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FleshFactor: at the soft typewriter



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A E C  F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"
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Since no-one has picked up on the 'ultimate interface' thread I was trying
to get rolling (Guillermo, Mark, Carmen, Pat, Tom, Norm, Oliver, Steve,
anyone?), I'll just continue to rattle on by myself a while ... 

**

Today's epigram is from Sigmund Freud: "We are the prosthetic gods." 

Working on interfaces designed for people whose bodies are not able to
respond effortlessly to their desires (vide., the 'mind-reader' interface I
mentioned previously) really makes one wonder about the relation that we
(whose body-mind interfaces are 'normal' and usually taken for granted)
enjoy with *our* bodies. Even so, it's an uneasy truce along a disputed border. 

That we enjoy the illusion of 'owning' and 'operating' a body, is only
because the body permits it. We don't have to be told who's really in
charge. (If you aren't sure, a remedial course with King Pain quickly
reminds: You are here on suffrance.) Consciousness (the ego eye of volition
/ attention) 'fills' one's experience of things completely. By definition
consciousness is precisely and tautologously what "one's experience of
things" is. Hard to get away from, you know? (Or at least, so that you'd
ever know it.)

That the world we inhabit is mostly stable and persistent, whether moving
one's body around in it, or moving the 'focus' of visual or aural or haptic
attention around while staying bodily at rest -- that the contents of your
mind, or your memory (these seem very much the same to me) are largely
stable and persistent, as you move the mote of awareness 'through' an
imagined 'space' of thoughts and recollections -- reinforces a (natural?
artificial?) dichotomy (but a collusion too) between an active 'subject' and
the passive 'object' of the actor's intent and regard. The 'split' didn't
begin with Descartes or Augustine or Plato. I am quite sure it isn't
exclusively Western -- it seems to come with the territory. It is indeed
(re: Mark's remarks) a shifty, Gestalt (proximal v. distal; figure v.
ground) sort of thing. It's just this trick that imbues VR simulations with
their sense of vicarious 'presence' -- when you initiate a voluntary
movement *this-a-way*, the graphics go *that-a-way*. 

(D.T. Campbell says that the trajectory of evolution in organisms, and
sensory systems, and sensory integration ('intelligence'), is in the
direction of ever increasing 'vicariousness'. Which if so (it's a lovely
thought though of course unverifiable) would situate science fully within
the natural order. Fits nicely with Bruno Latour's notions of "immutable
mobiles" and "centres of computation" and with this idea I have that
intelligence is best understood in the < spook > sense of the word, as
'reconnaissance'. We wear clothes and eye-glasses, record words and sounds
and images in books, on tapes or discs, we build machines that amplify the
power of our muscles and the dexterity of our fingers, we engineer computers
and write programs for processing information and distilling from it
'intelligence', predictions, hidden patterns ... if not yet perhaps, wisdom.)

The body's a very atlas of shifting boundaries -- there's the me who's
touching this part of me that's being touched, and I can, just by wanting
to, shift the roles and poles of that duality. Am I toe being scratched, or
finger doing the scratching? Or the eye-parts, watching? Or the
'which-part', wondering 'which'? There's no doubt I can shift (quick as
thought!) from one to the other in rapid succession; if I work at it I can
yoke together as many of these places, parts, positions, poles and postures
as I like, into a unary apprehension, a discrete 'object' of awareness,
which now becomes the 'content', what I'm attending to, and which fills my
world (the only thing I'm aware of, the only thing I know) completely.
(Though it seems I can't hold it 'there' for more than a second or two at a
time, supposing I'd want to). The story the Necker cube tells.

Awareness, I like to say, is a whereness. (The monkey in the middle, always.)

What I want to know is: Where is what I'm attending to being attended-to
from? How has this amazing entertainment been wizarded together for me to
see? Ditto, to feel, to hear, to smell, to taste ... (And while I'm at it,
who's the funny little guy behind the curtain??)

As I was saying, about interfaces. When it's difficult, and onerous, and
slow -- when the body will not easily respond to the impulse, when there's a
barrier of bad connections between the thought and the deed, and the gap
(the 'shadow') is wide and deep and dark and it will not budge (the amazing
thing, that there's a person in there, a mind marooneed in recalcitrant,
wayward, misfiring flesh) -- then it makes you question how, exactly, *we*
who are whole (more or less) are able to do things like talk, form words in
mouths, operate a keyboard, move the fingers in these o-so-many clever ways.
What's the nature of the beast-machine? (People who 'object' to the very
idea of a cyborganic synthesis of human being and machine probably haven't
talked with Stephen Hawking recently.)

Give a blind person a single photocell, attach it to a circuit with a buzzer
in it, and so long as they're able to move it around in space and point it
various directions, you'll have given them an eye they can learn to use like
an eye, to see things too distant to touch. Better still, give them an
infrared laser and sensor, with a coded pulse stream, and pitches to listen
to that vary with the distances so transduced. Or give them a white cane. Or
a dog wearing a harness. Same difference really -- the magic happens in
between, no different from what happens between the coffee cup I see, the
arm reaching for it, hand curling to clutch it, lips readying, fingers,
oops, slipping ... 

Or between say, the thoughts I have in my mind, and the way my mouth and
breath can turn them into sounds, which somehow correlate with what I meant
to say. Or (what I meant to say) how the *idea* of the words I seem to be
*hearing* in my mind (quick, who said that?) gets translated into the
motions of my fingers at the keyboard here, by way of this really quite
byzantine mapping between sounds and meanings and alphabetic signs, and from
these to the spatial layout of the keyboard, and from this to the positions
and motions of my fingertips, to what I'm right now seeing appear (ta da!)
on the screen before me, amazing.

The kind of learning that happens in the body, connecting will, imagination
and perception in a self-correcting, re-calibrating feedback loop, is pretty
basic stuff. A lot of it's sheer trial and error, generate and test: the
idiot in the basement meets the moron upstairs. The idiot hasn't a thought
in its head (not too surprisingly, since it doesn't have one) -- it just
thrashes about blindly, all it can do is "more of this" or "less of that",
under the direction of that moron up top. But the moron can't do anything
except to indicate "I like it" or "I don't like it", which is a commentary
on what's taking place outside, not on the inside. (Actually there's
probably a lot of idiots in the basement, a slew of morons above-deck.) All
the rest is just memory I reckon. Which is a 'feel', hard to describe ("ya
hadda be there"), for all that it is the most deeply and intimately, utterly
untranslatable, *familiar* thing in the world to us. Might even say memory
*is* the world to us. (And, which is also true: that the world, in all its
manifold stabilities and variabilities -- including the bits on the screen
before you -- *is* our 'memory'.)

(Here's a curious fact. Apparently control of the urinary sphincter is not
part of the skeletal ('voluntary') nervous system. Ergo, under the
administration of curare, which completely knocks out the musculo-skeletal
CNS, people should pee themselves uncontrollably. But this doesn't happen.
The inhibition (i.e. toilet training) reaches down deep into the
'involuntary' (autonomic, parasympathetic, visceral, vegetative) nervous
system. Meaning that we're all of us yogins, only we didn't know it. The
learning can go deep, deep, to the very dungeons ...)

I somehow don't think casting off the body, uploading our minds (our
memories, our souls) into shiny new metal & silicon containers, is quite the
right idea. Nor, for that matter, is trying to conjure an 'artificial
consciousness' from sticks and stones and sigils scratched in the sand. I
think there is plenty to keep us busy with the bodies and senses we already
have. And although it seems functional neuroimaging is going great guns and
MEG stimulation of the brain is just around the corner, I don't think we
need to *invade* the grey space within the skull using superconducting
quantum induction devices or other such scary gear in order to, as I like to
put it, open up this little door in the back of your head there, venturing
out into a mind (a memory) as big as the world, that knows everything there
is to know in the world, but which is known to you in a way that's very much
like, and has much the same 'feel' to it as, the way you know your own
thoughts, memories, imaginings. Except they manifest *out there* in the
consensus, physical, knock-on-wood reality, instead of just *in here*.

In 1976 Jacques Vidal of the UCLA Brain-Computer Laboratory found that
subjects could learn to control an on-screen cursor just by wishing it. The
experimental subjects were hooked up to an EEG recorder tracking slow
potentials. Just for a lark, Vidal one day asked a subject to 'move' a
cursor through a maze displayed on the screen (they were researching the
brainwave patterns produced during the performance of spatial tasks, in this
case running mazes by joystick) *without* using the joystick. Much to
everyone's surprise, he did it, and in time became so adept at it that he
could complete a maze faster by 'thinking' than he could manually. The
really interesting thing about this totally unexpected result was that the
subject had no idea whatsoever of the *mapping* between the brainwaves
picked up by the EEG rig and the computer-generated display. In fact, it
didn't matter. In fact a cheap GSR device made for $5.00 in Radio Shack
parts would've worked just as well as the million $$$ computer system they
were using. (There was a Vancouver company which produced a galvanic skin
response based 'mouse', briefly, circa 1982. I tried it once, it worked just
fine: you'd rest the palm of one hand on this round silvery pad, and simply
wish the cursor wherever you wanted it to go, and there it would go, just
like magic.)

Imagine if you will, an interface for someone lacking the power of speech,
who yet thinks in words, understands words, who can, haltingly and
onerously, form sentences one word at a time by pointing with a knee, an
eyelid, an elbow or a chin, or by letting their gaze dwell on a display of
words or letters or iconic symbols. Imagine that this imaginary person is
closing their eyes and relaxing, imagining an interior space of ideas,
feelings, episodes and events from their personal history, things they've
heard, topics of conversation. (Their private memory palace in the head.)
Imagine it's organized by affinities, by arbitrary associations, by formal
resemblances, by 'sound-alike' and 'look-alike' links, and all of them
indexed every which way from Sunday. (You could imagine, if you like, all of
these 'items' as brightly coloured glass beads arranged in a space of more
than the usual number of dimensions, and suspended on invisible threads
which can be set to vibrate in complex 'standing wave' patterns of
resonances, making a 'geometry' or 'music' of ideas, if that's not too
obscure an analogy.)

Now if I can index 100 million web pages to allow the recovery of a
particular page, or a passage or a picture within a page, given the
appropriate 'keys' (we can do this) then it'd seem we should be able to set
things up so that someone could, with practice and encouragement, learn to
'point' a trained word-daemon at a desired topic or conversational gambit
from a repertoire of a few million such, associatively organized, so that an
intrepid word-daemon would be able to (to an approximation) say the right
thing at the right time. Of course it might upon occasion blurt out
something inappropriate, embarrassing, nonsensical, or just plain stupid --
but then, who doesn't? It'd be obedient to volition, to a point. (Probably a
rather blunt point at first, but over time and with lots of practice I
expect it could get pretty sharp.)

Is this fantasy any different, really, from the relationship you currently
have with your thoughts, your own command of language? Who (or what) really
chooses the words that 'you' choose to speak? Aren't they *there* already,
prepared for you already, conveniently mapped out into phrases and entire
sentences already? Maybe you choose one phrasing over this or that
alternative. Still, what 'made' you prefer this one over the others? "It
sounds better" really isn't an answer, it's of a piece with the moron's
theory of art: "I know what I like." But it's really the only answer, innit?
It's all we can know, really. I like it, I don't like it ...

Okay, that's enough words, or too many.


Derek Robinson, Toronto.
(drdee@interlog.com)


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