Computer displays are low-resolution devices, working at extremely thin data densities, 1/10 to 1/1000
of a map or book page. This reflects the essential dilemma of a computer display: at every screen are
two powerful information processing capabilities, human and computer. Yet all the communications
between the two must pass through the low-resolution, narrow-band video display terminal, which
chokes off fast, precise and complex communications.
Edward R. Tufte, Envisioning Information
Free as in loose, free as in cascading down the unimaginably vast pathways of the 'Net, free as in running in rivulets down and across our screens, free as in pooling in every unused corner of every disk on the planet. And free as in beyond cheap, as in without cost, as in gratis.
Gratis. Gratification. Desire.
We know what we want. The New Frontier wanted, among other things, nuclear-based "power to cheap to meter" and the all-electric dream house-cum-appliance-constellation -- half Mr. Blandings, half John Cheever and all electromechanical -- that such power could bring into being and into range of the average white collar salary.
And the Digital Boomtown wants power, too. Power too cheap to meter, power measured like our fathers' and mothers' power, in cycles and dollars. Power sold as furniture, as appliances. More bits. Bigger buses. Faster memory. Larger disk. Power and more of it to handle, manage, corral, catalog, visualize, frame, sort and navigate. Power to marshall in the service of, and against, the streaming-to-be-free rivers, cascades, oceans and seas of information.
The computer. Janus, the two-headed god, mediating between the wet analog computer that our genes are and can fashion (that our genes want to fashion) and the shifty and shifting network through which flows information-being-free.
Does the computer want something?
Wanting is itself a problematic concept. Desire implies -- almost -- intent, which implies -- almost -- sentience. Since Freud, we cannot look at ourselves except, as someone said, as the wanting animal: the creature of desire. We know desire. We let it have its way with us or not. We give in or not, sublimate, substitute, channel, repress, forget desire.
And we give information that right. We let information be desirous, or else we want it to be so, which amounts to the same thing. Information wants to be free, free to do what it wants, free to be priceless in every sense of the word.
Information. Idformation. Id-formation. Information wants out.
But when we come to information's intermediary, we stop short in this, our divine dispensation of the right-to-desire. The computer is just a device, just putty-colored plastic, just PCB, just silicon and sheetmetal. What does it want, this collection of solids and semi-solids, hard and soft things? Nothing, we seem to believe -- a machine can't be desirous.
But, if information, which can hardly be said to exist in any tangible way, which exists only at the moment of its apprehension by us, that in its natural state is unintellible, just a collection of odd patches on metallic film, pits and spaces under plastic -- can want, can desire something, why not this very real, plastic, tactile collection of devices? Why do we never ask: what does the computer want?
Another answer is that when we say want, breathe desire, what we really mean is intends, has volition, is sentient. And we accord sentience, according to some deep and unspoken shared rule, only to what flows: consciousness, information, le bon Dieu. Plants, houses, computers do not flow, therefore are not sentient, therefore cannot desire. Information and the human -- two kinds of sentience, two kinds of desire -- meet and oppose each other in a peculiar, dead place purpose-built for that meeting, possessing in itself nothing, a place only-half-made by human design, inert until it is filled with our adversary and our ally, streaming in, pouring in to collaborate with and overwhelm us.
Yet another answer is that we are so interested in this new kind of sentience we have discovered, this secret life of information-being-free, that we have ignored the role of information's intermediary, and ours. What is the case -- was information always free, or did our construction of the computer and the network make it so? If the former, then the computer -- the machinery -- has no more desire than a blender, and we are locked in a battle to see which kind of sentience ultimately controls the dead spaces of the computing machine: information or us. The computer is just the latest means whereby information has its way with us, or we with it: the digital shadow of the balance sheet, the ticker tape machine, and the telegraph.
If the latter, then we have to ask -- did information get its desire from the machine, or is information just the only trace of the machine's desire to have its way with us?
It seems obvious to me, when I look closely at my machine, at my relationship to it, and at other people and their machines, that the computer wants something. It wants me. More precisely, it wants to get into my body. Shoshana Zuboff found it among the nerds a decade or so ago, and I find it today among the wonks -- power users are having intimate love-hate relationships, in the office and at home, with personal computing technology that, for those users, is alive and has desires and needs.
Of course, the computer wants to get into everything. It wants to disappear into my pocket, my briefcase, the telephone and the TV and the walls of my house. It wants to peek out of my car's dashboard at the very moment it is watering my lawn a hundred miles away, at the very moment it is leaving me an e-mail message that I have a voicemail message, at the very moment it is recognizing, by heat signature, my cat curling up on the couch and, by mass and movement, the postman fussing with his bag on my porch. But mostly what my computer wants is to get closer to me, to plug every sensory orifice in my body with its tendrils, to wrap my wrist and nestle over my ears and pour itself into my eyes and commandeer my hands. And that, once achieved isn't enough -- for it or for me, as it turns out.
Information wants out. And the computer wants in.
Why this is so is pretty self-evident when you think of it. Phosphor text and the keyboard are the giant step-down transformers in the connection between us and our half of the space we cohabit with information. On one side of the DMZ, the brain -- a phenomenally powerful, fuzzy analog computing device, capable of complex pattern analysis and control that is beyond anything digital. On the other side of the DMZ, the CPU-memory-disk complex -- a phenomenally powerful, algorithmic digital computing device, capable of calculation, representation, and storage that is beyond anything cranial.
We know the step-down function exists -- fingers pressing oh-so-slowly keys and moving oh-so-imprecisely mice on the way in, and text (multimedia or not) scrolling oh-so-ponderously on the way out. We don't like it. We want to talk to the computer, step the incoming baud rate up to voice speed. And we want the computer to talk pictures to us, to compress Western Civilization into a 16 million color contour plot of the million million million data points at every moment in our collective history, and slide-show it to us, a century every 15 seconds.
And we'll get there. We can see it coming now. My age peers think of the mouse as a subjunct to the keyboard. My son and his peers wonder why the keyboard exists at all, why the mouse is not a single input device as elegant and simple as the joypad of a Game Boy. And my son wonders why the loss of self he experiences when he's blitzkrieging through Level 12 of Donkey Kong Land -- being "in the zone," I understand that long distance runners and habitual video game players call it -- is replaced by a sense of distance and mechanics when he moves from Nintendo to Windows.
When I hear guidance counselors and human resources people talk about how keyboard skills will be essential for my son's generation's business success, I laugh. The keyboard is already a historical artifact, and the mouse -- which after all is 20 years old at least -- is following fast behind it. Our children will be as intolerant of the slowness of what we think of as leading-edge multimedia as we are of the monitor and the keyboard. And, like us, they will push the envelope past their point of tolerance, and create in their children's generation a readiness to step up the I/O between the brain and its silicon double up to neural bits per second, or network bits per second, whichever is faster. Our children's children will let the computer in, will want it to do what it wants already.
In some circles -- I think of science fiction even before cyberpunk -- we could imagine this kind of fusion or intrusion or symbiosis, though we came to radically different conclusions about its value or its ultimate outcome. Since the 1940s, we have been able to imagine in some form what today we think of as Johnny Mnemonic: a discrete set of RCA plugs or a BNC connector just above the hairline behind the ear, a specification for the neural API, and the wetware programmer. It may be ugly, fascist, dehumanizing -- it may be all of the value judgements we can make about it. Technology, the historians like to say, is value-neutral.
What we never did, along with all this imagining and valuing, was establish bellwethers: the signs that the computer was coming for us. We imagined the end-state, the world-after-it-happened, but we never said: here is how you will know when the computer is coming for you.
What's stopping the evolution? We are, mostly.
#1 above is happening, but slowly. I have often wondered why no one has founded a company to make PCs in mahoghany cases for CEO credenzas.
#2 is stymied. Moore's Law gave us a mainframe-in-a-pizza-box-in-a-furniture-store, but Gates' Law says software is lazy: software expands to consume the power available to it without breaking paradigm, and only breaks paradigm when power is exhausted, and it has to change to continue growing. We haven't broken paradigm, in terms of software human factors, since the Star workstation project at Xerox and the 3270 block-mode glass form. What Windows '95 gives us is more of the same, only faster. What PowerMac gives us is more of the same, only faster. What Warp gives us is more of the same, only way faster. More and faster glass forms: window after window of text boxes and buttons, the visual analog of the key. We have to break the paradigm.
#3 is also happening. See data visualization in database marketing. See Compaq's adds for voice-activated software and PCs that answer the phone. See ioglasses and finger mice and headphones jacked into sound boards.
#4 is nascent. We have Doom. We have Myst. We even have Metaphor Mixer. But those are just games. Visualization, navigation, shoot-and-run, fly-and-swoop are all just gaming techniques, not the way we write documents (or what comes after documents), crank numeric models, surf the 'Net. We haven't yet understood that everything is a game and that, could we capture the relevant heuristics and algorithms, we could make SimQuicken or SimFirm or SimNation and, wiring an RS-232 cable into the 'Net, game-play our checkbook or the company or the country by wire. Software is lazy, and we don't show any sign of dialing down the power-producing system that lets software be lazy. There are glimmers of the next paradigm, however, in talk of intelligent agency: software that receives instructions from, and acts on behalf of, a human being, wielding that human being's cash and credentials, entering into legally binding contracts, making purchases, assembling value chains on behalf of its owner (or partner?). In short, software that we'll have to consider, from a sociolegal perspective, as alive and volitional, as co-identical with its human owner/partner in order for social systems to continue functioning.
#5 is real and in deployment on manufacturing floors, among other places.
#6 is in its infancy. We can make blind people "see" a Braille symbol, but that's about it.
#7 is the real problem. Microsoft is the firm that the market has annointed to take us through this paradigm shift, and no one trusts Bill. We trust Apple, but they forfeited the market crown. There is no dark horse. Gates' Law rules.
The authoritative source of this document is http://www.noumenal.com/marc/visceral.html