Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Human-Computer Relations

Questions concerning the relationship between humans and computers (or, more generally, technology) pervade -- and evade -- Ron Burnett's How Images Think.  That is to say, the value of Burnett's book lies in its capacity as an intellectual map that clearly identifies a handful of urgent/important landmarks for theorists writing about contemporary human-computer interaction; Burnett himself does not offer much in the way of directions or the insights we'd expect from someone who has reached a critical destination.  Below are a few of these signposts that I've extracted from the book.

Signpost #1
Burnett repeatedly critiques the terminology that (digital) humanities scholars who study images/technology have adopted from the computer scientists and engineers who build imaging/writing technologies, as if these terms like "user" and "input/output" were simply inherent or natural.  The fact is that our routine acceptance of the descriptor "user" implies a particular view of the human-computer relationship.  To position the human as user consequently positions the computer as tool, and this relation suggests the paradigm of augmentation (i.e., the machine as a prosthetic extension of man) that has been the leading model in computer science since Vannevar Bush and John Von Neumann, as well as the conventional wisdom in media theory Marshall McLuhan.  Burnett insists that our habitual repetition of mechanical metaphors inhibits from realizing a new paradigm that would account for "the shifting ground of human subjectivity" evident in (and spurred on by) the current/emergent mediascape.

Signpost #2
Recent digital imaging technologies provide a plethora of examples showing how images have literally become interfaces -- fluid and dynamic spaces (imagescapes) in which processes of visualization generate relationships between individual/collective thoughts, feelings, percepts, affects, and values.  (Indeed, images have perhaps always functioned as interfaces in this sense -- perhaps digital media just makes it more apparent for us.)  Even more profoundly, in concert with grammatology, Burnett proposes that images have always been the interface through which human perception operates: "To see images is also to be seeing with images" (33).  In other words, seeing is a function of images and our visual experience of any given reality never attains outside of images; images do not threaten or distort (nor mirror) reality and image-making does not represent reality but produces 'the real as image": we never experience a reality that is somehow prior to or purged of images (I guess this claim excludes cases of visual impairment, though?).  Is it possible to claim, then, that our "reality" have always already been "augmented" by images?

Signpost #3
In gesturing beyond the augmentation model, Burnett describes the interactions between human and computers (particularly in video games) in terms of symbiosis, which is of course reminiscent of J.C.R. Licklider's metaphorical use of this biological concept in his 1960 landmark essay "Man-Computer Symbiosis".  In my estimation, symbiosis is ultimately a fruitless metaphor when applied to human-computer interaction; it does not displace the centrality of use that delimits the scope of relations under augmentation.  The only notable change modeled via symbiosis is that the use-relation doubles and becomes a two-way street: the insect pollinates the fig tree and the fig tree yields food to the insect, and, so too, the human user decides on certain data input and the computer calculates/outputs that data for the human to draw conclusions (Licklider).  The specific (even contrasting) talents of each entity produce a benefit for both entities: the human is incapable of calculating at the speed and magnitude of the computer, and the computer is incapable of producing intelligible results without the human's data input.  Like augmentation, however, each entity uses the other as a means to the fulfillment of their own intention, reinforcing the contours of their self and their own self-interest, going about their business without ever having to change (or notice the already occurring changes accruing) in light of the interaction.  Late in the book, just for a few pages, Burnett does flirt with the idea of a "third level" emerging out of the symbiosis metaphor.  Burnett calls it "hybridization" (a term which also has roots in biological discourse).  I find the concept of hybridization much more promising than symbiosis because it foregrounds the proposition that human-computer relationships are about learning and transformation as much use and execution.  Having drawn from Bruno Latour, Burnett builds to a ripe summary of hybridization:
Hybridization, then, is about more than a mixture of elements with a particular outcome or result: rather, hybrids underlie the processes of change and evolution as technologies and humans encounter each other.  To think in these terms is to put intelligence and subjectivity back into human-technology relations.  Rather than modeling technology in the broadest sense as a series of tools for pragmatic use, there is a need to think about how human subjectivity and the ability to self-reflexively examine identity has evolved out of the relationships humans have with machinery, artifice, and their creative engagement with technology. (174)
In his discussions of hybridity, Burnett is at once outlining the emergent figure of the posthuman.  For all his mentions of subjectivity, though, Burnett never really sustains a rigorous, theoretical account to accompany his claim that, for example, "humans are now communicating in ways that redefine the meaning of subjectivity" (221).  For the conceptual building blocks of such an account, one of the best sources to turn to his Felix Guattari's late writings on ecosophy, which concerns the emergence of posthumanism every bit as much as it concerns ecology.

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