It has been suggested that the inner workings of a computer should be viewed in certain respects as an alien environment. Give evidence for and/or against this view…
The options available, when considering the title are numerous; empirical investigation, theoretical inquiry, or existentialism, the choice is subjective. For the purposes of this paper a combination of each will be applied.
In the first instance a laconic definition of the concept of 'alien' will be explored whilst the inner machinations of the computer will reveal any similarities or differences between 'us' and 'them'. The aim is to conclude with an investigation into the implications of the technological, computer age and the contention of the human to adapt or fade away…
'Alien… one of another race, one estranged or excluded…that is alien which is conflicting, hostile or opposed. Unsympathetic.' (Webster, 1996:36). When considering this definition, the answer to whether this description confers with that of the computer is open to debate. Although the words above could describe the anomic state felt by the computer-phobe, one, which chooses not to go into the virtual world on offer via the PC…'ignorance provides grounds for scepticism or caution' (Giddens, 1992:89). They could also apply to those who buy into the advertising techniques and select to be part of a global phenomenon based on ignorance and commercialisation within a mass communication ideology; it's almost a false consciousness… commodity fetishism?
Those who feel alienated by the technological revolution choose not to embrace post-modernity, maybe because it is in fact an accelerated paradigm, in regards to being dynamic and self-perpetuating. No sooner had modernity and its implications been addressed and sewn into the fabric of society, that same society is expected to understand and assume post modernity into their culture and their homes…'the promises of [post] modernity have been shown to have a 'double-edged character', no longer simply guaranteeing human progress', (Giddens, 1992:10).
The invasion of white goods into the home has long been established, this was regarded as the emergence of efficiency, primarily marketed at women. First there came the fridge, the washing machine, and the freezer, technology then produced the microwave, the remote control, and the video recorder. All of which have been welcomed because they intrinsically have a purpose within the family domain. Although none of these products have been engineered with 'user-friendly' qualities they have not been condemned as a technological adversary…'there is something potentially monstrous about computer technology, in its challenging of traditional boundaries' (Lupton, 1996:106)…they are perceived as an ally in the home. The question to be answered is why or how can this discrimination be changed and should it be changed?
There are steps being taken in the production of computers to redress this imbalance, computers are beginning to be marketed with the uninitiated in mind, 'efforts to represent these inanimate, hard-textured objects as warm, soft, friendly and humanoid' (Lupton, 1996:104). As textual commands necessitate the user to have a basic knowledge of the environment in which they are to interact, the introduction of the 'icon' breaks the final barrier of unfamiliarity, 'these icons stand as symbolic images for the mysterious activities occurring 'within' the computer' (Haddon, 1988). The Macintosh Computer Company was the first to realise this, the 'smiley face' has become a signifier for Apple products.
By humanising elements of computer use, the producers of these commodities are determined to bridge the gap for computerphobes, this can be viewed idealistically as the producers wanting more of the global society to be able to absorb the technology, or realistically considering the 'bottom line' and expanding their reach of consumers. Whichever, designers are endeavouring to adapt their interfaces to ensure even the youngest of aspiring users can participate.
An example of this can be found with Microsoft and their program, 'Bob'. Developed using animated characters as a 'help' function, it was intended to induce the technophobe, by introducing the product to the market in the guise of being a...'friend over their shoulder', as Bill Gates described it, (Fox, 1995:22). It was advertised, in order to dispel the myth people harbour regarding their 'fear' of computers, in the 50s genre using tinted photographs and an all-American nuclear family to instil connotations of yester-year, rather than the 'virtual reality'. A two-page spread feature ran the wording… 'Your computer may not seem friendly to you, but with Bob it will. Because Bob features the newest thing in software: a social interface. Which is a fancy way of saying 'a nice program that will make your computer comfortable and friendly to you'. That's Bob…To meet Bob for yourself, stop by a local software retailer. Just ask for Bob. Because with Bob, your computer can become your pal' (May, 1995 edition of Wired magazine).
It should be noted that there is a distinct lack of technical jargon, appealing to an America, which felt secure in that 'world', where the most technical innovation was the family car. By humanising Bob, it was felt it would be regarded as a 'friend' who talks in their language, if not in their terminology, 'the arcane jargon of the computing world, with its megabytes, RAMs, MHz and so on, is a new language that is incomprehensible to the uninitiated' (Lupton, 1996:106).
For every strategic marketing initiative there are clearly defined objectives which need to be accomplished. What are the implications for the 'global village' when Bill Gates has achieved his main objective of reaching into every household and achieving a 'technological revolution' ?(Bill Gates, 1995)
'Totalitarianism is latent in technology. It was not merely Hitler or Mussolini who were totalitarian, or the pharaohs as far as I am concerned. Totalitarianism is already present in the technical object' (Virilio & Oliveira: 1996: 3). This is an extreme opinion of technology it should be understood, but is also potentially the closest innovation to the attainment of true democracy since the Athenian age (American vice President Al Gore, 1994: 13-14).
Before addressing the issue of the human adapting to the environment of computer technology, the question of how society is to adapt to technology is more significant than at first anticipated.
When discussing the neoliberal discourse of technology it must be understood that these contemporary neoliberal theorists are political philosophers associated with the idea of 'liberal fascism…free enterprise, economic globalisation and national corporatism as the institutional and ideological grounds for the civil disciplining of subaltern individuals, "aliens" and groups' (Armitage, 1999: 1). These are pan-capitalists whose interests lie with the with ideological and cultural discipline of societal movements, groups, and individuals, via the tangible and dogmatic production, publicity, distribution, and consumption of "self-styled" virtual technologies like VR and cyberspace. 'Contemporary neoliberalism is the pan-capitalist theory and practise of explicitly technologised, or "telematic" societies' (Ibid. 1)
These concepts, to the layperson, might seem remote from the reality of everyday apathy, but cautiously it is realised that through technology the Marxist notion of the labour process, production and 'use value' have been reconceptualised by Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein as 'abuse value' (1994: 64) due to entities such as VR, cyberspace and the Internet. Basically, they contend that human input in production has minor relevance with the market driven notion of contemporary business/political activities, 'technology is now the only factor of production' (Rifkin, 1995 & Kelly, 1998). Thus, surplus labour is mutated and transposed by technological activity, and the means of virtual production generate 'abuse value'.
With the introduction of rapidly expanding technologies, the neoliberals are looking towards a virtual culture rather than virtual products; technoscience, cyborgs, cyberfeminism, cyberspace, cyberwarfare, and cyberart (Hables, 1995 & Aronowitz, Martinson & Menser, 1996). Nanotechnology offers the opportunity to recreate 'nature' whilst it is being consumed by technology and machines. Effortlessly it can rebuild molecular structures, cheaply and to order ( Drexler, 1986). Nevertheless, none of this technological wizardry can be accomplished without human incorporation, representing what Virilio defined as "the third revolution"…'by this I mean that technology is becoming something physically assimilable, it is a kind of nourishment for the human race, through dynamic inserts, implants and so on. Here, I am not talking about implants such as silicon breasts, but dynamic implants like additional memory storage. What we see here is that science and technology aim for miniaturisation in order to invade the human body' (Virilio, 1999).
The abyss between living organisms and technology is increasingly difficult to define, each is fast becoming an extension of the other in the 'cyborgian sociotechnical imagination' (Haraway, 1991: 149-81). Is this what Durkheim had in mind when he theorised on a mechanistic society? Rather as Deleuze and Guattari comment…'this is not animism, any more than it is mechanism; rather it is universal mechanism: a plane of consistency occupied by an immense abstract machine comprising an infinite number of assemblages' (1987: 256).
Having investigated the macro implications of the virtual class, focus will now be turned to a micro-level of investigation to gain an insight into the motivations of the isolated computer user and how the individual approach differs from that, which is intended by the producers. This will be divided into two sections of user; the disembodied computer user versus the Hacker.
Rather than considering how the user has to adapt in their thinking and approach to the computer it has been suggested that by considering what Seltzer terms the 'psychotopography of machine culture' (1992: 19) the relationship between the two can be deemed as 'symbiotic' (Lupton, 1996: 99) insofar as the boundaries between the embodied self and the machine are continually blurred … 'it is only insofar as the object ceases to remain an object and becomes a medium, a vehicle for impressions and expression, that it can be used as an instrument or tool' (Grosz, 1994: 80). Grosz furthers this by contending that when the physical interaction between human and machine is over an extended period the computer becomes an extension of the body in both likeness and sensation, 'they become physically invested into the self' (ibid. 81).
The escapism that is afforded the incorporeal computer user is pivotal to this utopian discourse and can be seen in the 'cyber' writings of William Gibson in Neuromancer or feminist cultural theorist, Donna Haraway. The physical body is often represented as the barrier to interaction…'for couch potatoes, video game addicts and surrogate travellers of cyberspace alike, an organic body just gets in the way' (Morse, 1994: 86) and referred to as 'meat' which surrounds the mind ('authentic self') and therefore is of no consequence…'the dream of cyberculture is to leave the meat behind and to become instilled in a clean, pure, uncontaminated relationship with computer technology' (Lupton, 1996:100).
The metaphor of 'human as computer' is frequently quoted in order to reject the implausibility of disembodiment, 'organic computers' are used to describe the brain (Berman, 1989). It is as if the human mind is afforded spirituality, rationality and abstraction whilst the body is represented as weak, earthy and passive (Lupton, 1996:101). The idealised virtual body does not eat, drink, or get tired and this is the state the disembodied user aspires to, as if 'cyborgian'…a 'humanoid hybrid' (Haraway, 1988), not unlike the cinematic representations found in Blade Runner, Robocop or Terminator.
Whilst the disembodied computer user could be perceived as existing in a post-modern hyper-reality, how does this analysis transfer to the stasis of the computer hacker? The hacker is unlike the disembodied computer user, insofar as the hacker is intent on the technology rather than the pleasures afforded from the technology.
These…'heroes of the computer revolution' as Steven Levy (1984: xiii) comments that hackers are an intelligent band of social misfits described as 'bucked tooth…diminutive…plump..chinless..thick spectacled' with…'ruddy, bulbous features' (ibid. 9, 8, 80 & 17). The main purpose of hacking is to gain kudos with peers and unlike the users above the 'hackers cared less about someone's superficial characteristics then they did about his potential to advance the general state of hacking, to create new programs to admire' (ibid: 30). These users are deemed subversives, operating within a counterculture, their objective is not dictated by the images of popular culture, they perform their 'hacking' at a fundamental level of reality. Which offers these misfits an…'identity based on substance rather than surface, performance rather than appearance' ( Clark, 1996: 119).
Thus, it is fair to assess that there are key differences in the user, as illustrated. Their physical attributes betray their degree of obsession with what is essentially a piece of furniture. If we consider for a moment the actualities of the machine it cannot be denied that this man-made product has immense societal and personal ramifications.
Finally, it should not be overlooked that the computer is just a machine. Not unlike any other appliance in the home it is a task processor. Transistors, capacitors and resistors are mere electronic components, which are built into this machine. The user armed with an instruction manual can perform any given task. Once it understands the signals being communicated by the user it will perform the instructed task. Essentially it is as easy as on/off, yes/no within the digital domain.
Therefore virtual culture needs to be demystified in order to be able to assess the implications it involves with regards to individuals and collectives. It is cannot be denied that there will inevitably be two co-existing societies. There is no solution to this dichotomy, virtual denial simply highlights its complexities. As Paul Virilio believes in this co-existence…'one is a society of cocoons…where people hide away at home, linked into communication networks, inert…the other is a society of the ultra-crowded megalopolis and of urban nomadism…some people, those in the virtual community, will live in the real time of the world- city, but others will live in a deferred time, in other words, in the actual city, in the streets'. (Virilio, 1993: 75)
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