murph the surf on Fri, 12 Jun 1998 05:58:12 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> The El Nino Effect

The El Nino Effect

Winter 1997-98
Intelligent Agent 2.2

by Robbin Murphy

"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
The Second Coming
William Butler Yeats

The warm waters of "El Nino" flow ominously across the surface of the
Pacific Ocean to the coast of Peru approximately every five years, causing
abnormalities in the weather patterns and often wreaking havoc in
places as far away as Indonesia, India and Australia. "El Nino"
slouches, not towards Yeats' Bethlehem, but Southern California and from there
leaps into the American media and imagination as "The El Nino Effect."

On the one hand, it is an oddity of nature -- a condition in one part of the
world causing both geophysical and economic repercussions thousands of miles
away. On the other hand, it gives some people a sense of anxiety, it is a
phenomenon that influences their lives but eludes comprehension.

Peruvian fishermen gave this meteorological phenomenon the Spanish name for the
Christ Child, "El Nino," because it inevitably arrives at Christmas
time. Sometimes it brings good tidings in the form of warm weather and
increased crops but most often it means the loss of fishing hauls coupled with
torrential downpours and flooding. Americans who don't understand Spanish
-- and even some of their neighbors to the south who do speak it -- miss
the irony of
the nickname. We don't name our disasters after the Son of God -- although
insurance companies like to call them acts of God to avoid paying for the
damage -- but we do personify them with proper names as we do with sailing
or computer software. It would be unimaginable to hear a local newscaster
report that "The Christ Child" is responsible for leveling the local shopping
mall -- though we think nothing of naming a catastrophe after our

The Peruvian fishermen would seem to have a more personal relationship with
their religion when in fact they have a different understanding of religion
as an interface with nature, a translator and navigational device for the
world outside themselves.

Americans are often said to view the rest of the world with paranoia although
they have very little reason for it. As that most American of writers,
William Burroughs, once noted, "paranoia is having all the facts." What
better source for that paranoia and its attendant anxiety than nature? As the
saying goes, we talk about the weather but nobody has done anything about it
(yet); the best we can do now is check in with our modern-day oracle, the
weather forecasters, heed their advice and run for cover if need be. If we must
have a common enemy to bind us together -- both Satan and the Soviet Union have
lost stature in that role lately -- why not nature?

Of course, the Enlightenment was supposed to have put an end to this nonsense.
Science structured the world so that it made sense but only if that sense, in
turn, verified science. What science couldn't explain simply didn't exist or
was cast back into a realm of orthodoxy just as unyielding as the religious
dogma (and the accompanying power) science sought to overthrow, with methods
resembling the way the Church had tamed unwieldy paganism.


As Hakim Bey points out in his text "The Obelisk," this scientific
orthodoxy is partly losing ground because of the increasing globalization
made possible by what Gregory Ulmer calls "pre-smashed" networks like the
Internet, networks that work precisely because there are no definite
borders or structures to comprehend.

In his excellent new book Interface Culture:  How New Technology Transforms
the Way We Create and Communicate (HarperEdge), Steven Johnson
proposes that what could take the place of scientific orthodoxy may be new
forms of interface design -- now
most commonly thought of as the software that makes it possible for humans to
interact productively with computers. What the interface does is serve as a
translator between two parties, making each sensible to the other. "In
other words," he writes, "the relationship governed by the interface is a
semantic  one, characterized by meaning and expression rather than
physical force."

Johnson's suggestion isn't exactly new. Earlier in this century, William James
sensed that it is our religious experiences that are important (rather than the
religions themselves) because they provide an interface, a way to view the
world. Cut out the dogma and orthodoxy and what you have is the software.
James' solution was his philosophy of Pragmatism, which some have seen as
no philosophy at all because it proposes no strict ideology to follow. It is,
like the Internet, a "pre-smashed" philosophical system -- one that works
it's broken.

It is commonly assumed that the goal of interface design is some kind of
intuitive usability so that both parties will draw on previous knowledge in
order to interact. This assumption brought us the breakthrough of the Apple
Macintosh Desktop metaphors that enabled millions to use a computer. The
success of these metaphors has been so great that we now face another rigid
orthodoxy about what constitutes good interface design: deviation is seen as
foolish if not heretical.

Johnson thinks that, rather than limiting ourselves to yet another rigid
structure, we would be better off to encourage bad  interface design -- or
at least a functional interface subculture geared more towards innovation than
commercial acceptance. Cheap access to the Web makes it possible for many more
people outside the official techno/design loop to create solutions and test
them on each other; a whole generation of kids raised on video games has
developed the aptitude to navigate unfamiliar spaces without the comfort of a
simulated office.

Unintended uses for existing interfaces should also be encouraged. Johnson uses
the example of Thomas Edison and his belief that people would only use the
phonograph to record telephone conversations; he couldn't imagine they would
use it to listen to prerecorded music. Darwin used the term "exaptation" to
describe these unexpected variations in evolution that turned the reptile's web
foot into the bird's wing.

A seemingly endless amount of bandwidth on the Net is used by design
newsgroups and mailing lists -- such as the World Wide Web Artists Consortium
(WWWAC) -- discussing the best way to adapt existing design and marketing
strategies to the limits of HTML. Software companies constantly devise new
products that simulate the one-to-many broadcast strategies of print and
television. A few individuals do manage to teach the old dogs new tricks -- gif
animations are a good, if limited, example.

There was a ray of hope when Apple, along with IBM and other
companies, introduced OpenDoc technology with its 3-D file management
interface, HotSauce, and the CyberDog web client -- all offering
possibilities for more individualized software configuration. But the prospects
of these and other innovations seeing development and mass distribution from
the top down seem less and less likely.

There are, however, examples of bottom-up development being carried out. I/O/D
has "unleashed" The Web Stalker, promising that it will "reshape the
Internet" by offering "fast and dirty," "high-protein access" to online media.
Such hyperbole can be excused because, for one, it's free, and it also offers
the user possibilities for taking advantage of the Net in ways that are more
complex than current accepted modes of "surfing" demanded by the dominant
browsers. Web Stalker feels more like an intervention than a browse or
click-through application and repositions the passive "viewer" as an active
"user" who is able to revisualize and manipulate the newly released and
recombinant data-space.

In his essay "Visceral Fa&ccedil;ades," co-developer Matthew Fuller
traces some of The Web Stalker's many roots: it is not surprising (but
certainly unusual for a computer program) that one of them is the artist
Gordon Matta-Clark. Best known for splitting a building down the middle
and structurally re-adjusting the result, Matta-Clark should rightfully be
considered at least a proto-hacker (he died in 1978 before the PC became
popular) and most definitely a guiding spirit for anyone attempting to make art
of and on the Internet.

The noisy trajectory of browser development set in motion by Mosaic has almost
overwhelmed other possibilities. But not quite.


And so we tune in the weather report to see what El Nino is up to today
and perhaps witness a replay of the spectacle of destruction that has been
termed "weather porno": cows and tractors flying through the air, dogs trapped
helplessly on the roofs of houses floating down engorged rivers, brave heroes
and tragic victims--all of it generated by some unseen force moving slowly up
the Pacific coast. The El Nino Effect slouches on.

Robbin Murphy is an artist and co-founder of artnetweb. His e-mail address


William Butler Yeats
"The Second Coming"

El Nino

William Burroughs

Hakim Bey
"The Obelisk"

Gregory Ulmer

Steven Johnson
"Interface Culture"

William James

Thomas Edison

Charles Darwin

World Wide Web Artists Consortium (WWWAC)


The Web Stalker

Matthew Fuller
"Visceral Facades: Taking Matta-Clark's Crowbar to Software"
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