Coming to Terms with New Technologies

I read with great attention every bit of paper, email, letters and faxes I got about this conference and I found that there seemed to develop some anxiety over three basic questions. I'll repeat the questions, though I'm sure you already know them; it's worth having them in mind as I'm talking.

`What do I mean from my perspective by 'interactivity'? The second one is: 'is it good', and the third is 'what should we do about it (with some emphasis on design)'?

Well I'm going to get my first reference to design immediately: there is in Ars Technica, a group of French artists around La Villette, an annual concours, a competition for projects. In the typical French way, most of them don't get realised. However, they are interesting. Let me give you a notion of one of them which I hope will be realised but will take some footwork. It is the idea to be sent to the Association of Cow Breeders of France to use genetic engineering to change the cow hide and design it before it is born, so you could eventually one day have cows that look like a Mondriaan or Vlamenck or any other painting in the history of painting or design of our culture. I'm sorry I can't show you that - we're planning to make a little show with a cow describing different changes of design in it. I thought that would be something delightful, especially for designers in Holland

The thing about it is it's non-interactive, so I'll drop that line and get on to the topic.

Interactivity in the larger social context has become a buzzword that's turning industry and governments around. It's an about-face. Very interestingly, in the last decade or less, people, instead of fighting technologies - especially new technologies - are now greeting them. We don't even have a VR industry and everybody is already talking about it, and multimedia was around as a word long before anyone knew what it meant. A lot of people who had never even touched multimedia were already talking about it and hailing it as the future.

What's going on? It's a very interesting thing that interactivity even in the most distant bureaucratic circles is in. And we see the most extraordinary marriages, the latest one being TCI and Southern Bell - it's quite convenient for a Southern Belle to finally get married. It was done in a way that reminds one of the big Mediaeval takeovers; a whole area, a whole network is taken over by another network and is reminiscent of the way empires or conquests were made in the Middle Ages when the daughter of the King or Prince married and that would combine the two lands. It's a takeover, a friendly takeover, one without bloodshed.

And we're seeing the same thing - it's a very interesting mood that develops. We can understand that this networking deal is a kind of bureaucrat's dream: hardware plus network is a physical investment, one that probably will pay - it is possible to see what has been done. And governments are thinking that they must do something (I'm thinking of the Canadian Government) because of the present economy, and such deals may be the solution.

The problem is they have, by and large, no idea what real people will do with it. The ratio of excitement to the understanding is inversely proportional in interactivity, in multimedia and in VR. People get more excited the less they understand about it. The idea of putting a big network in place for us now - big issue in the US and Canada - is to establish the electronic superhighway. I suddenly find myself thinking: the idea of putting a network first is a bit like proposing at the time of the Model T Ford to have six-lane highways for bicycles and horse-and-buggies.

In reality one should ask oneself: does the highway bring the traffic or is it the traffic that brings the highway? Certainly in terms of technical and infrastructure development, we find it is the traffic that has brought on the highway growth, not the other way round. You might say: 'well let's be ready for this one'.

I still don't think that this works quite the way that the bureaucracies think it does - not to discourage growth of electronic highways, but just to think about how it is going.

One image we can all understand is the image of brain development. I feel there are more and more relationships now between brains and images of the brain and culture than ever before in the history of this planet. I'm very happy that yesterday Thomas West reminded us that before birth the child's brain has a surfeit of neurons, a 'grand plenty' of neurons that die before the child has had a chance to be born. Is that pure loss, or the generous aspect of nature that always has more than it takes for life to survive, like spermatozoa, of which only one out several billion make it?

Well not quite. What is very interesting about brain development and neuron development is that before birth the brain cells are not connected. Learning really occurs and the development of the organism occurs as more and more exposure to the various stimulations that happen within the womb and then outside the womb actually generate the connections. What happens is that both under the guidance of genetic programming and the experience of the individual body, this mass of cells gets 'carved in' and the personality or basic features - of biology first and then personality of the baby - actually gets organised in the process of development.

The basic network is implicit in genetic programming. The map is drawn but the active connection only comes as a result of exposure to experience. This is really what I want to insist on in comparing the development of the brain and what happens in electronic highways.

There are two very important features in this development: first, there is fierce competition among the neurons for food. Those who find a site and are fed remain and survive, those who don't starve and die. There is more business imagery happening inside your brain before you are born than there is in real life!

There's this Darwinian type-of-thing and the way it works is the brain or neuron has an axon - the part that actually travels - and goes from the point where the neuron is fixated to the point where the connection has to be made. This may be from neuron to neuron, or it can be a single neuron going and finding the site where it will command neuromuscular response.

That is the first feature: that there is competition and only the neuron that makes the connection survives. As you know, within the neuron there are many many other connections which are called synaptic connections and we'll talk about those too. The important feature is that some cells are especially adventurous and they are called scout cells. They go first, they are the first to reach the site and once they get there they become Teasher cells - sort of signposts - so that the larger group of cells which have to do the connection and will create the fundamental interaction in brain and body is going to occur.

I like this model very much because it could be a way of predicting or at least optimising the wiring of society that is occurring right now. The key image I am proposing is that interactive technologies and even the business environment supporting their development and their distributions are socio-technological projections of how the brain and central nervous system develop.

The point is we fail to recognise how many of our technologies, being extensions of our minds, our bodies, our faculties, are actually spreading in the environment as if they were foreign to us. In fact they are not foreign, they are a real extension of us, and in this case we are looking at the whole socioeconomic, socio-technological development as this projection of what we are, what kind of bodies and thinking become in this world as we develop and as this inner being that we don't know very much about develops.

We are now at a junction in the history of this planet which compares with what James Restack calls a growth burst, and we'd better know how this happens in the brain because there are examples of how it might work in society. It's a period in neurological development which is marked by an explosive connectivity and a structural shakeup or sometimes shakedown.

In social terms, in the last 100 years there has been a succession of such growth bursts ever since electricity came under the guise of the telegraph, there have been these collective global bursts of inter-connectivity. And it's important to think about going back to the telegraph because it is very surprising that all these inventions were in fact the beginning of globalisation.

McLuhan talked about the global village back in 1962; nobody paid any attention. Today everyone says we're in globalisation, but we have been globalised since the very first time you could send a message from one side of the planet to the other instantly. You were into the global scene. The only thing is that nobody, but nobody recognised this at the time. The first wiring of the planet through the telegraph was the basic connection, the very one we would find at the earliest development of the brain that one can see in fetology.

The second one becomes a resonance environment; radio and direct address become the second stage of globalisation, but also it's an image of the endorphine function in the early brain. There is a resonance pattern established from one side of the brain to the other for checking and communication without direct contact.

The third stage of globalisation is television. I'm sure there are plenty of intermediate stages, but I'm just talking 'broad screen'. Television seems to have been an unconscious or unselfconscious globalisation. We began to look at the world - I'm reminded of Sartre who talks about the difference between being aware of whatever it is one is involved with and being aware of being aware of whatever one is involved with.

This kind of relationship was not clear in the 60s, that TV was 'being aware of'. A large body of the world population became aware of the world, without having had the chance to become self-aware. In fact, TV literally sucked out the identity and privacy of the individuals who were watching it, so it was not a self-conscious globalisation.

The next (globalisation) was of course instantly self-conscious because of feedback - computers and networks purpose a rapid shift from one type of psychology to another. Suddenly people become very conscious of their presence in the world and this is the beginning of this fierce interconnection. And by the way, the shakedown that accompanies those enormous bursts of energy and bursts of wiring and connecting often translate into war. There is a relationship between the telegraph and World War One, which was suddenly pitting together against each other all kinds of cultures which had never had to deal with each other with such speed, World War Two, was clearly related to radio, and then the end of the war with Berlin clearly related to TV technologies. It always takes a while before the burst matures into a major conflict.

Now what we see is that perhaps the new bursts are establishing peace; they are much more peaceful than the first one. But the acceleration of culture can tend to war. Right now it seems that the acceleration is turning into a precipitation, that's maybe why we have less war - and don't talk to me about what's happening in Yugoslavia because that is not the same story; it's an old war and is fought on different terms.

I really want to show the model of the planet working like the brain because I would like to see us going in a certain direction that in fact no war will be the result of our own precipitation.

And it's interesting that we have all different kinds of images of birth; I kept seeing yesterday over and over again those tunnels - not tunnel vision, but in 3D modelling, in VR, in all this multimedia environment there seems to be an obsession with the seduction of going through a tunnel. It's either our memories of the vaginal conduct or it is an image of birth. But it seems all these little creatures running through dark tunnels are being born and the one that is being born is the weird creature who is half human and half mechanical - it's a Transformer, and we find it coming out of the other end in a state of wonder: weightless and horizon-less and sort of appearing in a kind of marvellous discovery of the world.

Something of an inversion between man and machine is happening now. This inversion is very interesting and very serious and I will address it in a second.

Where is the interactivity in this model? My sense is that the interactivity in the brain comes at a stage where in order for the organism to integrate more and more complex relationships, more and more specific and useful information, it is not enough to connect, you need to test, you need to probe, you need to assess. These neurons are in the process of probing, testing and assessing, and the interactivity in the brain becomes thinking. When you think, you are making your cells interact and very quickly and very strongly, hence the model stays at that level.

At different levels, interactivity is and needs many different things. At the industrial level, it is industrialised creativity. From the very humblest PC all the way to the most sophisticated flight simulators, you find an industrialised form of creativity at the edge of things, the edge of technology, not somewhere in the middle.

At the technology level itself, a fascinating aspect of interactivity is the whole world of interfaces. Interfaces are a variation on the sense of touch. They mean a rediscovery of the tactile sense and also the rediscovery of the body. We're using every possible gesture of the body - and we saw some very moving ones from Dave Warner about the use of them by the handicapped. They're very subtle and they have to be, but there are all kinds of interface we can develop and all of them seem to be a variation on that one sense that in the West we have been repressing all that time, which is the sense of touch.

At the psychological level, interactivity is a kind of recovery of the type of autonomy that broadcast was threatening to remove from us. We derive an awful lot freedom as human, individual, private subjects, from learning to read and write. The moment TV came along we began to put on a corporate identity as we were watching television - and I don't mean here a corporation like a business but a global, collective identity as we watch TV. When we turn the TV off, we become a private person again. You're a public person when you watch TV, let alone when you're on it.

Interactive media, from the zapper - which is the first real interactive medium we have known - all the way to VR, is the recovery of autonomy in front of electricity, autonomy in front of the medium.

Going from the cultural all the way down to the physiological level, interactivity is the rediscovery of proprioception- the inside of our body. Interactivity is actually giving images from the outside but immediately feeding them back into a reassessment of what is happening - all the very complex, truly interesting events that are going on within you are now becoming okay again. We can look into it again. The Puritanical era is over, we can begin to recognise what is going on within ourselves.

So it's not a surprise that all of this interests artists very much. What is an artist in the brain? It's one cell that discovers the site, it's a scout cell. It's the first one there - the others follow, and the hungrier cells - don't forget they actually have to survive - are also the ones that get faster. They are the designers of the brain. They plan around structured behaviour.

The second question which was raised by the conference is: is all of this 'good'? Well, it's a very good question, not sufficiently asked and one that I don't often address because I don't like to make judgment before it's even begun or perceptible. But I would ask: in which way? Good for what? Good for whom? If we like it so much, I presume it's basically sound.

However the question of man/machine inversion, that sudden inversion of position between mind, bodies and the machine outside, this warrants further questioning. It is quite obvious that we are becoming the organic core or organic extension of our own brilliantly sophisticated machines.

The more we cede them, the more extensions we have, we become - I mean, VR is a perfectly simple example or rather a compressed example of what is really happening with the motor car on a highway, when we're on the phone or whether we're watching TV, we become 'the other end'. It used to be so comfortable to say technology is an extension of the body; it is less comfortable to say the body has become an extension of technology, which is what's happening, because there's more and more of it out there, and the proportion between what's out there and what's in here has changed completely, so we have to ask ourselves whether we want to go along with this.

The machines are becoming intelligent and in no time they will also acquire a self. We don't know that much about a self but we do know that it's not that difficult to programme one. The more machines have neural networks, the more they can learn. We have at Linz this incredible, ugly but interesting Neuro Baby programmed by Japanese artist Naoko Tosa to learn to speak in the same time scale as a human baby. Within the next three years she is hoping to have a conversation with him. This is an electronic creature appearing on the screen and you talk to it and it talks back to you.

That intelligence - again the idea of birth, of a baby - is symbolic of the whole culture. That intelligence and that self put together will make the world of graphics and sound a kind of mind outside my mind. The world of graphics and sound is out of my mind, yet I am in it. It is now capable of directing my movements as long as I go along with it. If you think that TV was tyrannical, just wait until you get caught in a VR warp. You'll have to do exactly what you are told. The freedom may be illusory.

This VR - or all interactivity - are steps towards the inversion. Part of the same direction. As humans we are coming out of an old skin and regrouping. Regrouping outside, on the Net and all our technologies. The regrouping is interesting in itself. Are we regrouping by ourselves? Of course not. We are meeting other people in different guises and our minds are changing as we do. Is that good? I really don't know. It feels right. But then we have done things wrong for so long, I wonder if we still have the capacity to judge.

The way I respond to it is in two ways. One: I am ready to support all this development as long as I am sure that there is still ample, and perhaps more room for the heart out there. A lot of it is very mental, very technical and a lot of it is not entirely oriented towards other people, and yet it is starting now to show particularly among artists. That is why I'm more interested in the artists work often than any other technical work because that is where I see the presence of that emotional reality, which tends to be eliminated from technology.

What I trust in interactivity are the artists and designers who show a sincere interest in it. They are the ones who open the doors of perception. And the designers are the first ones to look through them. It's the people you trust. The machines? You can develop any relationship - you can be excited by it, you can be quickly bored by it. It's the people that you meet who are working on these things that you feel are the Brave New World - in a very nice sense, not at all negative. I've seen very little of the grubbiness, competition, bad mood and discouragement that you see in the traditional art scene, where everyone is complaining about the market not supporting them. But these new artists, engineers and designers who are involved with these things are people who have a kind of 'let's go for it' attitude - they're not that concerned with the ideological substrates of what they're doing. I find that most exciting.

So what I want to do is show you what some of these artists are doing. And I was going to answer the third question presented by John: what should we do about interactivity? And I'd like you, as I show you some examples and comment on them, to do what I've done and what I'm always doing: watch the piece and think immediately 'okay, that piece is done. What could you do, what might you do with it.' I like the distinction by John: we can do these things; we can do everything. But what might we do with it that's different from what we see?' I'll show you an example of what I find most exciting about interactive, beginning with my own personal pet fancy which is video conferencing - I have friends in the room who are going to laugh - but I'm going to show a few video conferencing examples which I find interesting artistically and then other ones that will concern, specifically, design.

The examples show how the technology works, so the question I'm asking myself and I'm asking you to think about is what are the things this technology could do? And for each one I'll try and give an example just to begin your thinking process, but I'm sure you as artists and designers you can think of much better examples than mine.

The first one is already well-known to quite a few people in the artistic community, maybe not so in the design community. It is one of the most interesting pieces; it's by Paul Sermon and involves getting together two people 500 kms. apart by video conferencing on the same virtual bed. I know you're thinking it's a bit early in the morning to start talking sex, but nevertheless it's not sex, it's meeting. The reason I'm showing it - even if you have seen it before, look at it again, it's worthwhile - is that I don't think the piece has been very well understood. I think that that piece is one of the first experiments in electronic touch, and as such it's a very interesting one, because every technology that we have used has modified our sensory response. The book and the printing press created the need for perspective, which was a complete takeover of our visual system. Today, electricity is reworking our tactile sense and I'd like you to think in that term as you watch Telematic Dream by Paul Sermon:

There's a projection on a Chroma-Key system which allows you to take the figure out of the ground. There's the bed, which has blue sheets so as to be able to melt images of the two people coming from one gallery to another. This is happening in two galleries on two beds in Helsinki and 500 kms. away. He's meeting a non-imaginary person.

You saw the gallery in Helsinki, now here is the other one, and we see his image in full-flesh 3-D. This is the most amazing bit - where they are holding hands. It doesn't matter whether you are holding the hand or whether you see it. The tactile experience you have just to understand how it works is a very powerful one, quite different from film because it's not precooked, like all other media so far.

A lot of people feel uncomfortable about it, saying it's spurious and it's an ersatz tactile sensation and so on. It's completely misunderstanding the thing. This is a completely new kind of connection - and I don't want to set out on the course of finding an alternate use of this kind of technology because it's so incredibly obvious!

I'm going to show you an other one which is less obvious. It was shown at this year's Imagina and it's called Rendezvous de Cluny. Two people, again by teleconferencing meeting in the same virtual reality, using goggles and suit, and they are entering into a reconstituted Abbey, the old Abbey of Cluny which was bombed in the late 19th Century and was rebuilt by a designer from IBM and the people are meeting and walking into that imaginary space together. It's a designer's dream - imagine the kind of things you could do that way.

One is in Monaco and the other in Paris and they are meeting in nowhere land on the Net. It's a little bit rough, but don't forget we're talking about ISDN lines which don't carry a great deal of information. The possibility of extending one's living room are astounding.

For me, interactivity only becomes interesting when it becomes fluid and continuous, not when it's step wise. The real meaning of interactivity is the sense where you have a relationship with that environment. The most important thing is interactivity is bringing a tonal rather than a modal or purely instrumental relationship between people and machines, and between people and people through machines. Mechanical interaction, even the most sophisticated, is very quickly boring. Today, we don't want our machines to obey us, we want them to respond, which is part of this inversion of man/machine. This response is a new mirror, one which we need more than others. It's the mirror of our feelings, the mirror of our inside. We're beginning to have an inside again, thanks to those kinder and softer images of ourselves. This why I call the culture of interactivity Depth Culture, the culture of deepness. We're only beginning to find out that we are human after the transition from a time when we felt the notion of human was attached to the literate personality. We lost that humanity during the last two world wars and we are rediscovering a sense of humanity that we have to rebuild, in some ways.

If we are really destined to live in peace in ever more intimate presence of each other in an ever-smaller planet, then we should probably favour every opportunity for a better understanding of ourselves and of others - even if it takes machines to do it. If the world is really going to wire itself up - and it seems that that is an unstoppable development - we are going to need extensions for our feelings, if only to protect ourselves and understand each other faster, better and more thoroughly. Artists can find a way, but not pave it. That is the job of the designer. And the business that supports this sort of thing will be a lot healthier. I want to make some cheap advertising here: I'd like to help the many Dutch friends who helped us to keep this work going. As John Thackara has suggested, the really interesting thing to ask is not what can we do, but what might we do if there were no obstacles.


updated 1993