Date: Fri, 24 May 96 18:57 MDT

From: druckrey@interport.net (Timothy Druckrey)


Timothy Druckrey

Aligned with the revolutionary shifts in media have come some equally expressive metaphors: connectionism, parallelism, nanotechnology, associative systems, fuzzy mathematics, chaos, distributed or ubiquitous computing, immersion, interactivity, hypermedia, biocomputing, networking, smart technologies, tele-fill in blank -an intelligent ambience of a set of interfaces redefining a relationship with language, memory, the body, aesthetics, politics, and communication. The promises and fallacies of a cybersphere obstruct some of the essential cultural issues of digital media in the yet vague hope that matters of access and meaning will fulfill themselves in the future. This is a difficult presumption of technology and creativity linked with the scientific view that a problem is not so much surmountable as it is contingent and evolving. 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. Digital media presupposes a communicative system that assumes the assimilation of representation into the technosphere, the neurosphere, and the genosphere. Responses to the stimuli of experiential phenomena are being replaced by study of the neuro-reflexive activities of the brain-as-operating system. In this system, representation is less significant than rendering, agency is less significant than behavior, cultures are less significant than connections.

The issues raised by the relationship between the development of cybernetics, communication, urbanism, identity, and the network pose stunning challenges to the traditions of culture. Simultaneously, these issues once again accentuate the necessity to consider the whole function of culture within the technological conception of connectionism and distributed systems. It is clear that systems theories of communication, intelligence, biology, identity, collectivity, democracy, and politics will not fully suffice to encompass the meaning of electronic culture. If there is a shift represented by these transformations in the late twentieth century, it is not one effected by an attempt to resolve notions of "closed" systems dialectically, but to confront discursively constituted networks: the biology network, the identity network, the culture network, the political network, the communication network, the image network. Hence, it is no surprise that a metaphor of connectionism has emerged to designate the system of nodes in a circulatory system of telematic epistemology.

Theories of communication will need to be reconfigured in terms of interactivity, dispersal, and technological representation. This public sphere is taking shape amid tenuous cease-fires and the identity wars of the past years. Zealously promoted, the technologies of networked communication seem to offer remedies for the uprooted cultures of the first modernity and confrontations with the return of the polis to the condition of political affiliation and discursive collaboration. As much concerned with ideology as with identity, the netopolis is more than a new cyber-sociological issue. It stands as a possible location for the establishment of historical identity in terms of the conditions of dispersed affiliation and contingent power. The network breaks the grip of point-to-point limitations of telephony and shatters the dominance of broadcast media. In their place is a dynamic system in which the abandonment of location in not a signifier of placelessness, and in which representation is not a sign of the loss of the Real. Indeed, considering the accelerated pace of research initiatives, the development of immersive media are heading towards a rendezvous with neuro-cognition.


"Is it a fact...that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but a thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it!" (Nathaniel Hawthorne: The House of Seven Gables)

Inspired, no doubt, by the telegraph, Hawthorne recognized the shifting ecology occurring in the 19th century. Indeed the telegraph, fueled by the development of the railroad, broke the limits not only of space but of time. Unimaginable speeds of transmission across a vast web of sites communicating in a language that precursed binary code surely suggested "instinct with intelligence" and the end of "substance" as a signifier of material presence. No small surprise that Marshall McLuhan would use the remark by Hawthorne as a precedent as he evolved a communicative practice riding on the problematic of technological progress as a measure of social transformation. Political to the extent that the techno-logic of post-war western economies seemed triumphant, the issues of the media/message bond wasn't so much different than that of the linking of signifier and signified in semiotics. Encoded discourse, afterall, is rooted in the research environment of 19th century, whose "mastery" of nature was deeply entwined in systems. These discourses-of representation, survelliance, mechanics, medicine, physics, and communication-are the basis of the theoretical frame that seems to haunt our relationships with the modern world. And while the grand schemes of modernity were so allied with the discourses of power politics and mastery, they both established and dismantled the linear concept of progress they so blithely presumed.

Nature, linear and distributed, was no longer a suitable metaphor for progress in an era surpassing biological evolution. And as the industrialization of technology reached its first apex in the 1920s, it was sundering the flawed principle of development it so relied on. Technology reconfigured the equation between nature and culture. What we inherit from the development of communication technology, visualization, and representation is a legacy of empowerment rooted in expertise camouflaging power. Deeply implicated in the systems structure of technoscience, are the practices of domination that ground the various utopias of the cognitive.

But the history of media technologies, with a few notable exceptions, has been primarily focused on either the metaphor of the observable (even while the model of "moral objectivity" has been dismantled more than once in both scientific history-Heisenberg or Gödel-or in cultural assessments of scientific practice-Latour), or in the attempt to resuscitate the culture industries in the tele-broadcast era. No patron saint, 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) 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 the 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 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.

The effects of the dispersal of information, power, localized politics, the refunctioning of military research and development into cybertechnologies has led to renewed chaos in which virtualization supplants illusion and in which the deployment of technologies (bio, neuro, info, geno) is again masked as an communications revolution-with Mcluhan once again evoked as the "ventriloquist and prophet" for the born-again 'global village' sprouting in the tele-present totality of the world wide web. And if the frenzied systems thinking of the network is not eclipsed by the tele-fanaticism of the right or the tele-marketing of net commerce, there is some fertile territory to populate. But considering the trend toward regulation, signified most cogently (in the US) by The Telecommunications Act of 1996, the incorporation of the net is imminent. Already, the relationships between reception and behavior, morality and politics have found common ground in the attempt to devastate networked imagination in the name of fundamentalist cliches of ethics masquerading as the archetypes of an ambiguous virtual ethics modeled on the speech-as-act theory. It cannot be a surprise that the panoptic and oppressive metaphors of Bentham and Foucault are re-invented in the cybersphere in the guise of "agents."

Yet lurking beneath the transformation of communication are the twin concepts of reception: experience and the temporal. Indeed, as the reassessment of 19th century technologies will reveal, the inflections of technology into behavior suggest more than a cultural environment increasingly surrounded by machines, but one in which the regulation of the everyday were beginning to be formed within the technologies of visualization offered by photography, the regulation of temporality offered by the clock, and the complicated regulation of information increasingly regulated by the collapse of the geographical boundaries. Exchange, transmission, mobility, were to be linked not only with the industrial issues of production and capital, but to the notion of the self, the legitimation of modernity, and the ramifications of representation.

If the social machine manufactures representations, it also manufactures itself from representations... Decentered, in panic, thrown into confusion by all this new magic of the visible, the human eye finds itself affected with a series of limits and doubts. The mechanical eye, the photographic lens, while it intrigues and fascinates, functions also as a guarantor of the identity of the visible with the normality of vision.

This remark about what Jean Louis Comolli identifies as "the frenzy of the visible," was concerned with the second half of the nineteenth century. By 1918, Dziga Vertov was writing: "I am the camera's eye. I am the machine which shows you the world as I alone see it. Starting from today, I am forever free of human immobility. I am in perpetual movement...." The machine and the body are joined as perception itself becomes "enframed" in expression. What seems so clear is that the modification of the visual world in modernity is characterized by the consolidation of the scientific mastery over nature and a representational model wholly linked with technology.

But while the essentials are comparable, the culture of Modernity, in which the 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 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 can be put into place. But even beyond the phenomenological approach that has characterized most theorization of representation, a shift has occurred in which the represented cannot be assumed to have a correlate in the material world. Throughout the development of the 'virtualization' of representation, its always shaky epistemological foundation has been crumbling. The linear opposition of a presumed "real" against a presumed "unreal," has perpetuated the pseudo-moral crisis of representation as clearly as the materialist approach over-simplifies it. "We mistake," wrote Deleuze on Bergson, "the more for the less, we behave as though nonbeing existed before being, disorder before order and the possible before existence, as though being came to fill in a void, order to organize a preceding disorder, the real to realize a primary possibility." Simply put, the reconfiguration of representation in the shift from recording to rendering must be accompanied by a sustained assessment of the reciprocity, in Lacanian terms, between the "symbolic" and the "imaginary." A technological discourse of simulation has made this an urgent concern. As Slavoj Zizek, invoking Lacan, remarked: "virtuality is already at work operating in the symbolic order as such to the extent to which virtual phenomenon retroactively enable us to discover to what extent all our most elementary self-experience was virtual." In this computational system, the 'virtualization' of representation is deeply connected to the techniques of the pivotal post-cybernetic agenda: the cognition industry.

Discourses of production and reception, principles of interface design, theories of perception, trajectories of narrative, practices of implementation, strategies of distribution...A litany of issues reinvigorated by the consequences of digital media. The list of course mutates continuously, altered by accelerated innovation and by virtually unfathomable technical development. Incessant claims of revision and the stakes of marketing ground so much of technoculture. Endless promises-the kind of positivistic euphoria that haunted modernity-re-emerge in an environment of almost tidal accessibility. Speculative consumption fills a gap between the end of industry and the beginning of the virtual corporation; a field of information driven by speculation.

As reproducibility and the issues of mass psychology set the agenda for a critique of culture during the 1930s, the technologies of transmission and consciousness wound themselves into the broadcast era after the 1950s. Joined by the tele-visual and the cybernetic, the inexorable drift towards an information economy and the emergence of the "consciousness industry" were recognized as pivots in the discourse of transformed reproducibility. Cultural theory was embroiled in a dialectic with the circulatory system of information while the next generation was emerging with more interest in neurocognitive issues than in those of perception and ideology. Indeed the spheres of electronic and genetic media are heading towards a rendezvous with cognition.

Indeed, while issues of space and duration dominated discourses of modernity, the related issues of interface and narrative 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 not mapped in physical space. Instead, the technologies of new media map a geography of cognition, of reception, and of communication emerging in territories whose hold on matter is ephemeral, whose position in space is tenuous, and whose presence is measured in acts of participation rather than coincidences of location.


"the explosion of causality that, according to the physicists, was supposed to end tomorrow in a gigantic implosion of finality, a theoretical or meta-theoretical construction capable of saving matter in the absence of sense, of preserving the creation of a creator, a secret desire for autonomy and for universal automation uniting all contemporary apocalyptic trends, this revelation of the precariousness of the human will, this face of hopelessness that is perfectly matched to the degree of ambition among the sciences, this deception in which the idea of nature from the enlightenment blurs into-and finally becomes confused with-the idea of the real, left over from the century of the speed of light." Paul Virilio