|«Technology is the ability to arrange the world in a way that allows us to avoid experiencing it.» Max Frisch|
|Text og drawings: Tiril Schrøder|
|My Computer, My Mirror
Animal programs are some of the most popular shows on TV. We are particularly interested in apes and how much they resemble us humans. When we see a program with a chimpanzee breaking off a branch and preparing it to use for fishing after ants we think, «Its making itself tools. Gosh, what an intelligent animal!»
Humankind has always defined itself according to its tools: that we make and use tools is the definition of mankind. Even our historical epochs are ordered according to the kinds of tools we have used: In the Stone Age we used stone tools, in the Bronze Age, tools of bronze and in the Iron Age, we made tools of iron. Therefore, it is not so strange that there has been such enormous hype surrounding mans most recent tool; the computer.
The personal computer, or «PC,» first appeared in the early 1980s. In 1984, Apple released the first machine with a graphic user interface: Instead of having to master long key commands one could merely click on symbols/icons on the screen. The computer has become an important part of how we understand our times and ourselves as human beings. An example of this is seen in how we often refer to ourselves using computer terminology; we get «input» and «output,» save it on the hard disc, etc. We increasingly see ourselves as a collection of information, like computer information systems.
Enter: The Monsters
The cyborg concept dates from the 1950s, a merging of the term «cybernetic organism.» Cybernetics actually means the science concerned with the controlling processes in organisms, machines and society. The word cyborg was originally used to describe the idea of a person altered by means of technology in order to withstand lengthy journeys in outer space. The cyborg is a mixture of man and machine, more precisely, technology and man, in that technology is no longer defined as shiny metal parts. Today, biological technology is at least as important. A cyborg is a hybrid, unnatural creation, completely dependent upon technology and existing solely by virtue of man.
In fiction, the cyborg figure has been visible in films, books and comic books since the concept originated. It also represents the military daydream of building a «super-soldier» of superior strength. Considering the role technology played in the Gulf War, which perhaps most resembled a computer game for the American soldiers, one might say that the militarys wet dream has been realized: A pilot in a high-tech bomber plane is so in one with technology as to be considered a cyborg. Creatures like cyborgs are borderline creatures, neither man nor machine. As with women, they have a destabilizing role in Western narration. These borderline creatures are literally monsters, a word that shares more than its origins with the word demonstrate.
The types of tools we have and use influence both the society we live in and our own self-understanding. In this context, the cyborg becomes the ultimate human; man has become one with his tools. Man and what man creates and uses become one and the same thing. If the use of tools is that which defines civilization, then, the cyborg becomes the real, civilized person; no longer subject to the fancies of nature, but able to change and improve itself in step with technological advances.
Since the cyborg is artificially created, it may also be considered an attack on the notion of the authentic, natural person, inspiring (at least) the same amount of angst and sorrow in society as that experienced in the loss of authenticity in art. Culture has taken another step forward, man becomes his own fictions and dreams, whose limits are determined solely by his capacity to imagine and make. The cyborg is a symbol of cultures triumph over nature, it is the humane human. As Ripley says to the robot Call in Alien 4: «I knew you couldnt be human. You are far too humane.»
Man is a Potential Machine
Science historian Donna Haraway is a theoretician who is interested in the cyborg concept, not only as related to the continually expanding use of computers, but in relationship to the total way of life for Western man in a technological everyday. She is best known for her essay «The Cyborg Manifesto» (Cyborgs, Simians and Women, 1991.) Haraway counters todays breed of New Age feminism in which women are described as creatures linked more closely to nature than men. Instead of the archetypal, ancient Mother figure, Haraway sees herself as a product of culture, science and technology. In her own words: «Id rather be a cyborg than a goddess.»
Donna Haraway maintains that the cyborg era is already well underway, it is everywhere one finds a car, video machine or mobile telephone. The relationship between man and technology has become so intimate that it is difficult to see where man ends and machine begins. Some of us have pacemakers or other prostheses, and in the West we make regular use of technological devices to complete certain physical tasks. We consider ourselves as machines that may be constantly updated and improved upon through training, dieting, make-up and knowledge. The cyborg-person expands both himself and his borders through technology. This technology does not necessarily assume the form of «hardware,» it might just as easily be biological. In a sense, all of us in the affluent Western world are cyborgs: for example, we are altered biologically to be stronger, healthier and more resistant to diseases such as polio and tuberculosis through vaccines. Vaccine is a technology that enters and changes our bodies permanently: Anti-bodies against rubella are produced in my body so that I will never have to wake up one morning with unsightly, itchy, red spots all over me. My body has been changed for good. (I hope.)
The Multiple Person
There is a shift in todays understanding of identity; away from the classic concept of an identity core to that of a network identity, where the self is not understood as a static element. The old understanding of identity as a (healthy) soul in a body is related to Descartes «I think, therefore I am.» This self-understanding regards stability in personality and identity as the ideal, a stability that remains relatively unaffected by time and place. The network identity, on the other hand, accepts that the self changes according to the context in which it is placed. The network identity is generally associated with the postmodern, where the belief in fundamental truths, a master plan and a totality in context has been abandoned. Instead one has many, small local truths or identities gathered in continually changing networks, where one position in relation to another is equally as important as some inherent quality or fundamental truth.
The computer has become the main symbol of todays identity displacements, through Chatgroups or Newsgroups and the so-called MUDs (Multi User Domains/Dungeons). Text-based programs such as Telnet make it possible for people around the world to engage in role play, to create their own characters. Since you cannot be seen when communicating, you are free to describe yourself any way youd like; the most beautiful woman in the world or a wandering blue flower with gorilla arms.
In William Gibsons classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer from 1984, cyperspace is described as a collective hallucination; a hallucination that may kill you if something goes wrong when you are online. Cyberspace today is the definition of a collective hallucination; there is no parallel, independent world, contrary to what newspapers and articles might have one believe. Internet is a communication network that makes accelerated communication possible as long as the server answers the telephone and the entire system doesnt crash. Information technology makes it possible to have group meetings in chat-groups or MUDs with people around the world, and this is perhaps the most important characteristic of the Internet. The concept of network identity, then, is not based solely on the gathering of small elements into a network, but also on how it defines itself in relation to other networks, for example, on the Internet.
Theoreticians Sherry Turkle and Sandy Stone have used role experiments on the Internet to examine how identity is formed and developed in our times. American Sherry Turkle believes that PC technology makes the postmodern understandable on a practical level. Instead of large, centralized «mainframe» computers we have a manifold of smaller, decentralized computers connecting with each other in a much freer way. Modernism was based on the belief that somewhere deep under the surface there lies a fundamental and common truth. Turkel maintains that no such timeless and universal truth exists, only provisory and local, small truths. This is why the surface becomes so important. There is more to be had from surfing and examining the surface than delving into the depths after a truth that does not exist. Relationships between things or people are what is important, and how they connect to and communicate with each other.
Another aspect of this network self is that it may freely orient itself in both real and fictitious worlds, moving unhindred between different contexts in incessant, rapid change. This new network identity mingles languages, roles and signs from different worlds, which are inauthentic in the traditional sense but genuine nonetheless. Coupled with ever-changing technological and social developments, this mingling leads to new choices and possibilities in toying with ones identity. Ones role in society is no longer conclusively defined, as computer play allows for experimentation with different roles. Greater mobility in society also provides opportunities to change identity, by leaving a place or an established role behind and moving to a large city, for example. Here, one finds an increasingly apparent acceptance of the idea that people do not come in two unchangeable versions, man and woman. There is greater freedom to move in the gray zone between gender roles - to shift gender - and to play with these roles in choosing and changing ones own identity.
«The nostalgic longing for an allegedly better past is a hasty and
unintelligent response to the challenges of our age.» Rosi Braidotti
Civilization is a good idea. For thousands of years humankind has struggled to achieve a higher developed civilization, more culture, less nature. We have sewn clothes, built homes, farmed the earth and developed means of transportation and medicines. Cultural development is closely related to technology, they form and influence one another; culture influencing whatever kind of technology man is able to imagine and develop, and technology in turn influencing the culture that creates it. Currently, the computer represents new technology to an even greater degree than, for example, biotechnology. The computer functions as a cultural transformer, coding social reality in new ways. Different media merge and allow us to manipulate the presentation of reality. There is no way back to a whole society with given truths.
The field in which we operate, the realm in which we imagine, has also been expanded through the mass media and entertainment industry. Mass culture reaches out to the masses: Television, film, comic books and tabloid newspapers have usurped the position previously held by art and literature, but with a broader distribution than books or oil paintings ever had. Our everyday consists to a large degree of man-made reality; fiction, whether in the form of a newscast or a soap opera.
There is concern about the accelerated pace of technological development, and probably with good reason. Technology in itself is not good: A man-made catastrophe such as the Holocaust could have only occurred in our century, because the mass extermination was dependent upon modern, industrial effectiveness.
There seems to be a tendency away from technophobic angst toward an almost exceedingly optimistic technophilia, a tendency that is apparent in art as well. Art and technology are becoming more closely linked: Not only in the materials used to make and present art, such as computer art on the Internet, for example, but also in terms of arts content. Artists use this world created by technology as material and a source of reference for their work: soap operas, science fiction films, and TV news. Johan Grimonprezs and Rony Vissers video «Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y,» presented at Documenta 1997 and Galleri Riis in November/December, 1997, is an example of such a work.
Technological development has given us the possibility of not only avoiding nature, but also of avoiding reality. There are countless fictions to which we can relate, move between, search for references and almost live in. Fiction has a much greater presence today than when the upper class read books and the poor had religion. Fiction is multi-media, it may be seen, heard, smelled and felt, supplanting the so-called real, like the evening news. Everything mediated by people is choreographed, carefully selected, refined and joined with other film clips or parts in order to create a nice flow. Technology allows for the possibility of rejecting traditional reality, of allowing fiction to become reality - as real or unreal as so-called reality. When an entire society is man-made, how is one able to distinguish between reality and fiction? A house is created and construed just as much as a film, we enter into both, making them our mental surroundings and the world we live in. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the Alien films is as large a part of my reality and my life as my neighbors house. (Actually, she is more important, the neighbors house I ignore as best I can.)
«We have in many ways already chosen to say no thank you to existing nature in order to create our own. To immerse oneself in the virtual universe is perhaps the logical consequence of mans wish to control everything around him.» Scade and Steiniche