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Transforming Mirrors : Conclusion - Designing the Future

Contents / Intro / Art Context / Models / Navigation / Media / Mirrors / Automata / Conclusion 

Interactive artists are engaged in changing the relationship between artists and their media, and between artworks and their audience. These changes tend to increase the extent of the audience's role in the artwork, loosening the authority of the author or creator. Rather than creating finished works, the interactive artist creates relationships. The ability to represent relationships in a functional way adds significantly to the expressive palette available to artists. The power of this expression is multiplied by the fact that the interactors themselves become referents of the work. The works are somewhat akin to portraits, reflecting back aspects of the interactors, as to express the artist's point.

Mirrors give us back an image with which to identify. We look at the marks we have made on our world to give us a sense of our significance. We distinguish ourselves from others by the uniqueness of our point-of-view. We compare ourselves to others like us in order to understand our similarities and differences. By providing us with mirrors, artificial media, points-of-view, and automata, interactive artworks offer us the tools for constructing identities, our sense of ourselves in relation to the artwork, and by implication, in relation to the world.

It is clear that these relationships, and the images of self that they reflect, are merely representations, simplified symbols that are used to refer to the more complex operations of what we call 'real' life. Navigable structures are a way of representing subjectivity. Limited media are ways of representing creativity. Mirrors, and in a more abstract way, automata, are ways of representing ourselves. All of these representations are also personal expressions of the artists who made them possible. The artist's act of expression is moved to a higher level of abstraction although the artwork's final manifestation retains a compelling apparent actuality. Rather than lessening the authority of the creator, these works represent a shift in the nature of that authority.

As interactive technologies become increasingly common in our everyday relationships, and as they approach transparency, these simplified representations replace the relationships to which they initially referred. This substitution turns the interesting ambiguities of control and subjectivity in interactive art into serious issues of control, manipulation and deception.

The trouble begins as the user's awareness of the interface ends. A transparent interface is desirable from a functional point of view because it allows the user to work without considering the interface at all, but no interface can be truly transparent. When an interface is accepted as transparent, the user and his or her world are changed; the transforming characteristics of the interface, no longer contained by a visible apparatus, are incorporated into the user and the user's world-view. In mirroring works like Videoplace, we watch our silhouette encounter a world. We may be drawn at times to identify strongly with this 'shadow', but it remains clearly separate from us. In immersive environments, rather than observing, we inhabit this shadow, this limited representation. Currently, the technology is cumbersome, but as it evolves toward apparent transparency, the danger arises that the we become, literally, 'a shadow of our former selves.'

McLuhan often referred to technologies as 'extensions of man'. But in fully interactive technologies, the flow of information goes both ways; the apparati become more like permeable membranes. If there is a balance of flow back and forth across this membrane, then the interactive technology is an intermingling of self and environment. If there is an imbalance, then the technology extends either outwards from the organic boundary of the interactor or inwards into the interactor. If the flow across the interface is predominantly inward then the technology has become a foreign agent, an infiltrating extension of the outside. If the input is dazzling enough, we are left in a daze, responding only on instinct: unconscious reflex rather than conscious reflection; we become extensions of the technology.

The infiltration can be very subtle. Television expands the reach of our vision, while at the same time, filtering the content. We trade the subjectivity of our personal point of view for centrally collected and broadcasted images and information. Interactive media have the power to likewise expand the reach of our actions and decisions. We trade subjectivity for participation and the illusion of control; our control may appear absolute, but the domain of that control is externally defined. We are engaged, but exercise no power over the filtering language of interaction embedded in the interface. Rather than broadcasting content, interactive media have the power to broadcast modes of perception and action.

This broadcasting corresponds to a deeply felt need in our society; our technologies have caused an information explosion, and now we look for technological solutions to the problems that the explosion has produced. We no longer have the ability to take in and interpret the mass of information presented to us. Conscious reflection is painful if not impossible; we are desperate for filters. We welcome anything that will simplify our media-amplified reality. By filtering out apparent irrelevancies, giving us us simplified representations of our relationships, interactive media make it easier for us to make decisions. These filters operate like a belief system. In fact, perception itself is a kind of personal belief system, without which we would be unable to function. When we forfeit the right or power to decide for ourselves the nature of these systems of generalization, we commit ourselves to an 'objectivized' point of view which is entirely in the control of others; we head back into the Middle Ages, when the Roman Catholic church defined the world. The greater danger is that we may forfeit that control without realizing that anything has been lost. If we are given a sufficiently virtual representation of freedom and personal autonomy within a limiting structure, we lose awareness of the artifice; we are unaware that we have adopted a belief system and its attendant simplifications.

Surrendering our subjectivity for 'objectivized' viewpoints, we are given, in return, a representation of responsibility, a virtual enfranchisement. Each participant in an interaction receives the sensation of responsibility; each has the ability to respond. The simplified relations of interactive media provide us with a space in which we can feel and accept responsibility. We cede some of the operations of our conscience to the interface in exchange for a measure of ethical tension which we feel we can endure.

At the other extreme, interactive technologies can also simplify the task of decision making by bombarding the interactor with decisions at a rate that removes the possibility of thought. Video games provide a familiar example. Speed is intoxicating because it makes us, in some sense, unconscious, incapable of reflection; speed relieves us of the burden of responsibility because there is no time to measure the consequences of an action. The skills required are programmed into our brains through repetition, so that our responses become instinctive, requiring no conscious thought. We return to the paradise before consciousness and moral dilemma.

Technology mirrors our desires; interactive technologies, in particular, reflect our desire to feel engaged. We feel increasingly insignificant, and so we desire the affirmation of being reflected; we are tired of the increasing burden of consciousness, and so we are willing to exchange it for this sense of affirmation. In this trade, the interface becomes the organ of conscience, the mechanism of interpretation, the site of responsibility. The design of these technologies becomes the encoding of a kind of moral and political structure with its attendant implicit Social Contract.

Our involvement in the process of this reinvention of society is crucial. If a new sort of Social Contract is being drawn up, it is important that the terms, conditions and implications be thoroughly explored before we are committed by default through the momentum of technological development, which is also the momentum of our own frustrated desires. If we allow ourselves to lose consciousness of the influence of the interface, we lose our ability to question the terms of the contract; the contract will be effectively invisible. If we accept the transformed images reflected back through the mediating technologies as images of ourselves, we surrender the ability to control who we are.

Perhaps this transformation of society and humanity is inevitable. Perhaps the 'individual' is becoming obsolete. It is already being proposed, by artists like Stellarc, and roboticists like Hans Moravec, that the human body is obsolete. In virtual environments, the dematerialization of the body has, indeed, already begun. The idea of the individual changes when the body loses its role or meaning because our bodies are the experiential apparati that define each of our subjective points of view.

The situation is full of contradictions; issues of subjectivity and control flip-flop. The technology that might allow a woman in virtual space to redefine her body, to escape the trap of her socialized identity, is the same technology that would allow that identity to be manipulated from the outside. The technology that provides alternative communications links and invents new kinds of community is the same technology that offers undreamt of degrees of surveillance. The technology that can connect you to the world in unprecedented ways is the same technology that can isolate you in a fantasy of your own, or another's construction.

What is clear is that there are many important issues to be explored. There is no question that there are exciting potentials for the use of interactive media, but the utopian rhetoric that, for example, has characterized discussions of Virtual Reality in the popular press must be countered with responsible examinations of the cultural and political implications of these technologies. Interactive artists, at a privileged position at the junction of culture and technology, have the potential to contribute significantly to this discourse. In the process they must carefully avoid becoming merely public relations devices for government and industry. The artists' role is to explore, but at the same time, question, challenge and transform the technologies that they utilize. (Contents

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Copyright 1996 David Rokeby / Very Nervous Systems / All rights reserved. 3/7/96