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Monday, October 29, 2007

"What are we thinking about when we think about computers?"

"What are we thinking about when we think about computers?" (Turkle 47)

The tools we use to think change the ways in which we think. The invention of written language brought about a radical shift in how we process, organize, store, and transmit representations of the world. Although writing remains our primary information technology, today when we think about the impact of technology on our habits of mind, we think primarily of the computer.

Computers offer themselves as models of mind and as "objects to think with." They do this in several ways. There is, first of all, the world of computational theories. Some artificial intelligence researchers explicitly endeavor to build machines that model the human mind. Proponents of artificial life use computational processes capable of replication and evolution to redraw the boundaries of what counts as "alive".

And second, there is the world of computational objects themselves: everything from toys and games to simulation software and Internet connections. Such everyday objects of the computer culture influence thinking about self, life, and mind no less than the models of the computational philosophers. Computers in everyday life make possible a theoretical tinkering similar to what Claude Levi-Strauss (1968) described as bricolage- the process by which individuals and cultures use the objects around them to reconfigure the boundaries of their cognitive categories.

Here, examples of how engaging with a variety of computational objects like interfaces, virtual communities, and simulation games that provides material for reshowing categories of knowing, of identity, and of what is alive.


In the 1980s most computer users who spoke of transparency were referring to a transparency analogous to that of traditional machines, an ability to "open the hood" and poke around. But when, in the mid-1980s, Macintosh computer users began to talk about transparency, they were talking about seeing their documents and programs represented by attractive and easy-to-interpret icons. They were referring to an ability to make things work without needing to go below the screen surface.

This was, somewhat paradoxically, a kind of transparency enabled by complexity and opacity. As one user said, "The Mac looked perfect, finished. To install a program on my DOS machine, I had to fiddle with things. It clearly wasn't perfect. With the Mac, the system told me to stay on the surface." This is the kind of computer interface that has come to dominate the field; no longer associated only with the Macintosh, it is nearly universal in personal computing.

Today, the word "transparency" has taken on its Macintosh meaning in both computer talk and colloquial language. In our culture of simulation, when people say that something is transparent, they mean that they can easily see how to make it work. They don't mean that they know why it is working by reference to an underlying process.


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the development of the windows metaphor for computer interfaces was a technical innovation motivated by the desire to get people working more efficiently by cycling through different applications, much as time-sharing computers cycled through the computing needs of different people. But in practice, windows have become a potent metaphor for thinking about the self as a multiple and distributed system. The self is no longer simply playing different roles in different settings, something that people experience when, for example, one wakes up as a lover, makes breakfast as a mother, and drives to work as a lawyer. The life practice of windows is of a distributed self that exists in many worlds and plays many roles at the same time. Now, in Doug's words, "RL" [real life] can be just "one more window."


The genius of Jean Piaget (1960) showed us the degree to which it is the business of childhood to take the objects in our world and use how they “work” to construct theories-of space, time, number, causality, life, and mind. In the mid-twentieth century, when Piaget was formulating his theories, a child's world was full of things that could be understood in simple, mechanical ways. A bicycle could be understood in terms of its pedals and gears, a windup car in terms of its clockwork springs. Children were able to take electronic devices such as basic radios and with some difficulty bring them into this "mechanical" system of understanding.

Since the end of the 1970s, however, with the introduction of electronic toys and games, the nature of many objects and how children understand them has changed. When children today remove the back of their computer toys to "see" how they work, they find a chip, a battery, and some wires. Sensing that trying to understand these objects "physically" will lead to a dead end, children try to use a "psychological" kind of understanding (Turkle 1984, 29-63). Children ask themselves if the games are conscious, if the games know, if they have feelings, and even if they "cheat." Earlier objects encouraged children to think in terms of a distinction between the world of psychology and the world of machines, but the computer does not. Its "opacity" encourages children to see computational objects as psychological machines.

Today's adults grew up in a psychological culture that equated the idea of a unitary self with psychological health, and in a scientific culture that taught that when a discipline achieves maturity, it has a unifying theory. When they find themselves cycling through varying perspectives on themselves as when they cycle through a sequence such as "I am my chemicals" to "I am my history" to "I am my genes", they usually become uncomfortable (Kramer 1993).

People who grew up in the world of the mechanical are more comfortable with a definition of what is alive that excludes all but the biological and resist shifting definitions of aliveness. So, when they meet ideas of artificial life which put the processes of replication and evolution rather than biology at the center of what is alive (Langton 1989) they tend to be resistant, even if intrigued. They feel as though they are being asked to make a theoretical choice against biology and for computational process. Children who have grown up with computational objects don't experience that dichotomy. They turn the dichotomy into a menu and cycle through its choices. Today's children have learned a lesson from their cyborg objects. They cycle through the cy-dough-plasm into juice and emergent conceptions of self and life.

Computer Film and Our Relationship to Computers

Surprisingly large numbers of people who have either worked as independent film artists, or who have developed in that area of liaison between art and technology which has evolved steadily during the last twenty years, have recently found themselves concerned in making computer films. On the following pages I have considered their work in its relationship to the field of computer art in general, to the computer film in all its existing aspects, and to the history of independent film art and abstract film.

What is interesting about all these techniques is that they are widely used in computer work in general, and are highly suited to the basic programming methods. Before continuing with the discussion of this aspect of computer art, it is important to note that the developments of more interactive, real-time computer, and near-computer, art have not made such wide use of these basic techniques, but have rather been concerned with the use, modification, transformation and translation of current events in the environment into new input to that environment in an interactive feedback loop. It would be possible to discuss basic and recurrent principles which are emerging from this kind of 'interactive' art but we will limit this treatment only to considerations which may have some bearing on the problems of computer film.

Computers are ideally suited to dealing with complex relationships of data precisely and very rapidly, and they are being developed towards highly efficient indexing and retrieval capability. Although the second of these functions will ultimately be of great significance to computer artists, in the immediate future they will find themselves restricted to more limited data, and have little useful call on larger data banks.

Another computer development of some significance is the more limited, computerised control of machinery to carry out processes previously dealt with at a time-consuming, manual level. Aspects of this general development will certainly affect the film computer artist, as well as the musician. Indeed, in the field of music, the computerised studio of Peter Zinovief in London goes a long way to providing this for music, and its structure could provide a useful model for the design of a computerised visual studio for the future.

As with computers in general, the bias of computer-film hardware and software development has been towards science, technology and business. In many ways it is even misleading to talk of the development of computer film hardware at all. Until recently the possibility of making movie film on a computer has barely been 'designed' for at all.

Films have mostly been made either by setting up a cine camera before a visual display tube, or by using a microfilm plotter, designed around the output of individual frames of static microfilm to produce consecutive animated frames. Many shortcomings of the film equipment available to artists can be put down to the relatively early stages of the technology and its slow development, but other limitations come about because the only point at which an artist has been consulted about the design is in the choice of shape and colour for the box and buttons.

Between the computer-controlled film 'process' camera, or animation rostrum, and the microfilm plotter lies a whole range of possible computer-film output machinery which has hardly begun to be thought about in a coherent way by film artists and computer technologists. Much thought is at present going into the design of the display processor so that it can operate in a more suitable way for visual output, and the whole analogue and mechanical aspects of the display tube and camera are under development. The direction which such developments take as well as the ever-present, and unavoidable economic factors, depends on the formulation of what kinds of output are to be needed, and it is important that the needs of the film artist are taken into account at an early stage.

Film the Science Fiction Portrayals

The Matrix

Science Fiction Film is a film genre that uses speculative, science-based depictions of imaginary phenomena such as extra-terrestrial lifeforms, alien worlds, and time travel often along with technological elements such as futuristic spacecraft, robots, or other technologies. Science fiction films have often been used to provide social commentary on political or social issues, and to explore philosophical issues, such as "what makes us human." In many cases, tropes derived from written science fiction may be used by filmmakers ignorant of or at best indifferent to the standards of scientific plausibility and plot logic to which written science fiction is traditionally held.

The film The Matrix, produced since 1966 on an IBM grant, explores the possibilities available in a polar co-ordinate program developed for him by Dr Jack Citron. The images, although built up from dots, tend towards the linear mode which is common from the calligraphic terminal, and in spite of the relatively rapid pace of the animation, there seems to be a movement towards a greater austerity, the work being held within a set of fairly well-defined intentions. This tendency is continued in Matrix.

The Matrix is a 1999 science fiction action film written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski and starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, and Hugo Weaving. It was first released in the USA on March 31, 1999, and is the first entry in The Matrix series of films, comics, video games, and animation.

The film describes a future in which the world we know is actually the Matrix, a simulated reality created by sentient machines in order to pacify and subdue the human population while their body heat is used as an energy source. It contains numerous references to the cyberpunk and hacker subcultures; philosophical and religious ideas; and homeges to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Hong Kong actions movies, Spaghetti Wesrtern and Japanese animation.

Matrix is in many ways the most advanced computer film produced by an artist to date. Unlike all the other work it does not use the computer simply as a convenient producer of abstract sequences of film for later manipulation.

In Matrix we see the development of these elements towards an articulate whole structure, which grows out of the program. There is still some later manipulation of the material, and though it is coloured by the same methods as in his other films, this is done with a great deal of restraint. What is important in this film is the way in which all the major developments and transitions are an integral part of the program. It begins to explore the area where the capacities of the computer can be used to expand our notions of film structure.

In the film, the code that comprises the Matrix itself is frequently represented as downward-flowing green characters. This code includes mirror images of half-width kana characters and Western Latin letters and numerals. In one scene, the pattern of trickling rain on a window being cleaned resembles this code. More generally, the film's production design placed a bias towards its distinctive green color for scenes set within the Matrix, whereas there is an emphasis on the color blue during the scenes set in the real world. In addition, grid-patterns were incorporated into the sets for scenes inside the Matrix, intended to convey the cold, logical, artificial nature of that environment.

The "digital rain" is strongly reminiscent of similar computer code in the film Ghost in the Shell, an acknowledged influence on the Matrix series. The linking of the color green to computers may have been intended to evoke the green tint of old monochrome computer monitors.

The Matrix received Oscars for film editing, sound effects editing, visual effects and sound. In 1999, it won Saturn Awards for Best Science Fiction Film and Best Direction. The Matrix also received BAFTA awards for Best Sound and Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects, in addition to nominations in the cinematography, production design and editing categories.