|TELEPHOBIA, TELETOPIA, TELEAESTHETICS|
The history of the bond between media (in a broad sense), modernity, technology, identity, representation, and power is finally emerging as a network of affiliations with decisive political and psychological consequences. As much a recognition of culturally destructive illusions as it is a realization of the formative interests of modernity itself, the collapse of enlightenment rationality as a system enframed within both the development of post industrial and eventually post-modern theory and the emerging 'sciences of the artificial' (in the period after 1945), is a dystopic signifier of catastrophic breadth. In no way the 'end of ideology', the fusion of technology and the broad agenda of post-war media formulated an 'other' ideology, an ideology as Orwellian as it is Kafkaesque. Too complex to develop in detail in this essay, the postwar shift towards systems theory is a pivot on which post-everything culture turns.
Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics, Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver's Mathematical Theory of Communication, John von Neumann's The Computer and the Brain, James Watson and Francis Crick's realization (grounded in programming) of DNA as a genetic code, Vannevar Bush's essays on hypermedia, "Turing's essay Computing Machinery and Intelligence," the list goes on, were the electronic foundation on which a transformation of social logic was being constructed. Nor should one forget that the post-war political environment was resoundingly transfixed by the twin compulsions of deterrence and technological mastery-evidenced in the pathological junction of command, control and communication technologies teeming in the R&D labs of the "military industrial complex."
The implications of these approaches to information technologies are the foundation for the transformation of the social logic of culture, one responded to in books like Siegfried Giedion's Mechanization Takes Command (1948), Lewis Mumford's Art and Technics (1952), E. J. Dijksterhuis's The Mechanization of the World Picture (1959), C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures (1959), and others in which the technical rationale was being questioned as the basis for social order. This transformation of the terms of political and social discourse led, inexorably, toward a reconceptualization of individual agency, reception, and political action limited by the "exchange" system of broadcast media. Whether broadcast politics, broadcast information, or broadcast entertainment, the bully-pulpit of post-war ideology was dispersed as a kind of cultural fall-out surrounded by hazy metaphors of the global village. Politics, information, entertainment and technology merged while a reconfigured subject was emerging from marketing and statistical analysis produced through data collection, logistical management, and computation. Surely, the crisis culture of the ensuing cold war-saturated by secrecy, systems, and spectacle-found in cybernetics the archetype for sustaining power in the midst of metaphors as unwieldy as 'the iron curtain,' 'the military industrial complex,' and the 'soviet bloc.' Beneath the threat of fissionable annihilation, the agenda of post-war technology clearly was toward information. As Friedrich Kittler has so cogently written, "unconditional surrender meant the transfer of technology." (1) And, more broadly, "the project of modernity had essentially been one of arms and media technology... All the better that it was shrouded in a petty phraseology of democracy and the communication of consensus."(2) Cold war tactics of command, control and communication were obviously more than mere metaphors, they stood as stark reminders that technology represented slightly more than the spin-off benefit of the war.
Steven Heims writes: "Although the world of politics seems removed from mathematics, both Wiener and von Neumann based their conceptual frameworks for describing society on some mathematical ideas. for von neumann game theory was the cornerstone; for Wiener it was cybernetics." And indeed, while von Neumann and Wiener's work diverged greatly, their collaboration (von Neumann in the military boardrooms of cold war paranoia, and Wiener in the lecture halls of the scientific enlightenment) set the agenda for cold war brinksmanship. Game theory, as Heim characterizes it, "portrays a world of people relentlessly and ruthlessly but with intelligence and calculation pursuing what each perceives to be his own interest," while cybernetics is more deeply inflected by reflexivity and feedback (clear harbingers of interactivity) while no less effective a means for grounding media in control, communication, and computation in its theory of biology and engineering.(3)
N. Katherine Hayles writes of Shannon and Weaver's Mathematical Theory of Communication that "information theory as Shannon developed it has only to do with the efficient transmission of messages through communication channels, not with what the messages mean. he especially did not want to get involved in having to consider the receiver's mind-set as part of the communication system." For Watson and Crick "genetical information" was a code or instruction. Game theory, signal to noise ratios, feedback, genetic code, share a relationship with representation in powerful new ways. Join this with computing and the rise of tele-visual display and the tidal proportions of post-war systems thinking becomes as clear as the passage from industrial to electronic culture. Varied in their implementations, affiliations and implications, the histories of these media form the core of the 'artificial sciences.' Hayles suggests that in the "third wave" of cybernetics "the idea of a virtual world of information that coexists with and interpenetrates the material world of objects is no longer an abstraction. it has come home to roost, so to speak, in the human sensorium itself." (4) What seems certain is that the foundations set in the 1950s have converged in the deepest form in the 1990s, and that an entire range of human disciplines is now formed within an algorithmic imperative.
But the history of media theory, with a few notable exceptions, primarily focused on either the metaphor of the observable or in the attempt to resuscitate the culture industries in the tele-broadcast era. And, despite the continuing relevance of Frankfurt School media theory across a broad range of , the shifting technological and social environment of the postwar period presented a sharp contrast to the propaganda ideology inflecting pre war media. What emerged, bolstered by the american "triumph", was a media theory inebriated with the potential of new technology.
Marshall McLuhan's iridescent rationale of imperialism as globalization mirrored the multinational development that grounded the merging media of the 1960s. Pithy slogans poised ideas on the tightrope between morality and propaganda-precisely aligned with the advertising logos (that's logos in both senses of the term!) that fueled the galaxy of fragmentation. Joining televisual and informational technologies was the basis of a social transformation in which broadcast media seemingly swept across the 'global village' at the same time providing what Hans Enzensberger rightly called a "reactionary doctrine of salvation." Rooted in Goebbels' effort to "retribalize" Germany using the new technology of the radio in the 1930s.
But the McLuhanization of media did not then, and will not now, salvage the imperatives of the collapse of modernity so much as it served as a patch linking utopic dispersions of media with the broad corporate and political objectives in which these technologies were developing. And let's not forget that Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man (1964) already unmasked the potential effects of the superficial culture of the medium or that the tactics of "repressive tolerance" shadowing the counterculture were evolving as elements in the battle for communication and control. Not surprising either that the shift from the "cultural industry" to the "consciousness industry," as Enzensberger articulates it in the essay "Constituents of a Theory of Media," represents both new technology and new strategies for their utilization. Against the backdrop of "resignation," an understanding of the reciprocity between production and reception emerges in which technology can be used directly as mobilization -- for better or worse.
Add to this the development of the imaging technologies of the post-war period, and the volcanic importance of the visual media intensify. The strategies of modernity, steeped in visualization, 'techniques of the observer,' (Jonathan Crary's term), "scopic regimes" (as Martin Jay observes) (5) were being slowly transformed by technologies inflected by the new metaphors of cybernetics and tele-vision. The assimilation of vision into technology had begun. In this environment, the reflexive representation systems of modernity were being slowly outdistanced by forms of recording, rendering, and surveillance in which information served as deeply as observation to regulate behavior. Indeed, the reciprocity between information and representation was becoming firmly entangled in the discourses of advertising, politics, aesthetics and cultural history.
In modernity, seeing, and being seen, empowered the subject while imaging and being imaged involved control mechanisms. And as the self was centralized, it was also configured with a broad panoptic system. 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 situates consumption as passive and production as empowerment-essentials in the system of capital. But if dialectics and domination suggest the Scylla and Charybdis of modernity, it is because representation was always poised between phenomenology and mastery. This power dynamic, institutionalized in the authoritarian presumptions of the enlightenment, became the constituents of a social ecosystem in which, as Foucault so cogently writes, "the gaze that sees is the gaze that dominates." (6) And this gaze was triumphantly technological, whether in the architecture of Bentham's Panopticon or in the lens of the camera. This disembodied authority extended power into a sublime invisibility. As Miran Bozovic writes in his introduction to Bentham's Panopticon Letters, "a gaze and a voice that cannot be pinned down to any particular bearer tend to acquire exceptional powers."(7)
But while some essentials are comparable, the culture of Modernity, in which the universalization, moralization and mechanization of representation evolved, has been surpassed. A technological model has been usurped by a cybernetic model. If there is a common denominator within the divergent discourses of postmodernity, it is that the ascendancy of a system of scientific visualization and the loss of any totalizing model of either the "real" world or its representations cannot be put into place-even while the stability of representation is alternately established and disestablished by the continuing social effect of either the image (think of the fate of the Rodney King video) or information (think of the fate of overwhelming genetic evidence in the O.J. Simpson trial). The camouflage over the shaky epistemological foundation of representation has been effaced by the dual effects psychoanalytic deconstruction, and recombinant technology. The unrepresentable "Real," collides with the unreflected "virtual."And, as Zizek has remarked, "virtuality is already at work operating in the symbolic order as suchÉto the extent to which virtual phenomenon retroactively enable us to discover to what extent all our most elementary self-experience was virtual." (8) It cannot be a surprise that the panoptic metaphors of Bentham and Foucault are re-invented in the technosphere in the guise of electronic "agents," digital security systems, genetic screening, satellite imaging technologies with imaging capability of less than one meter resolution from 35,000 miles in "space," SkyCam news networks with robotic cameras surveying for crisis, in short more than a panoptic metaphor but a transoptic one in which the invisible threat of the gaze is welcomed as a symptom of containment and stability.
Indeed, while issues of space dominated discourses of modernity, the related issues of presence and duration have come to stand within postmodernity as signifiers of a far more intricate situation. Worn traditions of the public sphere, the sociology of post-industrialization, the discreteness of identity, have been supplanted by a form of distributed imbeddedness-or better, the immersion-of the self in the mediascapes of tele-culture which must generate a communicative practice whose boundaries are mapped in virtual, transitory networks, whose hold on matter is ephemeral, whose position in space is tenuous, and whose agency is measured in acts of implication rather than mere coincidences of location.
Writing about the catastrophic transformation of the topos Virilio writes, "so in spite of all this machinery of transfer, we gat no closer to the productive unconscious of sight... Instead, we only get as far as its unconsciousness, an annihilation of place and appearance the future of which it is still hard to imagine." (9) Mediated by the tele-visual, the issues of memory, consciousness, perception are disassociated from experience, other than the experience of the perceiving self. Perception becomes scanning, retention becomes retrieval and thinking become processing. And while the model of the mind as a distributed parallel-processor might be useful in explaining the ability to store, process and retrieve vast amounts of memory, the metaphor is only useful as discursive and not as fact. Siegfried Zielinski is right in citing the link between Kant's "subjective" and Wittgenstein's " border "in this regard. Wittgenstein's proposition, "the subject does not belong to the world, it is a border of the world," is a powerful realization too often mapped out of the thinking about technology, in which the subject is more or less a system to be adapted rather than an adaptive system!
Years of study of distributed models of cognition are as yet irresolute and not fully convincing as to their efficacy as either scientific or psychological models. Proving the Turing test in no ways legitimates the computer as an organism, no less a consciousness. really, the efficacy of destabilizing the human/machine interface by eradicating their difference serves more to demonstrate a more-or-less obvious notion that people are gullible. Yet the merging of the cybernetic and the cognitive is having remarkable effects on human experience and expectation. Norbert Wiener, the pioneer researcher in cybernetics wrote, in The Human Use of Human Beings, that "every instrument in the repertory of the scientific-instrument maker is a possible sense organ." (10) But the difference between instrumental recording and sensing are not wholly synonymous, even if the extension of the perceptual field is enlarged by technology. The effects of this interfacing with technology have already generated a reconfigured subject whose "border" is porous and whose autonomy is 'enframed' not by but within technology.
The complication arises when the experiential field that situates cognition is no longer rooted in the affinity between representation and reception, but in a more problematic circumstance in which the act of consciousness itself could be rendered. In this logic, the interface with technology could suggest much more than the navigation through hyper or virtual environments. It could suggest the programming of the neurological process at the level of the formation of consciousness (or perhaps unconsciousness) itself!
Vilem Flusser writes that "electronic memories provide us with a critical distance that will permit us, in the long run, to emancipate ourselves form the ideological belief that we are 'spiritual beings', subjects that face an objective world...Our brain will thus be freed for other tasks, like processing information." He continues (and hear the similarities with Castells) on the benefits of electronic memory that "A person will no longer be a worker (homo farber) but an information processor, a player with information (homo ludens)," and that "we shall enhance our ability to obliterate information...this will show us that forgetting is just as important a function of memory as remembering." (11) (On Memory). Situational knowledge, contingent expression? Perhaps the aftereffects of the eradication of legitimate canons of artistic, literary, even political narratives, has created a circumstance in which the meaning and usefulness of experience is wholly related with its engaged relationship with the present. And it comes as no surprise that electronic media demands a multileveled participation in the flow of information, intention and technology.