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Very Nerved By Very Nervous System

What I want to offer in this blog post is a response to David Rokeby’s discussion of Very Nervous System in Transforming Mirrors. I will not such much write a flowing, coherent critique as much as I will quote sections from his text and then raise a few contentions. My goal here is to interrogate the metaphors and logics being used in the discussion of Very Nervous System.

Rokeby states, “In my own work Very Nervous System, a computer looks out through a video camera, and gathers a sense of the physical gestures of the interactor. These impressions are immediately translated into sounds or music, reflecting and accompanying the gestures, thereby transforming the interactor’s awareness of his or her body. In both cases, the character of the experienced phenomenon is discovered as a change in a representation of the self. The relationship between the interactor and the transformed reflection is stereoscopic. When we look into a three-dimensional space, each of our two eyes sees a slightly different image. What transforms the image that the right eye sees into the image that the left eye sees is a change in point-of-view. The tension that exists between these two points of view is resolved by the brain into the revelation of depth. An interactive artwork presents, in the form of the transformed reflection, an image of the self from another point of view which likewise produces a sort of stereoscopic tension” (http://homepage.mac.com/davidrokeby/mirrorsmirrors.html).

Arguing, as Rokeby does here, that the interactor has a heightened awareness of his/her self because of sounds that play in reaction to bodily gestures and that this “awareness” of self is somehow metaphorically equivalent to stereoscopic vision is, on the one hand, to assume that his artwork fixes attention on “the self” and not simply on bodily movement or on the sounds that stand exterior to the body, and on the other hand, it is to assume that one’s construction of self is something so unstable that the correlation of a sound with a bodily movement will foster a near-religious experience of personal re-evaluation and cause a doubling over or a transformation of perception of the self. I would argue, first, that Rokeby’s work applies the interactors attention to the work itself, not to one’s notion of “the self.” Beyond this, however, I would argue that if special attention to the body is at all involved, it is no more so involved than when a finger pushes a key on a keyboard to make a mark or when a hand strums a guitar and the player realizes that the action creates a sound. Would Rokeby argue that these are also activities that transform the self in a “stereoscopic” way? And if they are, then what would be unique or special about Rokeby’s work here with computer/electronic art? To be blunt, I would suggest that the whole idea that new conceptualizations of “the self” can occur in any way equivalent to stereoscopic vision (the metaphor implies two viewings of the self overlaid or happening simultaneously from different points of view) misses the unity of the viewer who views herself and makes the error of overextending the impact of this single human experience. It also seems to make the error of conflating physical body and psychological self. In short, what Rokeby’s own discussion of Very Nervous System comes down to, in my view, is theoretical rubbish constructed to solicit academic legitimization.

Okay, moving now to one other critique… Later, when speaking of Very Nervous System, Rokeby writes, “The physical dynamics of the command gesture was significantly different from the previous, more tentative questioning gestures, and the system responded with a different sound. The complexity of this relationship is, in this case, not so much a function of the complexity of the system, but of the complexity of the participants themselves. The system was not programmed to interpret motivation, it merely reflected what it saw. The critical point is that aspects of movement that might reflect motivation were not filtered out. By increasing the amount of filtering that is applied in the perceptual process that the interactive system employs, the designer increases the reliability of the resulting information and therefore the unambiguity of control, but at the same time, the richness of that information is reduced” (http://homepage.mac.com/davidrokeby/mirrorsmirrors.html)

What I see here, specifically in the phrase “the unambiguity of control” is the hint of a belief that control over human interaction can be increased as the author/designer programs the computer to “interpret” human action—so, in other words, interpretation of human action can be relegated to structural, topological systems. For the same reasons that “A Political Value Schema for Electronic Art and Literature” was ridiculous, so is the idea that a designer can craft interpretive reliability by adding a layer of “filtering” over bodily actions that correlates those actions with human intentions. For one, such a view does not take into account the fluidity and multiplicity of the human perception of contexts and appropriate (or inappropriate) behavior to be enacted in those contexts. Additionally, it does not take into account the human ability to lie, through word and/or gesture. Although my reaction here may privilege human complexity over the computation power of the machine, I would note that I am specifically taking issue with the notion of “reliability.” If a “reliable” interpretation is not a concept that can be extended beyond subjective experience (there is no universal or objective interpretation of any human action, in other words), then the notion of organizing a computer that can “reliably” interpret is, I think, another way of expressing a desire for the computer to reflect the designer back at herself; in so doing, how much do designers then reify their position on the world for other users? And how much do they strengthen the Narcisuss sensibility and fall in love with themselves? Is the attendant numbness to this practice not the forerunner to domination and oppression? Should we, as designers, not expect to experience frustration that the computer cannot then love us in return? What I think I am arguing for, to get to some point, is collective and multi-perspectival computer designing; this is, perhaps, necessary to remove the Narcisuss complex from the individual and, at least, make it a more planetary complex–that is, I think the collective is integral to freedom if notions such as “reliability” are going to be pursued and if computers must do more than reflect what they see.

-David Gruber

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