FleshFactor: The Eye Machine
A E C F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"
The Eye Machine
I am thinking right now about my position in relation to the interwoven
techno-cultures that exist through the monitor/portal in front of me. This
is an environmental relationship. I am situated in a specific place,
working, and the monitor radiates back in words what I think through my
typing. It doesn't matter whether I am doing email, working on my website,
or composing a text on a word processor. I move and think in this
particular landscape in the same way every day. My only bodily prosthesis
is my glasses.
This is my conventional computer relationship. When the system is down
because of a power failure, I lose my power of outside communication. I am
cut off. The faint white noise of the fan and hard drive dissolves; I can
hear a starling outside my window and the rustling of leaves in the wind.
I stare at the dead screen, at the pale image of my own head and
shoulders, light reflected from the reflected light coming in the window.
My eyes are black holes, but the fluorescent light above me shines off my
I see Fleshfactor as a debate about how we occupy these constantly
unfolding, changing environments, how and to what extent our minds and
bodies break through conventional material relationships and integrate
with communication machines. What we are when the systems are up and down.
When I try to get down to basics, the first thing I think about is this
I was once a handwriter, but since the late 1800's I have been able to sit
at a keyboard. The words have the same meaning as my written words, but
there is less of my body in them. They could be anybody's words. This
affects my individuality and freedom.
Words emerge through thought, and they mean something (something unique to
each reader - hence the semantic detours in the Fleshfactor debate), but
first they are objects. Once they leave this screen, they move outside the
context of my subjectivity. You Fleshfactor readers pick them up, like
flotsam and jetsam on a beach, and interpret them yourself. They are
material things, weapons in struggle, actors in their own right, parts of
Take this tender word, machine. It started out as a reference to the earth
(e.g. 1699: 'This machin round' (Hume) - the earth as God's machine). So
flesh and dirt, blood, stone and metal are all good potential parts of
such contraptions. Now most people think of machines as those (usually)
non-living things that we have contrived to do something. They used to
huff and puff and clatter, but now they are more subtle, betraying their
business by heat or light or other radiation or a subtle vibration,
working away out of sight like Morlocks. Still, for all the debate about
their alien nature, modern machines have an umbilicus joined to the earth.
Somewhere, water or coal or uranium or silicon give them life.
So in a world of semantic choice, I and my computer are machines. Godless
machines, or God's machines, parts of nature, objects. When I sleep, when
my computer is off, darkness covers us, powered-down, in neutral, at rest.
We lose that spark of humanity, me and my machine. We are just material
things in the world, as dead as stone, reflected light in something else's
eyes. When we awake and power up, I sit in one world (my office) and use
my writing machine to explore another (the electronic environment).
I may be happy being a machine (or a container filled with them), but I am
unhappy about how the machines I operate alter my relationship to the
world. The more I work at the computer, the more organized and efficient I
become, the more data and information I pick up, and the more I lose my
sense of physical and intellectual anarchy.
I face the monitor, keep my arms bent and my fingers arched, right hand
ready for the mouse. My body is still, my eyes are riveted to the screen.
The aggressive organization of the space draws me into a position of
either power or powerlessness. I could be in a renaissance cathedral,
sucked into the vortex of a painting with mathematical perspective, or
fumbling with my Instamatic at one of the designated photo spots at Disney
World, or scanning a meeting from my place at the head of the table. Each
of these situations defines my position. It is not always like that with
the wordless outside world.
I am further constrained by the meaninglessness of most of my body. I
explore the outside environment on two legs, but I have to work at the
computer environment with my eyes - eyes conditioned by years of watching
movies and television. My body (hands aside) serves only as support and
I try to resist this organization of my sight and body. I am learning to
free my gaze from the information feeds that make me passive. I want to
inhabit the environment, not gaze at it like a picture, find things, not
receive them, learn things, not be taught. In the bush, I am intensely
aware of the individual objects that make up 'nature' - I hear specific
birds, see specific trees, see a specific sky. This awareness is necessary
for survival. So I watch movies from no more than ten rows back. That way
I have to look around the screen. Seeing the whole picture (buying the
illusion of the proprietor) would give me the dangerous illusion of
omnipotence that the warrior on a bombing run must feel, seeing the world
as an isometric grid or architect's model, removed. At the same time, I
still can't avoid getting the picture, and I can't ignore the product
Treating the computer world as a physical landscape is more difficult. I
can almost see the whole thing without moving my head. And while this
gives me a sense of power, I am open to the power of its own, logically
structured nature. The reason is that design is a form of authoritarianism
(God had His divine mosaic). This was obvious in the Industrial
Revolution, when the man/machine inhabited a logical, mechanical universe.
The same goes for the computer world. The computer organizes, directs,
mediates my actions and thoughts, just like the room, table and chair do.
It's true that you can rattle around in virtual spaces and get lost - but
like in a Westworld or a Jurassic Park, there are walls, boundaries, ends.
You can defeat the electronic maze by shutting down, saved for another
Design means that everything on the computer is meant to be seen and used.
This is a problem, because then it is all purposeful display, it is all
agenda. Much like flowers and male birds. There are no weeds, no non-human
spaces, nothing of alien manufacture. It is as if (horrors) there was art
and nothing else. The reason, of course, is that the computer world is
entirely an artifact of human subjectivity - an extension of human
appearances. What you see on the computer is there, is real and concrete
(as transmitted light) - material objects and environments - but it is
all human-made, and so it is entirely meaningful. Sure, there are 'dark
corners' out of sight, protected by passwords or simply lost in the
avalanche of personal home pages, but nothing is unanticipated by someone.
It is nature, but nature by Capability Brown, a landscaped garden with the
illusion of wildness.
This is how electronic nature attacks and transforms my subjective self -
by rooting me to the spot and working my eyes, changing my way of seeing,
sensing and thinking about nature. Even more than reading and writing once
did. I am locked into an endless round of image construction, as if there
was nothing else to think on, or feel, or do. At least outside nature
doesn't heed my words. I can swear, or carve a stick, or paint a rock, or
dance, but that world couldn't really care less. All I get back is my own
echo, my own image, my own footprints. After a few weeks of that, it is
almost possible to look at the sky and see weather instead of god, wind
and rain instead of purpose.
Luckily, two interdependent aspects of the human computer environment save
me from the threat of total atrophy and institutionalization. Human
creators are not logical machines. We make mistakes. We disagree. We see
things differently. And hyperreality itself has endless overlapping
windows, like the view of a distant lake through trees. Links, the
expression of power and authority, of hard-wired consciousness and maps,
can be ignored. No-one has to take the paths set out for them.
As long as computer nature is disorganized and diverse - a guarantee if
non-Western countries create electronic environments in the conceptual
style of their own cultures (a dream, given the global economy) or the
computer replaces the telephone as a banal communication workhorse for all
people - I will be free enough to choose its world, or have the strength
to get up and walk into the other.
Brian Leigh Molyneaux, June 17, 1997
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