PaganStudio Writings

Archive
Medium is the Flesh

 

We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves.
- Norbert Wiener

The term cybernetics has it roots in the Greek word for kubernetes (steersman) or “governor”, and Norbert Wiener’s, use of it suggests how people interact with machines through a controlling device, such as a steering mechanism. Wiener is a mathematician, and electrical engineer and communication specialist, famous with his derivation of the word “cybernetics” together with Arture Rosenleuth in 1948, in his book of the same title. According to his definition all activities like driving a car, passing through an automatic door, or clicking with the mouse are cybernetic activities. Cybernetic systems are characterised by automatic control as well as transference, processing and re-transference of information. Today cybernetics is integrated into newly formed scientific areas such as information theory, communication, signal theory, system theory, artificial intelligence research and biological cybernetics (bionics) etc. All automatic data processing systems are cybernetic machines according to Wiener’s definition.

Wiener’s groundbreaking theory on cybernetics is valuable in the context of this today’s audio visual and sensual communication theories, since his theory became the main reference for anyone investigating the psychological and socio-cultural implications of human-machine interaction, as stated by Jordan and Packer, “Wiener understood that the quality of our communication with machines affects the quality of our inner lives.” (Packer and Jordan 2001).

This article aims at signifying the new base for theorization of today’s communication systems through a lateral and multidisciplinary research and categorization of man-machine systems in a trans-techno communicational manner. Through out this exploration focus of the study will be on the implications and criticism of the implantal applications at the man machine interfaces.

In order to articulate the man-machine interaction theories in the context of visual art and visual communication design fields, they should be further extended with notions of embodiment and space. Aristotle’s rejection of 3D space as a redundant supplement to body’s 3D volume or extension may be concerned to put that a body’s extension or volume is different from space, since it is mobile and moves with the body, whereas space is supposed to be stationary and to be left behind when the body moves on. This moderately new conception of space where it is mobile among the body which experiences it, brings along the investigation of the interface between the body and the space, and the medium enclosing this interface. Prosthetics, either medical or technical for enhancement, neural implantations, and immersive environments and finally externalization of human intelligence with technical prosthetics constitute a set of situations where body, which may be referred as flesh through the rest of this article, space, the machine and the medium of communication comprise an aesthetic system to be discovered. At this point I find it important to construct a gaze to this system from our field and I think that the issue should be handed with an interdisciplinary approach.

Avital Ronell points out in her book titled “The Telephone Book: Technology – Schizophrenia – Electric Speech”, that the phone was originally intended as a prosthetic device for the hearing impaired but even today, in the time of being lack of telepresentable capabilities count as a traumatic or congenital deficiency, it is not easy to consider a regular telephone device as a prosthetic. Anyway, her approach today is still valid to debate the morality and desirability of such technologies such as “enhancement prosthetics”, to replace healthy body parts with artificial mechanisms and systems to improve function and communication. This aim led scientists to work through concepts such as, human machine interfaces or human augmentation where “cyborg” is an abbreviated name for a cybernetic bio-organism. Cyborg is a human form, intimately linked to both the flesh and the mechanical, and best known for its hybrid character, which by constantly reshaping its own boundaries reshapes our own. Manfred Clynes is the founder of the term to be used in a NASA conference on modifying the human for living space in 1958. The first idea of creating a cyborg depended on the necessity to modify a human with implants and drugs, who as such can exist in space without space suits. “Cyborg” took off among science fiction writers who had already recognized the incredible integration of technology into natural systems that was starting to transform the society.

Coevally enhancement prosthetics – body extensions, due to an endeavour to examine the limits of the flesh, were the subject of interest of many contemporary artists like Rebecca Horn, a German born artist, one of the most important performance artists of the 70’s, is well known with her objects, actions, and performances, focused on the body and space. While Rebecca Horn’s more recent work has been determined by a poetical deployment of mechanical constructions, this object seen at the figure, belongs to ‘Performances II’ (1973), a film in which Rebecca Horn was preoccupied still with extending her own body into space.


Rebecca Horn, Finger Gloves, 1972
Performance photograph

Another important name in this context is Stelarc, an artist born in 1946 and based in Australia. His work explores and extends the concept of the body and its relationship with technology through human-machine interfaces incorporating medical imaging, prosthetics, robotics, VR systems and the Internet. One of his spectacular performances is titled “Fractal Flesh”, which is A body whose, proprioception responds not to its internal nervous system but to the external stimulation of globally connected computer networks.


Stelarc, Fractal Flesh, 1996
Performance photograph

Endeavours of these kinds in the field of art practice lead to theoretical discussions around the issue of body extensions and embodiment. The approaches in these theoretical discussions may also be valuable in design literature. Katherine Hayles is one of the important thinkers/writers on the issue whose thoughts are valuable in the scope of this study. Hayles articulates body and its extensions accepting the shortcomings caused by the ignorance of the notion of space. She focuses on the changing embodied experiences through interaction, where she uses the term “information-rich environments” for the environment where this embodiment occurs and she introduces the term “proprioception” to the domain of this discussion as such:

Consider first the force of habits to shape embodied responses, especially proprioception, that internal sense that gives us the feeling we occupy our bodies rather than merely possess them. Computer video game players testify to feeling they are projecting their proprioceptive sense into the simulated space of the game world. In fact, they eloquently insist that being a good player absolutely requires this kind of projection. Their body boundaries have fluidly intermingled with the technological affordances so that they feel the joystick as an unconscious extension of the hand. The flexibility of the human neural system enables new synaptic connections to form in response to embodied interactions. (Hayles, 2003)

 

Initial applications of body extensions were made due to medical necessities. Prosthetic organs, i.e. the electronic eye, which is nothing but a digital camera capable of sending signal of vision to brain, or previously prosthetic legs or arms, are the main examples of such extensions. Probably one of the most important figures in mind while referring to the issue of medical prosthetics is Stephen Hawking, English physicist born in 1942. Most people recall him with his speech synthesiser. Hawking is probably the most famous computer mediated medical prosthetics user among masses. It is remembered that in one of his interviews on BBC television, he claims that he can better communicate in various ways than the time before he lost his speech. Gareth Branwyn, a cyberculture writer, categorises the neural prosthetic and interface technologies of today in three major areas: auditory and visual prosthesis; functional neuromuscular stimulation (FNS); and prosthetic limb control via implanted neural interfaces, and further explains in detail:

So far, the most successful implants have been in the realm of hearing. Larry Orloff, a scientist who had suffered hearing loss since childhood, edits Contact, a newsletter for people with hearing implants. He reports that there are more than 7,000 people worldwide outfitted with cochlear implants. These devices work through tiny electrodes placed in the cochlea region of the inner ear to compensate for the lack of cochlear hair cells, which transduce sound waves into bioelectrical impulses in ears that function normally. Dr. Terry Hambrecht, a chief researcher in neural prosthetics, reports in the Annual Review of Biophysics and Bioengineering (1979) that implanted patients had “significantly higher scores on tests of lipreading and recognition of environmental sounds, as well as increased intelligibility of some of the subjects’ speech.” (Branwyn, 1993)

One of the other recent examples is the C-LEG SYSTEM, which has been demonstrated in the Wired Magazine with the title “Prosthetics Go Bionic” (Wired Ed., 2005). The C-Leg’s microprocessor crunches data from internal sensors – which measure angle and force 50 times per second – then adjusts the limb as the wearer moves to keep motion fluid. The knee’s stability makes it easy to negotiate uneven terrain. This kind of an application establishes a flesh-machine connection where AI provides the data to overwrite the necessity for interaction, where the product behaves ‘as-if’ it is a natural limb.


C-LEG

As the examples, the cases mentioned above and visual art and design works, which fall into the same realm with those examples are bid more it is seen that prosthetics, implanted communication systems and other flesh machine systems may be constructed in order to establish a connection between flesh and machine or further enhance the existing bond rather than completing the missing bodily functions. I avoid to give the time reference, like “today in the age of…” which I avoided the give throughout the article. I avoid for the reason that I am trying to mention that use of these kind of advanced cybernetic systems, independently from the emergence of digital technologies and possibilities offered by the new media, are in every age scrutinized with the appropriate technology of the period. Today, if the issue is to investigate the modalities of such a system and its aesthetic integrity, main references can be found in the fields, which deal with the impossibilities of the body such as medical, cybernetic, anthropometry etc. As said by Ende Neu/Bargeld “beauty remains in the impossibilities of the body”

Designers and artists of the non-cybernetic environment with an awareness of how to design to demystify complex technology, improve the interaction between artefacts and their users and enhance opportunities for self-expression, today face a new phenomenon. Flesh-machine systems require a better understanding of a self-enclosed aesthetic system. At this point it is interesting that the flesh-machine integration promises to demolish the interaction between artefacts and their user instead of demystification of visual complexity. This integration positions flesh as an implant in the machine where machine is the immersive medium through a technical process of implanting its environment into the flesh. The amalgamation of man and machine, in the extreme sense their embodiment, has found a new domain of discussion in the field of visual art and design, as well as cybernetics.

“A good tool becomes an extension of our body.” (Ehn, Kyng 2003, 651) Our body becomes an extension of a good design.

References:

Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society.Boston: Da Capo Press. 1954.

Packer, Randall and Jordan, Ken. Multimedia – From Wagner to Virtual Reality.
New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2001.

Gray, Chris Hables. Cyborg Citizen. London: Routledge, 2000.

Branwyn, Gareth. 1993. Wired Magazine. The Desire to Be Wired [online].
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.04/desire.to.be.wired.html?pg=2, Last
Retrieved September, 2005.

Ehn, P., Kyng, M. Cardboard Computers. In The New media Reader. Ed. Wardrip- Friun, Noah and Montfort, Nick. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.

Hayles, Katherine. 2003. Medienkunstnetz. Flesh and Metal: Reconfiguring the
Mindbody in Virtual Environments [online].
http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/source-text/116, Last Retrieved September,
2005.

Read More