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Metaphor Machines: traversing the techno/cultures of human-machine interaction PDF Print E-mail
Artist Presentations
Aug 04, 2006 at 12:00 AM

Peter d'Agostino

techno/cultural, metaphor, interaction, human-machine, analog/digital, life, web, GRID, sustainability

The term "metaphor machines" refers to my work on critical interactivity. Synthesizing aspects of analog and digital modalities can serve as a resource for cultural and social sustainability in an age of constantly shifting technologically determined paradigms. This paper is an attempt to survey some of these issues and to provide dialogue and debate for the ISEA online forum and at the San Jose conference in August.


Metaphor Machines: traversing the techno/cultures of human-machine interaction.

1. Metaphor Machines.

The term "metaphor machines" refers to my work on critical interactivity beginning with Proposal for QUBE, 1978, and continuing to my first videodisc, DOUBLE YOU (and X,Y,Z), 1981-85; VR/VR: a recreational vehicle in virtual reality (1992-93), to my recent Internet2 and GRID network research projects.

In their book, Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff & Mark Johnson explore natural kinds of experience as the objects of metaphorical definition: our bodies, our interactions with our physical environment, and our interactions with other people. George Lakoff's early challenge to the notion of artificial intelligence centers on the human condition of mind and body interconnectedness and the ways in which metaphor reveals this process. "Intelligence is natural, it comes from the body and the ways we are embodied," Lakoff states in a video I produced in 1990.

2. Is Life Analog or Digital?

Gregory Bateson, Freeman Dyson, and others have raised serious questions about the analog & digital divides in humanistic terms especially on issues of sustaining life as we know it. Bateson's Mind and Nature: a necessary unity (1979) and Dyson's Is life analog or digital? (2000) are two key examples.

Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) was one of the foremost proponents of synthesizing analog & digital thought. In Mind and Nature: a necessary unity, Bateson weaves a masterful tale of digitally based changes in genetics as well as the analog somatic changes that occur in learning through habit and environment. He defines some of this process as stochastic "a sequence of events combining a random components with a selective process so that only certain outcomes are allowed to endure." On one level he brings the distinguishing features of digital and analog to clarity in practical terms.

" Numbers are the product of counting. Quantities are the product of measurement." "You can have exactly three tomatoes. You can never have exactly three gallons of water. Always quantity is approximate." ( Bateson 1979).


Freeman Dyson, professor of physics at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, hypothesizes that that if our brains are made up of analog and digital properties, then some of the subtle analog information forming human consciousness would be lost if portions were downloaded into a digital computer. He goes on to suggest that processing information in the brain may be closer to a yet unrealized form of a quantum computing rather than current technologies.


"The next question that arises is, are we humans analog or digital? We don't yet know the answer to this question. The information in a human is mostly to be found in two places, in our genes and in our brains. The information in our genes is certainly digital, coded in the four-level alphabet of DNA. The information in our brains is still a great mystery." (Dyson, 2000)


3. Human-Machine Interaction: a critical look

The most sophisticated example of machine/human interaction that I experienced while I was a fellow at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies in the early 1980s was The Architecture Machine Group's Put That There project. Stewart Brand described this project in his book, The Media Lab: inventing the future. "In this demo you sat in a chair, pointed to the wall with your arm and issued voice commands. Pointing (a big cross on the screen following wherever you pointed, your arm being body tracked) you might say, Put that..." ( a yellow ship on the map of the Caribbean would illuminate with the cursor on it, and the wall would prompt aloud, "WHERE?" and you would swing the cursor to another part of the map "...there," and the yellow ship would vanish from its previous spot and reappear where you were now pointing."

One of the key elements not in the book is that the map included Florida and the ships were US Navy aircraft carriers and destroyers that were used to surround the island nation of Cuba. No doubt the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant that provided funding for the project determined the dramatic "war game" content of the demo.

4. On the Lines/In the Air: desperate media My on-going series of telecommunications and telepresence works, On the Lines/In the Air, from the 1970s- 2000s ( slo-scan, video phone & Web projects) challenge the cultural, sociopolitical, and economic structures of these mediated forms and their relation to daily life. My current research on the use of hi-speed broadband networks: Internet2, Geant, and E-GRIDs is now part of a growing debate. At one end of this discourse are shared networking resources such as Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) "an open-source software platform for computing using volunteered resources" ranging from, a study of climate change, to SETI@home, a look for radio evidence of extraterrestrial life.

At the other end of the debate is the entertainment industry's agenda to control the next generation of the new technologies, such as Internet2, has become increasingly more evident. Apple's introduction of TV content for the iPod ("Lost", and "Desperate Housewives") and the Pixar/Disney merger lead many to suspect that "desperate" and antiquated forms of mass media will now increasingly become more embedded in the petabytes of information flowing through cyberspace.

5. Techno/Cultural Identities

In a series of essays that I have co-authored with David Tafler, beginning with the ISEA Conference in Sydney in 1992, we refer to the term "techno/cultural" as it pertains to the interfacing, identity, and consciousness. The most recent version, Techno/Cultural Consciousness Across the Digital Divides describes a synthesis of technology within the context of broader culturally determined goals that may equalize, if not reverse, the power base "between the dominant and dominated forces that constitute the body," which Deleuze has so eloquently articulated. Reconfiguring these groups becomes part of the impact when processed through the viewer-participant's interactive electronic experience. The construction of referential monuments now more than ever bridges experiences rendered in both a material world and a virtual environment. Far from a mass mediated notion of a global village, tribes and clans in the field and on the Net now constitute new groupings where common concerns can lead to genuine and durable forms of communication and participation.


Synthesizing aspects of analog and digital modalities can serve as a resource for cultural and social sustainability in an age of constantly shifting technologically determined paradigms. This paper is an attempt to survey some of these issues and to provide dialogue and debate for the ISEA online forum and at the San Jose conference in August.


Last Updated ( Aug 07, 2006 at 01:33 AM )
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