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August 15, 2003

Steve Mann: Power in the Darkness...

[I start by apologizing to all and sundry for this post. Steve asked me to come by and blog this evening's activities, and it was a great opportunity to participate. This record is just what I heard, saw and felt... as with any other personal blog, it is ideosyncratic. Though, it is not, as you'll understand why I say this when you've read more, narcissistic. Just a uniperspectival view on a very interesting evening.] This is my first Steve Mann event. Well, mostly. I was present at TedCity (now IdeasCity), back in 2000? when Steve and his crew of cyborgs gave Jeanie Beker a cyborg fashion show to end all fashion shows. But that's another story... probably to be found via your favorite search engine. I'm left with the assumption that everything is normal tonight, despite being in the middle of the largest power outage in Canadian history. All Toronto is without power, except for Steve, of course. He's wired in more ways than one. He's got electricity, and has placed a television out on the street before his gallery telling people what's going on in the world around us... next to a neon sign saying ""Open"". Inside is lit by three flood lamps, powered by some unseen force. The show starts with Derek De Kerkhove introducing the program... with the three participants slowly immersing themselves into a large clear plastic bath tub. Steve (Natural Born Cyborg), Maurice Benayoun (Poet of Electricity) and Pierre Levy (a delight and dismay). Parenthetical descriptors are Derek's. The metaphor of the public bath in western culture holding forth over the night. [No comment was made regarding the male only space of the bath in public discourse.] Interesting sight though. [Most of the Internet is down as I edit this, so I can't provide links to everyone's web sites.] Of course, there were an equal number people taking pictures and recording the event than were not. And this was not seen as strange by any participants. And there was a baby crying in the backyard... which lent a strangely organic counterbalance to the cybertheorytalk. Many things were said that reflect what Derek, Steve, Maurice and Pierre are known for. And with my limited battery power, and the speed at which their ideas were flying back and forth, and the amount of water being splashed about, I wasn't going to try and generate a transcription of what was said. Perhaps some folks who were recording it will take the time to transcribe the whole two hours and send it to me? Or perhaps not. Suffice it to say that it was the dynamic interplay of these ideas, and their being performed in an art gallery that made this a particularly energetic and interesting discussion... despite the heat zapping everyone's energy. And energy was often a point of reference, ""People will do anything for a bit of electricity"" Steve noted. Poignant tonight, in that we're willing to give up our freedom, from technology, in order to maintain our ordered existence. And this extends from reliance on electricity, to acquiescence to surveillance, and beyond. It was if Steve had personally requested the power outage, to illustrate his point, commenting on how the vulnerability that is build into electric circuits, in the form of circuit breakers... ""penny wise and fuse foolish"" as he put it, are optimized for the expected, and optimized for unstable eventualities. This is not the case with our society, or our social/technological infrastructure. It is too costly to build for unlikely contingencies, and our safety and freedoms are left to pay the price when something does go wrong. The whole notion of hubrisic notions of invincibility is the target of his musing in this regard. Trying to build an invincible system attempts to build a system that has no provision for instability, no systemic circuit-breakers. [About this time Stefano calls from somewhere far away, it seems, and is piped into the room via a hands-free phone. But nothing seems to be coming from the phone, after a first wave of hellos. Which is unfortunate.] After a while, the bath metaphor takes on a different, and more powerful notion. While these three guys are sitting in a tub, discussing surveillance and sousveillance, I'm struck by how a voyeuristic positioning forced on us observing these three men in a tub. The juxtaposition of the nursery rhyme three men in a tub with the feeling that we're interloping in on a private conversation is too strong to shake off. Though comments and interjections from the audience are invited, it feels difficult to break the invisible barrier and virtually immerse oneself into the tub/conversation. Over all, I get an interesting sense of where the bath fits into this evening, from the perspective of the speakers. I'm really hearing three men sharing with each other, and vicariously with the audience lounging at the pool's edge, their philosophical musings on life and culture and language. Such a discussion would not be out of place in any Roman or Turkish bath. [lacuna] As Piere suggest, we've moved to a collective intelligence of a post-metacity. Beyond the spoken (the individual). Beyond language and writing systems (of the city and the nation state). And onto a level of metaphoric abstraction of the interdependence of the whole species. He wants to transform cyberspace into a domain of the collective intelligence of the human kind... though we are not really aware of the discource of this realm. [And my battery dies, under the stress of the darkness that has embraced us all... well, not really. I have just commandeered the one free powered jack, aside from the three powering the lights. And I'm off in a dark corner, recharging and typing away.] Oh, and Derek brings up blogs! which are a stated aspect of the evening, but Pierre dismisses them (I'll convert him later...), as merely easy web tools, easily commented on and interconnected... as a 'kind' of connected intelligence... only one or two steps along... not a new symbolic layer, such as he's trying to build, but very limited. Of course, that's probably due to the standard lack of long term hands on experience with new technologies that major thinker have. (See my dissertation for a long discussion on this problem. And if you can't find it, then that just supports the point.) Is what he's saying only another philosopher's top down visionary approach, versus what blogs represent as a bottom up movement, unemcumbered by wetware of the actual user's experience (wetware being the average you and me, who may blog, but are not struck by the obvious truth of visionary pronouncements), or is Pierre talking about a whole new layer of abstraction that is embedded in a whole new metanarrative. This is vapourware that you can sink your teeth into. My statement is not to diss what they're trying to accomplish. I'm totally comfortable with academics and artists who work with grand gestures and totalizing statements. I'm more shocked by people who want to dismiss anything greater than the diversionary and mundane. The ides of these three men in a tub can be either contextualized as the cutting edge that is leading us forward to knew ways of understanding ourselves, or as the anchor that ties us to artistic and philosophical traditions, relocalizied into the digital age. Either way, they represent the edge which allows us to reflect on ourselves at the center. And if we lose the ability to reflect on ourselves, we wallow and are lost. As Pierre says (as in a precis by me), these new tools will allow us to move more fully into the world of ideas, beyond the fixity of Plato, into the dynamic mutation of abstraction that can be made visible with new tools. A merging of philosophy and technology. The last word, Pierre ... the web has existed only for 10 years, almost nothing in term of the cultural revolution/evolution, and the Internet for 30. We have no idea what it will being one generation. Cyberspace is a process, something that is becoming... and we're all responsible for this evolution... especially if done together. Currently the Internet is narcissistic... personal website/blog... the mirror of collective intelligence of a large organization/country... the circulation of ideas between all the creative/organizationa/productive aspects of our societies. Though we have no means to visualise it yet, with cyberspace and tools of abstraction there are possibilities.... Not that it will be something beautiful to see, or that what we are doing together will be beautiful or magical, but rather the real (mimetic) mirror of what we are... Maurice closes the discussion... ""everything is good with a good glass of wine, and friends."" At which point the discussants exit the tub, and dry off, and we all repair to the Village Idiot Pub for some beer in the uncharacteristically sultry Toronto night. [Please post corrections, comments and links to any material you have.]"

Posted by jason at August 15, 2003 03:44 PM