The context for learning, education and the arts (3)

This Entry is in Five Parts. (One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

This initial creativity was soon lost in the final version of “Understanding Media published in the 1964. In the book the medium becomes the message through the operations of an instantaneous sensory recognition of meaning. McLuhan explores affect by claiming that cubism in its elimination of point of view, generated an “instant total awareness [and in so doing] announced that the medium is the message? (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994, p.13.) I am not sure what ‘instant total awareness’ is, but one can surmise that it is somewhere between recognition and self-reflexive thought. In choosing this rather haphazard approach McLuhan eliminates all of the mediators that make any form of communication work.

Take the World Wide Web as an example. Few users of the web are aware of the various hubs and routers that move data around at high speed, let alone of the complexity of the servers that route that data into their home or business computers. They become aware of the mediators when there is a breakdown, or when the system gums up. The notion that we receive information instantly is tied up with the elimination of mediation. So, the arrival in my home of a television image from another part of the world seems instant, but is largely the result of a process in which radically different versions of time and space have played significant roles (the motion and position of the satellite, transmitting stations, microwave towers and so on). I won’t belabour this point other than to point out that the notion of instant recognition has played a significant role in the ways in which our culture has understood digital communications. This has tended to reduce if not eliminate the many different facets of the creative and technological process.

But let’s return to the more interesting and potentially creative idea that the subject is the message (mnetioned in an earlier post). As the sense-ratios alter, the sum-total of effects engenders a subject surrounded by and encapsulated within an electronic world, a subject who effectively becomes that world (and here the resonance with Jean Baudrillard is clear). This is not simply the movement from machine to human, it is the integration of machine and humans where neither becomes the victim of the other. As mediums we move meanings and messages around in a variety of creative ways (hence the link to speech) and as humans interacting with machines we are the medium within which this process and processing circulates. I repeat, this does not mean that we have become the machine, a concept that has inspired a great deal of criticism of technology in general, rather we end up sharing a common ground with our own creations, a mediated environment which we are explore everyday and try to make sense of the information that we are learning.

Interestingly, Derrick De Kerckhove, the Director of the McLuhan Centre at the University of Toronto who has been described as the successor to McLuhan wrote a book entitled, The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality (Kogan Page, London: 1998). He said:

“With television and computers we have moved information processing from within our brains to screens in front of, rather than behind, our eyes. Video technologies relate not only to our brain, but to our whole nervous system and our senses, creating conditions for a new psychology. (De Kerckhove: 5)

To Kerckhove, human beings have become messages (and this is different from being mediums) with our brains emulating the processing logic and structural constraints of computers. Here we do become the machine. We no longer signify as an act of will. Agency is merely a function of messaging systems. Agency no longer recognizes its role as a medium and as a result we seek and are gratified by the instantaneous, the immediate, the unmediated. Now, the ramifications of this approach are broad and need extensive thought and clarification.

The important point here is that De Kerckhove has molded the human body into an extension of the computer, because we are already, to some degree, machines. Our nervous systems, which scientists barely understand and our senses which for neuroscientists remain one of the wonders of nature are suddenly characterized through the metaphors of screens, vision, technology and a new psychology. The inevitable result are mechanical metaphors that make it seem as if science, computer science and biotechnology will eventually solve the ambiguous conundrums of perception (e.g., in the virtual world we become what we see), knowledge and learning. To say that we are the machine is a far cry from understanding the hybrid processes that encourage machine-human interactions. De Kerckhove has transformed the terrain here much as McLuhan did, so that humans lose their autonomy and their ability to act upon the world, although his is a far more sohisticated examination than McLuhan's.

As I said, this is not an article about McLuhan and so I will not explore the report that he wrote any further or the vast literature that has grown up around his thinking. As you can no doubt tell, I am concerned with the rather mechanical view that our culture has of the human mind and am fascinated with the ease with which we have taken on McLuhan’s simplified versions of affect and effect. It is not so much the behavioural bias that concerns me (although it is important to be aware of the influence of behaviourism on the cultural analysis of technology) but the equations that are drawn among experience, images and technology.

These equations often reduce the creative engagement of humans with culture and technology, to the point where culture and technology become one, eliminating the possibility of contestation. In large measure, many of the complaints about digital technologies, the fears of being overwhelmed if not replaced are the result of not recognizing the potential to recreate the products of technological innovation. The best example of this is the way video games have evolved from rudimentary forms of storytelling to complex narratives driven by the increasing ease with which the games are mastered by players. The sophistication of the players has transformed the technology. But none of this would have been possible without the ability of the technology to grow and change in response to the rather unpredictable choices made by humans.

If we turn to the computer for a moment, the notion that it has the power to affect human cognition is rooted in debates and theories developed within the fields of cybernetics and artificial intelligence. The “…popular press began to call computers ‘electronic brains’ and their internal parts and functions were given anthropomorphic names (e.g., computer memory)… (Warren Sack, “Artificial Intelligence and Aesthetics pg. 3)

The notion that a computer has memory has taken root in such a powerful way that it seems impossible to talk about computers without reference to memory. So, an interesting circle has been formed or it might be a tautology. Computer memory becomes a standard which we use to judge memory in general, hence the fears about Deep Blue somehow replacing the human mind, even though its programming was created by humans! The problem is that there is a long tradition of human creativity in the development of technologies and this history is embedded in every aspect of our daily lives. Deep Blue is just one more extension of the process. The fact that we can use the computer to judge our own memories certainly doesn’t eliminate anything. It merely means that we now have a tool that we can use to examine what we actually mean by memory. In fact, recent neuroscientific research into memory suggests that we have profoundly underestimated our own minds let alone the digital ones that we are creating.

The very idea of a computer program is linked to the power to do. (Sack: 5) Again, there are certain debates that cannot be developed here, including the significant one between Daniel Dennett and John Searle, a debate explored by Stephen Pinker in his new book, How the Mind Works. Pinker is a supporter of cognitive psychology and also suggests that the brain operates like a computer. His argument is more subtle than that however, because he is quite worried about creating too great an equivalence between the brain and the mechanics of the computer. I bring this up because it is the cultural attraction of the metaphors which interests me. It is important to understand that computer programs are carefully constructed artificial languages that have great difficulty dealing with the unpredictable, with the tentative, the contingent or the irrational. Computer programs are codified according to a strict set of rules and I think that we can make the argument that common sense is not. I will briefly return to this discussion later on.

To be continued......