Sunday, 21 March 2010

(Robot (I) Cop)

- just as in the brain are devils, in the world are bees: bees are angels,angels bees. each person has his or her bee, and his or her angel, not ‘guardian angel,’ not either one of those with ‘…drawn swords…’ who ‘…inflict chastisement…’ but as angels of presence, the presence that flares in the conscience not as philosophers’ fire, but bees’ - c k williams - from ‘either / or’ -

Recently I’ve been thinking about the places where humans and machines/technology meet and combine (I’m loving the Robot/Cop Venn diagram Amber Case uses to kick off her ‘Prosthetic Culture’ talk). The more I’ve been exposed to the discourses surrounding our various, polyphonous, multi- (and pulchri-)tudinous interactions with the world around us, recently in work from Merlin Donald and Andy Clark, the more I’ve realised how essential these discussions are. Extended Mind Theory, and the concept of Distributed Cognition, have become an integral part of the way I view how our minds work, of how much we externalise aspects of ourselves in order to deal with, and provide for, the processes we are capable of. I’m starting to think that our ability to offload parts of ourselves onto our surroundings sits at a fundamental level of our being, only slightly lower, perhaps, than our ability for abstract symbolic representation, truly a species defining trait. I’ll reserve a post in the future for talking about these theories more, I can’t do them any justice yet, but I thought I’d discuss how I see them already starting to fit into my research. Because it’s the focus of this blog, and also my thesis, I always think about how such notions might shed light on the digital reading debate - and they do, I think, very productively -, but I hope that it’s also fairly obvious how such vantage points might be pushed out to other disciplines, and, indeed, to other ways of being and living in the world.

(“consider the use of pen and paper to perform long multiplication (McClelland et al 1986, Clark 1989), the use of physical re-arrangements of letter tiles to prompt word recall in Scrabble (Kirsh 1995), the use of instruments such as the nautical slide rule (Hutchins 1995), and the general paraphernalia of language, books, diagrams, and culture. In all these cases the individual brain performs some operations, while others are delegated to manipulations of external media…In these cases, the human organism is linked with an external entity in a two-way interaction, creating a coupled system that can be seen as a cognitive system in its own right. All the components in the system play an active causal role, and they jointly govern behavior in the same sort of way that cognition usually does. If we remove the external component the system’s behavioral competence will drop, just as it would if we removed part of its brain. Our thesis is that this sort of coupled process counts equally well as a cognitive process, whether or not it is wholly in the head” - Andy Clark & David J. Chalmers, from ‘The Extended Mind)

In a post for if:book Dan Piepenbring invokes Heidegger’s notion of ‘readiness-to-hand' in order to offer a rebuttal to Sven Birkerts' argument against the Kindle (in short, Birkerts details a not entirely unconvincing, if unfocussed, argument that touching books takes us into a long standing system of representation, that turning pages means. Pipenbring, in response, suggests that we would never ditch such a ‘ready-to-hand’ technology for an ‘obtrusive,’ again in Heideggerian terms, device - so long as the book works best, and sits in our hands and minds most successfully, it will never be abandoned for an inferior delivery device; when a digital reading device emerges which surpasses the book, however, then Birkerts’ argument might begin).

Pipenbring’s response piece made me think about our attitude towards books, how the best of them can melt away in our grasp,

(The Library contains not books
but glaciers.
The glaciers are upright.

As perfectly ordered as books would be.
But they are melted.

What would it be like
to live in a library
of melted books.

With sentences streaming over the floor
and all the punctuation
settled to the bottom as residue.

It would be confusing.
A great adventure

- Anne Carson, from ‘Wildly Constant’)

leading us into a world where only a quick page turn threatens to bring us back to our own terms, how just as much as a writer puts a part of themselves onto the page we bring that object into ourselves, make it a part of us, an extension of us. We incorporate books at such times.

Frank Wilson, in The Hand, discusses the idea of ‘incorporation,’ of our ability, particularly, to use tools, even ones as large as cranes, as if they were parts of ourselves. The golfer’s club is an extension of her arm, the violinist’s bow a long stringed finger, the crane a whole new body we might sit in, truly cyborg from Kline and Clyne’s original definition, focussed in purpose rather than adaptive like our more usual form - as direct as a gorilla’s huge upper-body mass, perhaps, as opposed to our more plastic feebleness. Marshall McLuhan’s idea of technologies of communication being an extrapolation of the senses seems to fit in here, the telephone as an extended set of lips and tongues and ears.

(“The electric media are the telegraph, radio, films, telephone, computer and television, all of which have not only extended a single sense or function as the old mechanical media did - i.e., the wheel as an extension of the foot, clothing as an extension of the skin, the phonetic alphabet as an extension of the eye - but have enhanced and externalized our entire central nervous systems, thus transforming all aspects of our social and psychic existence. The use of the electronic media constitutes a break boundary between fragmented Gutenberg man and integral man, just as phonetic literacy was a break boundary between oral-tribal man and visual man” - Marshall McLuhan, from “The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan”, Playboy Magazine, March 1969)

‘Incorporation,’ ‘extrapolation,’ and ‘externalisation’ seem terms fit to describe our species’ attitude towards technologies and objects. A book is an extrapolation of our minds as we write, incorporated into our bodies as we read, and functions as a source of external memory when we collect them together in libraries. I promised I’d leave the distributed cognition alone for today, but it’s at the heart of all that I’m thinking right now, and it appears unavoidable. Please forgive an extended quotation:

“dances of agency in science aim at their own self-extinction. Scientists don’t enjoy them much; they want to get out of them. I can remember doing my PhD in physics, trying to write a big computer program to fit a lot of data. Every night I’d leave the latest version to run, and every morning something would have gone wrong, which I would then have to try to fix - which annoyed me immensely: why won’t the damn thing just run? So what does it mean to extinguish a dance of agency? In The Mangle I talked about special points of ‘interactive stabilisation,’ which, when achieved, are places where practice can rest for a while, and facts or whatever be reported, when the program runs - moments when the dance is temporarily over…[W]hat does this interactive stabilisation amount to? I described it [in The Mangle] as various cultural elements fitting together in some way, in contrast to the mismatches which are the usual state of affairs…[I]n this instance I missed a trick…[,] in these special moments of stabilisation some things hang together in such a way that some other things - namely, the human and the nonhuman - are split apart. When my computer program wouldn’t run, our lives were bound up together: every day I would tend it and work on it; every night it would disappoint me. When it did eventually agree to run, we could go our separate ways. Our relationship had changed. The program had at last achieved its independence from me - it had become something I could use, what I would call a free-standing machine - and I had achieved my independence from it - I was once more, in this respect at least, my own man, a freestanding human being, and not the other half of a stack of punched cards…[I]f one follows this line of thought, one arrives at a more tightly specified account of the dance of agency in science: it is a dance structured through and through by an invariant telos, that of splitting the human from the nonhuman - a telos of dualisation, of making the world dual”

- Andy Pickering, from ‘Science, Contingency and Ontology,’ talk presented at ‘Science as It Could Have Been: Discussing the Contingent/Inevitable Aspects of Scientific Practices,’ Fondation les Treilles, 2009

Here Pickering identifies a ‘temporary interactive stabilisation’ where all is as it ‘should be,’ and yet a relationship is lost. There’s an almost mournful tone here that seems to be an echo


of what we see in Heidegger’s ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ where Heidegger wants us to acknowledge what we might be losing by constantly being available, and subject to, the specific revealing power of technology, its capacity for ‘scientific’ revelation. But I digress, the real link I want to make between Heidegger and Pickering’s notion of ‘temporary interactive stabilisation’ goes back to Pipenbring and ‘readiness-to-hand.’ Briefly, because I’ve spoken too long, Pickering’s stabilised loss of a relationship is an externalised opposite of Frank Wilson’s ‘incorporation,’ which, in turn, is Heidegger’s ‘readiness-to-hand’ by another name, and at a greater extension (cranes are ‘ready-to-body?’). Where Pickering stabilised his relationship with the computer by separating himself, we incorporate a book into ourselves when we read(/incorporate a violin bow into ourselves when we play/incorporate a golf club...etc.). These too, I feel, are ‘temporary interactive stabilisations,’ all being as it ‘should be,’ but without the concomitant loss of a separation to stay the dance (the dance continues, but stabilises, we give in to the object). To echo, and mishear each bounce, Andy Clark again: if we remove the…component the system’s behavioral competence will drop, just as it would if we removed part of its brain - if we remove…component[s] the system…will drop. For Pickering, when things were buggy he acted as a cyborg of sorts, bound to the machine, but when he made a discovery he extricated himself and stood alone to look at his results. Maybe reading is the continuation of a buggy communion, an attempt to make the fleeting interactive stabilisation stick without having to disconnect and observe. A happy, and (happily) not mutually exclusive, inversion.



P.S. - in other news, I wrote a poem:


A sensitive tooth aches shatteringly,

then less,

then stops.

A mouthful of once cold milk

makes me wonder how energy,

from warm inside cheek flesh,

from my stolen sunlight

(plants and beasts beat down on and eaten),

makes its pale atoms beat faster

in heat.

What valve opens,

what aorta, or vena cava, or carotid pulse thrust

causes them to push?

And which forms the bellowed muscle’s walls?

Me or them? Or us?

a ventricle apiece.