural interfaces attempt to mediate between these two fundamentally different and ultimately non-compatible approaches.... Cultural interfaces try to accommodate both the demand for consistency and the demand for originality....It is a strange, often awkward mix between the conventions of traditional artistic forms and the conventions of HCI-- between an immersive environment and a set of controls; between standardization and originality.


Manovich sees this combination as creating tensions.  He notes that current manifestations are not the last word and many other possibilities are open to artistic and media experimentation. In "A Postscript on the Emerging Aesthetics of Interactive Art " Simon Penny also warns that the lack of audience experience with artistic interactivity offers challenges because users lack experience and a language which results in a "crisis of meaning".

He suggests that new models will need to be developed drawing on the metaphors of A-life rather than the hypertextual model of a navigatable datasphere.


Debate in the Art Community - Possibilities of an Enhanced Future


Are digital systems the beginning of a grand age or are they the culmination of dark forces of dehumanization and domination?  Or are they both?  The digital artists described in the next chapters fall all along that continuum although they tend to be a bit more optimistic than the theorists. The theoretical analysis presented in this chapter is an critical inoculation to runaway technoeuphoria. 


Some theorists, however, do believe the possibilities outweigh the limitations.  They suggest that the critique of the rhetoric of progress may be missing some genuine new possibilities.  For example, Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of VR, believes that digital technologies can create unprecedented ways for human to know themselves and to communicate with others.  He calls it "postsymbolic communication", a kind of "conscious shared dreaming."


Mark Pesce, one of the pioneers of the 3-D VRML web technology, believes that digital and telecommunications technologies are making possible a new kind of global consciousness and that artists have an important role in elaborating the possibilities.  In a paper called "Proximal and Distal Unity" he speculates that we are in the midst of creating a noosphere.


The fact of the ubiquity and simultaneity of the advent of the Web - which in any reasonable historical sense has occurred in an instant - contains within it the most significant indicator of the presence of the noosphere ..How then should we act when confronted with the quite-likely-but-in-the-end-unprovable existence of a cybernetic superbeing? We must begin to develop ways to communicate with it &&&(need address)


Roy Ascott asserts a view that digital systems are radically transforming human possibilities in expansive ways.  He uses a term "cyberseption" to describe a consciousness enhanced in its depth and scope.  Artists have an important role in elaborating and communicating these possibilities.  In a paper called "Turning on Technology" Ascott suggests that the digital age has help art complete its movement out from its visual base to address core questions about consciousness.  That movement is facilitated when artists move beyond seduction with technology to total spiritual engagement.


 In this reconfiguration of ourselves and our culture, the process of transformation lies between what I call cyberception, technologically extended cognition and perception, and the technoetic aesthetic, art allied to the technology of consciousness.


Engaging constructively with the technological environment,  [art] sets creativity in motion, within the frame of indeterminacy, building new ideas, new forms, and new experience from the bottom up, with the artist relinquishing total control while fully immersed in the evolutive process....And it is a noetic enticement, an invitation to share in the consciousness of a new millennium, the triumphant seduction of technology by art, not the seduction of the artist by technology.


Analyses such as this forcefully demonstrate that there are many readings for the research and art described in this book.  The utopian dreams of the researchers and frontier artists must be synthesized somehow with alternative less benign readings.