Re-teching the Psyche

the coming into being of digital consciousness

Brain Rotman

Two and a half thousand years ago, the Greeks encountered alphabetic writing and made it their own in a way that would change the world forever: their inventions using it -- drama, philosophy, mathematical reasoning, democracy -- became the celebrated armature of Western culture. Writing is a powwerful medium, a relentlessly invasive technology which limits, overturns and destroys in order to create. Certainly, at the beginning of its deployment, reporting on Socrates who spoke but didn't write, Plato couldn't forgive its limitations: by being detached from a speaker and masking its origin writing could (and did) fall into the wrong hands; by only repeating itself and never reacting or responding, it was inferior to speech; and by allowing people to write down and forget what they'd previously made an intimate part of themselves, it weakened the power of memory. In one move, writing destroyed millenia of accumulated tradition, putting a literate, abstract and anonymous culture in place of a face-to-face, oral one.


We know this about writing because Plato wrote it. Writing reminds us that it re-minds us. Such a reflexive effect is not confined to writing, it is the paradox of all media: they allow us to articulate the meaning of their absence. Without them, we cannot even formulate what was there, what we had before they arrived and changed it forever.


Now it is the turn of writing to be displaced. We are at a juncture when computer technology, a medium as awesomely powerful, transformative, delimiting and invasive as writing once was, is changing the world forever; we've reached a point when 'writingî, as the linguist Roy Harris put it, has 'dwindled to microchip proportionsî [The Origin of Writing: ]. We are living in momentous times: the inventions spawned by computing and the digital logic that goes with it are gobbling, at an accelerating pace, ever larger chunks of human culture and rendering obsolete practices that have lasted for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. As the medium of writing displaced orality and changed forever how humans encounter, respond and imagine each other, so the medium of computing, just as totally and relentlessly, is displacing literacy.


Displacing not eliminating: obviously writing will not disappear, any more than speech and orality disappeared. Writing eclipsed the oral mode, denying its role as the vehicle for cultural replication whilst at the same time transforming and re-routing speech into other functions. The medium of computation is repeating the move on writing, eclipsing the literate-textual mode as chief cognitive technology of our culture and re-routing and re-territorializing writing. This means that not only writing but speech also is being reconfigured, leading the scholar Walter Ong to predict the partial return of its old centrality in the form of the emergence within contemporary electronic culture of a 'secondary oralityî. Without doubt the fate of writing is a key site in any attempt to map the experiential shape of the present moment. According to Marshall McLuhan, new media use existing media as their content; and this certainly is true of the written text as it becomes one medium among many in a computer-mediated world. But this in itself says little about the overall fate of literacy, about the emergence of an illiterate or post-literate self that operates in such a world. According to the paradox of media, only the computer and its accompanying tools can tell us (in a way that has to transcend both speech and its inscriptions precisely through these tools) what it means for the era of writing to be coming to an end.


The computer's earliest manifestation (as machine rather than idea) was in the second world war as a symbol-crunching calculational engine for code-breaking in the UK and chain-reaction simulation for atomic bomb production in the US. In the period after the war, these functions devolved into a powerful set of ideas which joined those from cybernetics and informatics to make feasible the project of externalizing thought and intelligence encapsulated in the idea of an 'electronic brain' and, conversely, in projects to build computer models of human thought. From there this machinic vocabulary of cognition and the computer technologic driving it has broken over us in two huge waves. The first, circa 1970, which initiated our irreversible symbiosis with computers and coincided with the advent of postmodernism, was the time of the mainframe. It led to the construction of large-scale infrastructure systems and databases from airline reservations to social security. Like any tool th at reshapes its environment so as to potentiate its deployment, these systems crystallized the very connectivity and distributed effects they claimed to be servicing. This outering of data-processing intelligence allowed the modern corporation (origin circa 1900) to be re-organized into its postmodern, multinational form, and likewise transformed the market cognate with this corporation into its distributed global, financial-instruments version. The second wave, circa now, is in the process of impelling us into a digital era, in which what we are and are not as sentient beings will be forever altered. This contemporary computer re-teching of our psyches and the putting into place of a new, digital form of consciousness can be organized as four large-scale mutations or transformative upheavals in:


* vision The explosion of images: the semiotic shift from describing to visualizing scientific/conceptual knowledge. The creation of transoptic modes of 'seeing' via the interaction of digital technology and visual art and the emergence of the combined tv-pc machine.


* abstract thought The re-conceptualizing and practical implementation of computing technology from serial to parallel processing; the re-rendering of machinic/mathematical intelligence from an individual (imagined, naturally given, transcendental) to a collective (softwared, made, materially realized) project.


* selfhood The replacement of a unitary, indivisible, autonomous and mirror-reproducible I by a multi-beinged, parallel self -- post-literate, mobile, collaboratively interactive as an agent in its self-reproduction.


* transacting The putting into place of digital (electronic, incorporeal, distributed) money together with an all-encompassing global market and emergent re-entrant capitalism as the matrix for the working out and creation of all human futures.


I shall open up these mutations by considering a series of vectors that go from circa 1970-computing to the present moment. Taken together, these stories point to a large, still unfolding epochal movement; a technologically-created transmogrification taking place within Western (and eventually, it seems, world) culture. This transmutation, the coming into being and putting into operation of the digital era, looks to be as charged, momentous and transformative for us -- we people of the book -- as our coming was to the world's oral cultures three millenia ago.


mutation 1 liquid info: digital image

CHAPTER 1 From alphanumeric to diagrammatic: deterritorializing syntax, visualizing data and multiplying media


In Notre Dame de Paris Victor Hugo has a priest dramatize the demise of stained glass and architecture as the vehicle of knowledge for an illiterate population by holding a book against the cathedral and declaiming 'Ceci tuera celaî -- this will overcome that. Since the end of the middle ages words and numbers have dominated the handling of information. Thiis five hundred year reign is at an end. Now the computer screen will overcome the book, and visual images -- maps, charts, grids, models, diagrams, graphs -- are the preferred mode for communicating knowledge and information. Pictures, once conceived as fixed, self-identical and true, like irreducible propositions of language, are now endlessly retrievable, mutable, combinable and morphable -- the result of digitization re-creating the image at the molecular level by introducing a linear syntax and numbered ordering of pixels. At the same time, at the level of content, seriality and linear syntax are swept away: knowledge h as become fluid, streams of data flowing in circuits; the discrete seriality, sharp boundaries and either/or logic of words and numbers are no longer appropriate to control it. Baudrillard announces 'the age of simulation begins with a liquifaction of all referentialsî [Simulations:4] at the point when the liquid crystal screen makes it possible to understand how facts are no longer isolated, fixed and particulate representations of the real, but elements of a constructed and re-shaped reality; recent formations -- 'liquid architecture', 'liquid television', 'liquid typography' are furthering this effect. The 'second computer revolutionnî (as Richard Friedhoff subtitles his book Visualization) is the implementation and working out of this switch in the handling of information from the alphanumeric to the visual image; it does for the whole informational scene what a graph does to a million arithmetic data points: replaces an opaque list by a suggestive shape.


Media philosophers Mark Taylor + Esa Saarinen: 'Ours is the age of post-literacy. How does one write for a post-literate age? This question will remain unanswerable as long as we do not distinguish post-literacy from illiteracy. .... The illiterate cannot read while the post-literate read otherwise.î [Imagology] The fruits of literacy -- sequential reasoning, controlled and boundaried distinctions, logical argument -- are being dislodged from their millenia-llong dominance over Western thought. Is rational thinking itself being marginalized inside a post-literate semiotic? Are the moves from writing to pictures, reading to looking, books to multimedia presentations, part of a retrogressive and irrationalist dumbing down of our culture which replaces vertical chains of deep thought by horizontal webs of superficial mind bites, great and difficult literature by universally accessible digital comics? Or do they, on the contrary, allow the dizzying possibilities of unlimited enrich ment, of signifying more and different at the same time? The question can be asked as the switch from an endogenous, linear mind to an amorphous collective of beings operating in parallel; from the familiar hard-edged rigors of individualism to the dread and wonder of the hive mind. In distopias: Ayn Rand or the Borg?


CHAPTER 2 From monocular to transocular: embedding 500 year old mirror perspectivism into interactive-multiple screen viewing

Within contemporary visual art, videoart, architecture and design, digitization has midwifed a convergence of art and technology within which an explosion of forms and techniques has allowed the image (already parallel with respect to words and numbers) to repeat the effect and become doubly present. This second refusal of seriality inserts single seeing (one image after another, each the center of itself) into a growing array of virtual, recapitulative and variously multiple imaging practices as well as interactive, kinesthetic/perambulatory and haptic modes of visualization, such as fly-through architectural and medical simulations. Each of these contemporary practices and visualization modes feeds into the creation of a compound or transoptic eye -- decentered, distributed, multi-directional and collaborative -- which takes over from the monocular regime of Cartesian perrspectivism. As a consequence, the concept and function of an individual Point of View (POV), which funct ions within perspectivism as the initiating abstraction of Brunelleschi's mirror/pinhole seeing, is replaced by a collectively specified and mobile Surface of View. The result is that the POV and its apparatus of representations -- from photography and film to video -- are re-territorealized. Instead of the reproduction of visual 'truth' (the camera doeesn't lie), the undigitized image becomes identified with a chemical record, a silver halide sample of the world operating not as a description, but as style, a piece of the (old, unprocessed) real quoted within an image.



mutation 2 machinic/rational mind(s)

CHAPTER 3: From serial to parallel processing: machinic thought goes collective, acquires a thickness.


In the last two decades computer scientists have implemented a conceptual and technical revolution in their subject. Where once seriality was the unquestioned mode, 'computing' consisting of doing one thing after another in a linear chain of processing acts, the concepts of parallelism and distributivity with their non-linear internal connections have taken over. Stanford computer scientist John Koza: 'Parallel computers are the future of computing. Period.î [Quoted by Kevin Kelly, Out of Control:397] The crucial aspect of parallel processing is its replacement of the logic of individuals by the bio-logic and socio-logic of collectivities (packs, colonies, hives, reefs, corporations, institutions, workgroups). Thus, counting/calculating, assumed for several millenia to be productions of a serial, isolated and individual self, become distributed and co-occurrent activities. The von Neumann computer (despite its apparent multi-tasking) is an idealization of this self, and the on e-dimensional Turing machine (and the strict procedural languages that co-evolved with it) underpinning presentday theories of computation is its extreme. One consequence, on the level of epistemology, is a direct denial of the conception of 'logic' as the rule-book of individual, introspectively experienced persuasion (a conclusion in line with rhetoric's understanding of reasoning as crowd persuasion). Simulations achieved via the iterative parallel logic and emergent effects of cellular automata, are difficult to conceptualise inside the serial order of logical (con)sequence. On the level of the computer's interface with our psyches, this collaborative logic appears as the working of an elaborate system of linkages between our cognitive heads and the wired offices and networked environments in which they operate. Evolutionary scientist Merlin Donald see this as part of a general phenomenon of mental development: 'As we develop new external symbolic configurations and modali ties, we reconfigure our own mental architecture ... .î [Originsof the Modern Mind: 382] In the present case, this means the computer wiring of (a collectively produced) digital consciousness, in its cognitive/computational form, directly into our brains.


CHAPTER 4 From imagined to realizable mathematical objects: rise of pragmatic thought and eclipse of pure reason.


The programmable computer (brainchild of mathematical logic's idealization of mechanism; until recently, despised by mathematicians as a glorified adding machine), already responsible for changes in the content and practice of mathematics, is likely to dominate the development of the subject from now on. Without doubt, no single event in the history of mathematics has been comparable. In essence, the event is the coming into being of experimental mathematics -- from numerical solutions of equations, through visual explorations (cellular automata simulations, topological structures, and the creation of previously undrawable objects like fractals) to computer-aided, computer-designed and computable-amenable proofs. This ongoing process is transforming mathematical objects from imagined, invisible and transcendental mental constructs (such as dimensionless Euclidean points) to simulated, virtual and realized effects (dimensioned, embodied pixels) on a screen. Pixellation, echoed by attempts in quantum physics to replace the infinitely dense real continuum by a still to be theorized discretum, becomes an inaugurating gesture of an emergent experimental/corporealized mathematics. It signals the end of classical infinity as a 'natural' property and the beginning of a post-Aristotelean understanding of numbers and their progression. In Ad Infinitum ... I spelled out how this leads to a radically new (embodied, non-transcendental) interpretation of arithmetic that I called non-Euclidean. This inauguration of experimental mathematics, which is obviously inseparable from the computer's refusal of infinity, results in an insistence on calculability and physical realizability as soon as mathematics comes into contact with any reality under the computer's sway. As Media theorist Friedrich Kittler has observed: 'Only the revolution replacing real numbers and their infinite number of places behind the decimal point with calculable quantities of whole numbers has been able to bring about the modern manipulation of images.î [nterview 1992].


mutation 3 the exp/imploded, post-literate I

CHAPTER 5 From unity to 'unity': the always-plural-put-together-from-the-outside self.


Once, the self or soul was whole, unitary, stable and separate from its surroundings; a self-identical, particular thing persisting through time with an indivisible interior and inner meaning. In this, it was like the written word: its model and controlling avatar since the inception of writing. The model was extended in the Renaissance, when written works became printed and authored and selves became autonomous individuals. In the post-literate era the written soul has collapsed and the nature and existence of the self is questioned: Psychologist Raymond Barglow: 'But who is this 'self' that longs for validation, nurturing, and realization, and why is it that at this particular juncture in the history of Western societies the very identity of the self becomes problematic?î [The Crisis of the Self in the Age of Information: 1] In post-literacy, the computer is the avatar, its technologic -- that of the digitized, liquid screen not the page -- is the site where subjects and sel ves are created and reproduced; semiotically, our souls are no longer alphabetic but diagrammatic, pictorial. Like the networks of information within which it acts and is made real, the I is constructed pragmatically as a shifting nexus of many circuits, to the extent of appearing (to anybody but itself) as 'a ghost, an ephemeral shroudî [Kelly, Out of Control:57]; Like the visual practices that metaphorize its interiority, the self is multiply and interactively constituted, no longer a point but a pixellated surface. And like parallel computational systems with their collaborative logic, the self is increasingly collectivized and co-occurrent, In the post-literate era, I (the work of many 'authors') and they bleed into each other: what was private becomes public; what was historical-social appears to the soul as personal destiny. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson: 'Man is ... truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will ... outstrip me on the same lines; I hazard the guess that man wll be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.î[Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde]. The individual self, cognized a century ago by Stevenson, William James, Freud and others as double, split and always already plural, is variously re-cognized as such within contemporary neuro- and cognitive science. If schizophrenia (splitting of an original whole) was the emblem/symptom and condition of postmodernity, then multiple personality (the site of attempts to re-territorialize this plurality onto 'selves') now takes on that role: multiple personas become the sensitives, the prescient and aberrant town-criers of a future in which we will all be going parallel and beside ourselves.


mutation 4 futuring our psyches?

CHAPTER 6 From multinational to global/re-entrant capitalism: developing markets in human and quasi-human futures.


With the demise of any workable form of systematized communitarianism, non-capitalist forms of economic exchange are non-existent. The ongoing introduction of digital money as the incorporeal medium of exchange for demographically conceived, distributed consumers signals the beginning of globalized, all-embracing free market capitalism. The few primitive microeconomies operating outside global capital confirm the system's triumph: all futures of the human go through capitalism. Deprived of a geo-political other and of external markets in which to expand, capitalism increases its resolution and becomes re-entrant: the system continues on the path of commodifying itself by transacting its own activities and actants from marketing markets and franchises to buying/selling the future through an unlimited proliferation of options and futures contracts. One potent source of self-commodification (besides devoting itself to producing consumer identities) is to create value-added human differences via services that capitalize on social and medical hierarchies. For example, the creation of markets in body parts, genes, cell-lines, organ transplants, genetic alteration, re-combinant surgery, on-line brain implants. An aspect of this irresistibly profitable source of bio-medical and neuro-digital differentiation is the threatened disappearence of the human race as old-style, physically interchangeable humans with a common fate are confronted by divergently altered, long-living quasi-humans. This threatened dissolution is already being answered by an old techno-utopic dream of unity. From the moment the telegraph made the possibility of planetary simultaneity a thinkable reality, the ideas of a world time, world language, world government, and a world brain have shaped numerous projects. In the present era, the theory of individual consciousness emerging from a plurality of mind/brain systems has given rise to an external and inverted double of itself: a supra-i ndividual form of digital sentience -- conceived variously as a od of the Net, a global mind, a rhizomic crowd, a planetary cortex with humans as individual nervve cells -- which many believe is about to emerge (or can be made to do so) and produce effects as alien as they are inescapable.


Is this a dream of healing and salvation by a humanly facilitated electronic deity, a ghost inside the current, and by far the deepest so far, incarnation of our idea of a machine? Or, lonely and seemingly trapped here inside the solar system, is it our only hope at the moment (apart from abduction by aliens) of being touched by an Other? Or is it a staging, as dramatic, urgent, apocalyptic as it deserves, of our encounter with the awesomely destructive/productive consequences of our own technological imaginations?

Brian Rotman
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
received 10 August 1997