International Symposium on Electronic Arts 1995
Thursday 21 September 1995
Until last year, I would have been very surprised to see myself before a group of electronic artists; I considered myself a technologist - with artistic leanings, perhaps - essentially a tool creator, rather than a tool user.
So much has happened over the last 24 months - it seems as though the entire world has changed - that now there is no other group of individuals so integral to the heart and mind of an emerging millennial noospheric culture.
Throughout his lifetime, McLuhan repeatedly stressed the importance of the role of the artist as the culture’s early warning system. In this capacity, artists experience the manipulations and amputations of media first, then act as translators for the rest of us - providing a framework within which we contain our perceptions.
In the middle of the last century, with the beginning of the electric age, the arts have undergone consistent and rapid modification in the face of technical assaults; photography, phonography, cinema, radio and television have eaten, digested and excreted the nine Muses; from this rich dung another generation of artists have sprung up - this time, reversing the process - swallowing media whole, and giving birth to a wealth of hybrid forms.
And so it would continue - perhaps forever - save for the fact that certain boundaries integral to our Western conception of the self and its relation to the Other are rapidly eroding or repositioning themselves in a way which ignores the calm confines of Apollonian democracies - such as this - and plunges us into a region without boundary - terrifying and entirely out of control.
Human history begins with the essential act of communication; the concretization of thought through symbolization gave the species an advantage over any predator or prey. Sybolization led to the construction of myths, symbols wrought into indelible forms. The first narratives are myths; more than just facts, they bind the specifics of perception to the truths of life. The word religion - which means “to bind” - illustrates this concept perfectly. Myths are imaginal - not imaginary, but crafted from intuitive belief instead of facts. In our age we see this as backward and unscientific, but archaic myth casts this as that, rather than this is that. A semiotic compression algorithm, myth compresses a universe of observation into a tidy story. But, like the simple equations which produce the alien landscapes of the Mandelbrot set, myth unzips to articulate a whole universe of phenomena and feeling. Like a hologram, myth can illuminate the whole from one part.
Writing - as the first historical medium - introduced the first mediated amputation. McLuhan points out that all technologies are amputations, replacements of physicality with control interfaces. The Chinese say that the palest ink is better than the fondest memory; writing supplanted the “cathedral of memory” and individual expression, with the rational, uniform order of characters lining the page. The individual loss was humanity’s gain - writing can be burned, but not forgotten. So it remained for thousands of years; the invention of cuneiform created a body of myth, independent from the bard or priest. The creation of the printing press, thought to be the birth of the modern age, spread the hegemony of literacy to the furthest reaches of the globe, giving rise to the modern myth of objectivity - recorded, rational and reproducible - against the subjective, irrational and undependable vagaries of memory.
A growing body of knowledge - written down, reprinted and widely distributed among the intellectual elite of Renaissance and Enlightenment civilization - gave birth to Science, a curiously circular process in which results from experimentation were then fed back into the process itself, producing a new set of results which would then be fed back into the process, etc., until a complete understanding of a system was acquired. In the transition from Alchemy to Science the emphasis shifted from a metaphysical understanding of the whys of the cosmos to an analytic recording of process.
With the phrase “What hath God wrought?”, humanity entered the electric era. This electrification spread rapidly across the planet; before the start of the twentieth century the “modern” world was wired into a single organism - politics, finance and culture all threaded across the wire in an instant. Our mythic space exploded - heroes (General Lee), horrors (The Jonestown Flood) and outrages (Sinking of the Maine) all came into our personal lives, as if real, even on the other side of the world. The electrically transmitted imagination gave birth to the first of the modern mythic forms, the tabloid newspaper.
At this point our world - carefully divided into us and them, here and there, now and then - began to collapse. The intimacy of a world connected at the speed of light changed everything about everything. No man was an island; a billion souls crowded in on his solitude. Electric technology amputates isolation.
With electricity, it became possible to construct machinery which embraced the very unmachine-like quality of mutability. When Alan Turing invented a device to decrypt Nazi codes, he fathered a changeling, a device which could stand in for almost any other, given the right instructions. Beyond this, the changeling could change itself, as part of a system. Norbert Wiener would later call such systems cybernetic; essentially informational, and quintessentially mutable. Thus we have the modern computer.
The essence of computation is simulation, the modern mythic mutable form. The computer conforms to a set of rules and inputs to produce a synthetic state which intends to mirror a real one. Quite often, these systems are so open-ended that they are impossible to quantify completely. In these cases, real-world inputs are essential to the simulation, which refines its model to match observed phenomena. As such, the logical successor to computation is communication, between man and computing machine, and between the machines themselves.
This history of mediation has suddenly become circular. Communicated imagination evolves into the imagination electrified, which in turn becomes electronic computing, which requires computer communications. Now, back at the beginning, we return to a time of communicated imagination, but in an electrically mediated form; in a word, cyberspace.
On the 27th of October 1969, two computers began exchanging messages with each other through a link leased from the telephone company. As part of an experiment funded by the United States’ Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), researchers sought to construct a resilient internetwork, an architecture which could survive the failure of any - even most - of its components. The rational behind this was practical, and panicked. The US needed its network of defense computers - running simulations on adversarial attack postures, updated with satellite images, radar telemetry and the ubiquitous eyes of the National Security Agency - and knew them to be vulnerable to nuclear attack. Chartered to create a network which would adapt to changes in its topology, the researchers created a “fallout shelter” for the defense network infrastructure. If the computers in Kansas City were to suddenly go off-line - whatever the reason - the network would simply route traffic around the affected area, and communication would continue. In this way, global thermonuclear war was reduced to nothing more than a series of routing errors.
Planning for worst-case scenarios is an excellent design methodology in networking, and the protocols of the network created in this project became known as TCP/IP. This network grew into the Internet, which, bit by bit, ate every other network in its path, because it was more resilient, and therefore more useful, than any potential competitor.
For the first twenty years of its life, the Internet was sophisticated and hard to master. The interfaces to it were exclusively command-line based, and the command sets were cryptic, almost hermetic. In this time, we saw the birth of a class of “system administrators” (often referred to as “sysops”), who acted as the community librarians and human interfaces to the obscure sea of data which few others cared enough to explore or map. These sysops served as the community’s memory - they remembered where you put things, or where various resources could be found. The computer-centered nature of early Internet interfaces proved that restrictive interfaces restrict usage.
Just as writing beget science, now science could give birth to a new form of writing; in 1989 at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee invented the protocols known as the World Wide Web, to create a framework in which data context was as important as data content. The Web turned the Internet into a gigantic disk drive, collapsing the boundaries between networks, machines and documents, and creating the modern equivalent of the Akashic record.
A few years later Mark Andreesen, at the University of Illinois would give the Web an interface with NCSA Mosaic. Two years later, the face of computing has undergone a transformation as profound as all preceding. The two critical ingredients which precipitated this metamorphosis were dramatic changes in the connectivity (Web protocols) and interfaces (Web browsers) of the Internet. An accessible interface increased the usage of the Internet, which further increased its usefulness, leading to increased usage, and so on. What we see now is a self-reinforcing feedback loop that won’t conclude until it has sucked in all human knowledge and plastered it together into an infinity of plateaus.
The Web, which appeared instantaneously and ubiquitously, has all of the earmarks of an emergent behavior. Does this mean, therefore, that the Internet is alive? Most assuredly, but isn’t that because each of us, as nodes in that network, breath life into it?
As developed, the Web had a fundamental drawback - despite its usefulness, it remained essentially computer-centered. The syntax of the Universal Resource Locator (URL), the defining stamp of the Web, was driven by the needs of host machines rather than the humans using them. Like any tragic hero, the great strength of the Web - a hyperspace of documents - is also its weakness. Human beings can not grasp hyperspace - there’s no there there, nothing tangible, sensual or sensible. For this reason, the Web, as rich and interconnected as it may be, is still a universe separate from our own. We can relate with it, but it is no part of us.
Another current in computing - established by Ivan Sutherland and extended by pioneers like Scott Foster and Scott Fisher, Elizabeth Wenzel and Warren Robinett - reversed the interface paradigm by putting humans in the center of the loop. The concept was simple: if you can sensualize data, it makes more sense. Today we call this “virtual reality”, but it’s really sensual computing.
In late 1993, as I began to explore the still-embryonic Web, it became clear to me that hyperspace would need cyberspace - that is, an environment which could mirror the real world - in order to be truly useful. By way of example: how many people can understand “http://hyperreal.com/~mpesce”? How many of you will remember it in ten minutes, or even two? But if I were to say, “Go up Market Street to Sanchez, make a right and then a left onto Henry Street,” that would make sense to you, and you’d retain it. Space is sensual, not conceptual; we are built for it, and must bend our mediations to it.
Working in close partnership with Tony Parisi, I prototyped a three-dimensional interface to the Web in early 1994. Tim Berners-Lee, well aware of the power of sensual computing, invited us to present our work at the First International Conference on the World Wide Web, at CERN, where Dave Raggett named it, Brian Behlendorf gave it a home, and a community of researchers lent their support. We established a mailing list, expecting perhaps fifty people would participate in the process of defining a real virtual reality modeling language; within a week we had over a thousand, and today some three thousand people worldwide subscribe to the list, including some of the brightest minds in simulation, networking, and graphics.
On the Third of April, 1995, endorsements of VRML ran in the business pages world wide; cyberspace had arrived. Still young, it didn’t meet everyone’s expectations; but, because the specification process is open, and because no commercial organization dominates the VRML market, we’ve been able to take a basic specification and extend it much faster than anyone had thought possible. Our speed - creating a language and quickly developing tools to support it - is due, in large part, to a dedication to a process which is consciously out of control. No individual or organization dominates VRML; a thriving ecology of interests, commercial, academic, and private together create an unapologetically chaotic and unquestionably productive environment. When people ask who developed VRML, I often say, “The Internet did.” And if we have come so far so fast, it’s because we were able to hand the difficult parts of the problem off to a vast parallel processor - the minds connected together via the Internet. It is possible - and sometime necessary - to treat the Internet as a hybrid between a bee hive and a brain - conjointly capable of tasks that no individual part can attempt.
The progression, from the one-dimensional command-line, through two-dimensional Web pages into three- dimensional immersive cyberspace seems natural in retrospect; but we’ve only just begun. By this time next year, the fully interactive, multiparticipant cyberspace evoked by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson will have arrived. The aeon of cyberspace is the realm of connectivity and interface infinitely extended. No longer will we ask how to do it, but rather, “what is to be done?”
We have in our hands a tool unlike any other; over the last four years I’ve made a dedicated study of its nature and powers. These are dangerous waters; the unification of art and science, while noble, is unspeakably dangerous; Pandora’s box opened, we have no choice but to deal with the plagues released. We are opening the doors to our selves, through the gates of perception.
Much of what I understand about perception mediation I’ve learned from Dr. David Warner, a neuroscientist and cognitive researcher at the Loma Linda Medical Research Center in Riverside, California. He has developed a model, known as perceptual cybernetics, which articulates the informational relationships between self and artifact, being and experience.
In this model, the entire universe of perception - or rather, of information - is divided into three components. First, the external world, the world of objects and the other, is labeled phi, after the physical realm. Second, the interior realm, of thought and feeling, is labeled Psi, after the Greek Psyche. Finally, the interfaces, the sensors and affectors which stand between the two - what Gibson called “the meat” - is identified as Fx (pronounced “fecks”).
The determination of the precise content of any of these “islands” of information is not the point of this system; little of value can be learned from this. Rather, the interfaces that each component presents to the others are the key features of this model. Fx mediates all communication between Phi and Psi, which is to say the body has a mandate to preserve the boundary between within and without. Manturana and Varela, in their epochal Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Understanding, express it in the language of biology - seeing the two systems Phi and Psi as structurally coupled, engaged in a conversation which necessarily and autopoetically forms a boundary between them. They go so far as to say that this boundary formation is the primary function of the living system, the essential nature of consciousness, and the wellspring of culture. In the purest sense, life is the ability to say, “This is me, and that is not.”
In perceptual cybernetics, the boundaries of life occur in two very specific places; between Phi and Fx, and between Fx and Psi. Two simple examples will demonstrate what I mean:
In this hand I hold a television remote control - capable of sending out a signal which can turn a device on and off, or change the channel, or raise and lower the volume. (Oh, and someday the ubiquitous “BUY” button will appear next to these.) Yet, to our senses, we see nothing at all. The infrared beam is below the wavelengths perceptible to the rods and cones on our retinas; there is information there, but we are not wired to receive it. This is the nature of the Phi/Fx boundary.
On the other hand, if I were to suddenly lapse into a foreign language: “o-nihongo hanasa masu ka?”, we find ourselves in a situation where biology can receive the signal, but cognition fails. We hear something - and perhaps intuit a question from the inflection - but understand nothing. Unless you understand Japanese, that is, in which case the message would pass the Fx/Psi barrier, leaving the domain of phonon and surviving the translation into the realm of reason.
These two boundaries have one qualitative difference; the Fx/Psi boundary may be trained. This structural coupling - which we call learning - alters the specifics of the boundary. In an iterative process reminiscent of the generation of a fractal, the Fx/Psi interfaces circularly reinforces a system until it reaches a dwell point, an attractor. We say we’ve learned something, but it’s much more than this - we’ve created a new relationship between our senses and our understanding.
The qualitative difference between the Phi/Fx and Fx/Psi boundaries are exact analogs to the two components we’ve identified as being crucial to the explosion of Internet usage; connectivity and interface. The Phi/Fx boundary is connectivity - can I get the signal to you? while the Fx/Psi boundary is the archetypal interface - once I’ve gotten signal to you, can you make sense from it?
The goal of all human interface technology - and specifically the end point of virtual reality itself, which Jaron Lanier termed post-symbolic communication, is an analysis, understanding, and improvement of the fidelity of the Phi/Fx and Fx/Psi interfaces. For example, night vision/infrared receptive goggles would make the remote control visible to all eyes, and a language course - though hardly a virtual reality technology, but quite clearly a sensual entrainment - would render the Japanese comprehensible. Extending these mechanisms into the realms where our growing understanding of biomechanics and cognitive psychology seem sure to take it - and where artists will drag it if science does not - we can now see that we are entering a period of a large-scale structural coupling, in which we are learning the nature of our perceptual interfaces even as we learn how to manipulate them. The Tree of Knowledge states this clearly when it announces, "Knowing is doing, and doing, knowing."
Eventually - and I believe that this point is not so far away - we will understand the nature of the Fx boundaries so well that we will be able to tune our mediations, and so render it invisible. The physical world will then be able to articulate itself to the psyche with perfect fidelity.
Strangely enough, we already have a word for this state: we call it a cyborg.
If all mediation is equally amputation, then the outcome of this structural coupling between science and art - which we hesitantly call interactivity - can only lead to the final amputation: sans eyes, sans ears, sans thought, sans all.
We find ourselves, through instruments of mediation, together in the same room, looking at each other, occasionally revolted by what we see, but sometimes aroused - the Circus Planet Earth, a tent with a T-1, and a hundred million rings. All our sacred space is suddenly the same. Mircea Eliade, in The Sacred and the Profane, states that the sacred is that which ontologically founds the world. The sacred is the place for being, in its primary sense; all else is measured against it. Now the ego erodes; that figment of the Greek imagination, born when man as individual asserted the I of self over the I of species - and warred with himself ever since - will be gone inside a generation, lost to a growing hum of collective being.
This collection is both rape and consummation; if we ignore the death of human ego, we will find our selves pierced by a thousand constructions that combine biomechanics and propaganda into forms of mediation which will leave us wholly as receptacles for the being of others - Eros enslaved, ending as cyborg.
There is another way; connection need not presuppose domination, or mediation, control. The ecology of souls, together behaving as one organism, has in its form the embedded understanding that each part is important, and none dominant. The center is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. Pierre Teillard de Chardin called this nexus of connection noosphere; studies of connective mediation are equally studies in noospherics.
The space of our connection is the ground of our being, the collective beyond we, the singular before I. The original Ontos can not be named. Our final unity, in either form - or perhaps in a middle which avoids the hegemony of either and creates a new assemblage of heavens and hells - is unspeakable now, for the Logos of our new aeon has yet to be uttered.
Even the simplest of interactive mediations betrays the transcendent quality of the unspoken form. T_Vision, a project which presents the Earth, from any point of view, at any resolution, as it is right now, weaves sensuality and omniscience, engendering an emotional state so profound that even the system’s creators can not help but to love the images it generates.
As we translate the physical into the astral, and move from the concrete feel of the Mother beneath our feet into an electric evocation of her totality and possibilities, we create ajnachakra, participating in the movement from the singular to the unified. Foucault might be horrified -or perhaps delighted - at this global Panopticon, which promises to place us under the rule of an all-seeing eye.
Knowing is doing: the conception of Earth-as-one will lead to the intuitive understanding that humanity is one, as life is one.
Ajna chakra sees through the false boundaries of maya to the undifferentiated state of being.
When Rita Addison created Detour: Brain Injury, she set out to represent the effects of a permanent and debilitating injury to her visual system. An immersive CAVE installation, which compared her life as a professional photographer to her perception of the world gone askew, she found critical acclaim in the arts community - one of the most lauded pieces at SIGGRAPH ‘94 - and found legions of doctors trailing in, to take a look around, through her head. They said to Rita: “we’ve known that our patients experience symptoms; but this is the first time we’ve known what they feel like.” Opening the prison of reason through the power of direct experience, she brought them into her self.
In Osmose the boundaries of individual being are breached in a synesthesia of breath and balance. Char Davies evokes a numinous world - or rather, several - which binds biology to ontology, monitoring breath and orientation, which become the agents of mutation. Thus compromised, the self has little choice but to reinforce this external intelligence, structurally coupled to its own, creating a hybrid being.
The ecstasy of communication is the joy of uniting the divided self. Another implies the unexpected, something interesting and divine. Connection is consummation; the closed circuit feeds back and governs a whole. Mediated communication as refiner’s fire transforms the self to include the other.
To cross again is to uncross; even as multiplicities dissolve into unity, unity must intuit itself as embedded within a greater multiplicity. Union is instantaneous and fleeting, division eternal and permanent. These two create hope.
As we concretize the Web - articulate its unconscious, unspoken form with the substance of pure thought - it changes us. Doing is knowing; the construction of the noosphere binds us to it, irrevocably. We may never know all, but it will know us.
Continuous mutation becomes synonymous with the conception of mind; each event which perception contains becomes contained by it. Each understands the universe from a locus articulated as self, yet this mind now contains the full volume of all experience. The center is everywhere; being of one mind has another meaning.
Virilio has said, “Speed Equals Light”. At the limit, surrendering speed in favor of energy, self translates into a new form, a tongue whose only word is change. This flow - infinite, indivisible, inescapable - becomes the carrier wave for a different way of being.
Imagine, now, a room. No furniture, but warm and well lit. You stand in this room, atop a floor which reflects back to you, on its linoleum surface, the face of the Earth. In this room, you reach within and bring forth a sound...
[ at this point I delivered a 15-second chant ]
...in communion with others. They are not there, not really, but they join you in this chant. And as you move from one place to another in this room, you move your sound among the peoples of the Earth; Montreal, Beijing, Bahia. You share Worldsong with others, who join and leave a constant chant; for even if one in a thousand - or one in a million - participates, it is a sound like no other - the human echo of the music of the spheres.
The harmony of the spheres expressed as a single voice. Human music. The essence of the self in celebration, transmitted globally, singly representing something new.
Of this, Joseph Goebbels would be proud.
These two are the final cross; where they cancel AL is union. To cross again is not to cross. The formula is simple: ignore the power, find the center - then transcend both self and other.
Our one safe spot, the axis mundi of the Ontos, is the divine nature of the self. There must then be an interface to the divine, as the only point which can remain fixed in the face of seductive mutation. This is the focus of my own work. In Amsterdam, this November, we will initiate a sacred space for being in the wire, a place which evokes the divine in all its visitors. To do this, we must connect and interface to the divine within the self.
Assemblage - in the creation of the divine self - is rarely a conscious process. The confluence of elemental entities and their arrangement into plateaus of meaning occur naturally. This dark night, that bright moon, those shining stars. Ritual is repetitive and constant; the perception of life is performance of memory, the consistent re-doing of that done once in order to reinforce its sacred nature.
The sacred self is simultaneously realized at multiple levels of scale, boundaries fringed to infinitesimality with subcategory, form hyperinflated to universality in an echo greater than itself. Hermetic thought takes divinity as the natural state of the universe - self and other - and assigns to each instance of occurrence a location in the dynamic range of the cosmos.
As the complement of sacred space, sacred time has qualities of circle and cycle. Earth orbits Sun, and tips itself, solstice to solstice, each of these the crest of a wave. The node points, the intervals between - identified as equinoxes - are the gates and transitions; between light and dark, dark and light.
In this form, to move in the interval is to move within time. The Equinox as balance point between crests is the gateway in a fundamental sense; the door opens, and the task appears. It becomes possible to harmonize with the cycle, apply creative energies to it, and change the world.
Divinity has interior and exterior aspects; as within, so without. The first demarcation - the Original Sin - is a structural coupling which figures the self as sacred, the Other, profane. Every line divides; the profane exists in opposition to the sacred.
Autopoesis is the gathering in, yet boundary also serves as reminder that all things return; the selection of sacred sign is a function of the sacred self. The tension between this gathering in and casting off symbolizes the fundamental boundary between self and other, yet represents the essence of their relation.
Can we be struck with the lightning of divinity without being burnt to ashes? The evocation of Pan panics us; we have no space for the sacred insane, the holy prophet, the blessed fool. Thus, his appearance is marked with thunder instead of laughter.
In her descent to Hell, Inanna loses the seven sacred items which frame her divinity. Only in complete release can she live again. We fear the dark to insure that we return to it.
Look into this universe and see demons; look again, and see gods. Cyberspace is the mirror held to the third eye.
The noospheric rhizome is the essence of the hybrid - neither this nor that, but something in between, encompassing all possibilities, releasing white light. At the ultimate intersection, all mediation is drawn into a single form, which, like some great, black star, consumes the universe of perception, radiating gamma rays.
Against this gathering in: concretized imagination, cast forth, shared across the body of this planet - a new sea of stars, each shining brilliant in the body of the night.
This work is companion to one I delivered a year ago today in my home, San Francisco; at the start of it I stated that I would speak from my heart about things that I could see.
That said, this work is done.
Farewell to I and thou; then departing: Speech, Thought, Feeling, Being. An end as was begun; full circle. All is as it was before crossing.
The divine is overrun by the regime of the mundane. Only memory remains.
Back then, into the darkness.
Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Monteal
August - September 1995
1. McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, MIT
2. Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the Earth, xxxx, 1985
3. Thomson, William Irwin, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture, St. Martin’s Press, 1980.
4. Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Felix, A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press, 1980.
5. Gibson, William, Neuromancer, Ace Books, 1984
6. Stephenson, Neal, Snow Crash, Ballantine Books, 1993
7. Manturana and Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, xxxx, 1980.
8a. Pesce, Parisi and Kennard, Cyberspace, Proceedings of the First International Conference on the World Wide Web, 1994. http://hyperreal.com/~mpesce/www.html
8b. Pesce, Mark, Final Amputation: Pathogenic Ontology in Cyberspace, Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Cyberspace, 1993. http://hyperreal.com/~mpesce/fa.html
9. Laurel, Brenda, Computers as Theatre, Addison-Wesley, 1991.
10. Benedikt, Michael, ed., Cyberspace: First Steps, MIT Press 1991.
11. Virilio, Paul, Cyberspace, in Intercommunication 3, New Media Research Center, 1994.
12. Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane, Random House, 1953.
13. Thomson, William Irwin, The American Replacement of Nature, Saint Martin’s Press, 1993.
14. de Chardin, Pierre Teillard, The Phenomenon of Man, Arrow Press, 1952.
15. Baudrillard, Jean, The Ecstasy of Communication, Semiotext(e), 1987.