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FleshFactor: ultimate interface, second/missing half

A E C  F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"

My previous posting was accidentally sent (damned keyboards anyway!) only
half done. Here's the missing half, which seems (more accidents) very a
propos Mark Weiser's most recent offering.

(The text, again, was Guillermo Cifuentes' "we tend ... to turn ourselves
into language: the keyboard, and not the screen, is the ultimate interface
.... ")


James Lackner, at the Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Laboratory
(Brandeis U. Neurosciences), has done some very interesting studies of
alterations to the body image and perceived body orientation in response to
vibratory stimulation of various muscle groups -- the effect is rapid and
very peculiar, as subjects perceive, for example, heads and necks
disappearing into their trunks, turning them into a solid 'cube' of flesh;
or as their arms seem to extend out ten feet or more across a room. Inducing
impossible but uncannily convincing, fantastic 'Alice in Wonderland' somatic
and kinaesthetic distortions. (Catherine Richards documented this stuff in a
videotape from a few years ago, possibly she could tell us more. Anyone have
her e-mail address, to invite her to 'FleshFactor'?) 

When I saw the documentation of Lackner's work, I immediately thought it
would make a brilliant VR interface, coordinated with realtime computer
animation, a way to induce experiences of flight (people have always wanted
to fly, freed of bodily restraint) or of *being* (in a deep, Heideggerian,
'indwelling' sort of way) a protoplasm, a manta ray, or a glass of water.
(Being simultaneously the glass of water and the one drinking it could prove
interesting; to *be* on both sides of the subject / object divide.) The
effects appear to be replicable and predictable from one subject to another;
with a bit of work they could be made 'programmable', perhaps.

Georg von Bekesy, in his book "Sensory Inhibition", describes a large number
of psychophysics experiments undertaken in his laboratory, which suggested a
much greater plasticity in the kinds of 'information processing' carried out
by the body's sensory systems than had, up to this time, been suspected. One
that got my attention was affixing a pair of speakers or mechanical
vibrators to either side of the ribcage, which relayed a patterned sequence
of clicks synchronized with a moving sound source in the space in front of
the subject. After a series of training sessions, the subjects reported that
they 'felt' like the room they were in was, strangely, inside them. And even
after removing the apparatus they perceived the things taking place within
the space around them as taking place 'inside' them, they could 'feel' the
things interiorly, within a hollow 'space' inside their body. They had, it
seems, learned a *mapping* or translation from the acoustic information
being picked by their ears, into their proprioceptive and haptic senses. In
much the same way that certain blind people say they can 'sense' objects in
the space around them, as subtle variations in 'pressure' or 'warmth' on
their faces, a phenomenon called 'blindsight' -- which seemed quite
mysterious and was scoffed at by many until it was discovered that their
'ESP' was readily blocked by ear-plugs.

The point I'm making is that to operate the body, to make it move and
correctly interpret the sensory enfilade, is something *learned* (though of
course, one's ability and preparedness to learn the mappings is something
innate, hard-wired). Bodies can be likened to instruments, and mastery of
tools (including language) is very much just an extension of the way we
learn to operate our bodies. Once the trick of a perceptual or motor skill
has been assimilated and made 'second nature', it becomes very difficult to
'unknow' it -- to recollect the nature of one's relation to the world, how
things seemed to be, *before* acquiring 'The Knack'. The perceptions,
postures, gestures and routines specific to a learned skill work their way
'under your skin', becoming a 'part' of you, to be invoked and deployed
without thinking, automatically, like flying on autopilot. There was a time
(which you cannot now remember) when you had to learn to 'read' the dancing
phosphor dots on the television screen *as* a coherent moving picture. But
once you've learned the 'mental trick' that allows you to make sense of TV,
it seems so natural that you could easily doubt how anyone could fail to
'see' what's plainly 'there', right in front of them, 'on' the TV screen.

Or again, it's quite impossible to identify the phonemes in a spoken
language, or where the word breaks occur, if you do not 'understand' the
language. Which would seem to preclude learning any language at all -- if
you subscribe to the prejudice that speech is made of discrete words and
words are made of distinct entities called 'phonemes', ordered from the
bottom up, so that understanding words and sentences can only proceed by
first discriminating the lowest level (smallest scale) elements from which
the higher order patterns are constructed. That most speech scientists and
engineers unhesitatingly buy into the 'building block' story has retarded
progress towards machine comprehension of speech for decades. It doesn't
seem to have occurrred to them that the more elementary the unit of speech,
the more ambiguous and equivocal it will be, and the harder it will be,
therefore, to identify correctly. (Just bad epistemology really.) 

That this cannot be how our senses operate is clear from looking at a
halftone photograph. Any dot looks very much like any other dot, and there's
nothing to say whether one particular dot belongs to a nose, a car, a tree,
the side of a barn, save the aggregated higher-order forms of which
individual halftone dots are the very nearly utterly insignificant
lowest-level constituents. Lose ten, twenty, a hundred, it makes very little
difference. (The example by the way is from Donald T. Campbell, the
evolutionary epistemologist. His essay, "Pattern Matching as an Essential in
Distal Knowing", from 1966, is especially fine.)

Our relationship with the universe is of the nature of a language, as
Guillermo put it. Just as Bishop George Berkeley never tired of trying to
bring people to 'see': that even vision is literally, language. That it is
conventional, and is learned, and is in a certain way an extension of skin,
of touch, the same way audition is touch, or the tongue's prehensile
coiling, the sightless worm there rolling around the submarine cavern of
your mouth, making meanings (glub glub) out of rictus and rattle and spit.


Here's an extended passage from the poet Christopher Dewdney ("The
Immaculate Perception", Anansi, 1986):

<< In 1967 Teuber proposed that language mediated the operation of a
"central mechanism" which "transcended the divisions between the different
senses". He postulated that language was a "supramodal" category "imposed
upon experience" whose operative mode was synaesthetic. "Language frees us
from the tyranny of the senses." In 1965, Geschwind said that cross-modal
association was "prerequisite" for language.

What distinguishes humans from primates is an *embodied prehensility* which
inhabits the entire voluntary body .... Our highly developed voluntary
control, a somatic abstraction of sorts, is the flip-side of high level
symbolic thought which characterizes human consciousness. We apprehend the
world tactually, kinesthetically, through cross-modal transfer, by
manipulating internal models of our environment.

Tools are materialized prehensilization. Ultimately the entire environment
is prehensilized by consciousness. It becomes pregnant with incipient tool
options, potentiating a vast array of possibilities in the world.

A human being can inhabit a machine. The somatic percept, one's kinesthetic
self-representation, is extensile. It can flow, proprioceptively, like a
phantom nervous system, into the fabric of a machine, be it tool or vehicle.
This is the point at which one says one has the 'feel' of it. The machine is
permeable to the 'charge' of consciousness ... 

We are the ghost in the machine. >>


Or what my daughter Rory said, age five -- "Everything I touch is skin." 

(William Blake: "All that we see is Vision.")

Derek Robinson, Toronto. 


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