Experiencing the Machine

Chapter 1 of my 2004 PhD Thesis “A Journey of Integration”.

Sue Thomas
Mar 3 · 13 min read

Experiencing the Machine

Chapter 1 of my 2004 PhD Thesis “A Journey of Integration”.

I have been exploring the impact of the computer on our lived experience since 1985. The spread of new technologies, most especially the growth of the World Wide Web, is having a profound societal and cultural effect in every part of the world and giving rise to a cascade of new research areas, not least enquiry into creative and philosophical issues. I am especially interested in the conceptual physicalities of virtuality and how they connect to the physical spaces of everyday life. I agree with the Canadian critic Derrick de Kerckhove that:

There is an urgent need for artists to explore this new psychological condition so that they can begin to prepare the antidotes to potential traumas, and reveal the extent of the new possibilities that we are offered.¹

The virtual and the physical are constant themes throughout my writing and can be traced from my 1988 undergraduate dissertation Close Encounters of the Machine Kind², an exploration of the way people engage with computers; through my first published chapter ‘Between the Boys and their Toys’³, on boys and robots in popular film; to my 1992 novel Correspondence⁴, which examines human-to-machine metamorphosis; into the second novel 1994 Water⁵, which comes to the problem from a slightly different angle by using this inorganic substance as the central motif, and through to Hello World: travels in virtuality⁶, a combined memoir and travelogue of cyber-experience published in 2004.

This body of work, spanning sixteen years, interrogates our sensual engagements with a spectrum of phenomena from the simple (water) to some of the most advanced (cybernetics, virtual life), but it has always been difficult to categorise. Some critics called Correspondence cyberpunk (‘A woman’s touch makes cyberpunk grow up’⁷), although it bears very little resemblance to the hard-edged narratives of most cyberpunk writers. More recently Hello World has been categorised as memoir, or travelogue (‘A Baedeker to the cyber-realm’⁸). Perhaps net critic and writer Alan Sondheim got closest when he wrote of Hello World:

This is an odd work, a mix of real and imaginary journeys, discoursing on psychogeography, Bachelard, and a broad-based view of the Net along the way. As a mix it’s intense and entrancing, and it demonstrates the ease with which computers, electronic communications, and lives all intertwine beyond the home… it is a journey of integration.⁹

This essay is an account of that journey in a landscape driven by electricity and shaped by connection. I approach it from two viewpoints: the experience of inhabiting and navigating it, and the act of programming it to create my own textual spaces. The progression of my writing about the physical and the virtual is tracked from the 1992 novel Correspondence to the 2004 nonfiction memoir Hello World: travels in virtuality. Although Correspondence was written at a time when I was ignorant of computer-based texts, it has since been described as ‘a hypertext without the hypertext’¹⁰ and Hello World is in many ways a sequel to that first attempt to take hold of the implications of digital experience. But Hello World was informed by eight years of navigating hypermedia spaces and so the narrative, the printed volume, and the accompanying blog¹¹ were all designed to reflect that awareness. In that sense it is broader and more wide-ranging than Correspondence, offering multiple levels of engagement to the reader/participant. Hello World continues to expand as extra material is added to the blog and I have conducted two experimental workshops based upon ideas in the book.¹²

Correspondence explored the sense of immersion which can be experienced with both machines and nature. The insistence on viewing the computer as a site where one might experience natural phenomena more commonly ascribed to the physical body or landscape has persisted throughout my work and is most marked in Hello World: travels in virtuality, which makes connections with the writings of phenomenologists such as Gaston Bachelard, Drew Leder and Robert D. Romanyshyn. My second novel, Water, which falls between the two other volumes, explores undersea life, the natural worlds of the ocean and of floods, and uses the imagination to force water to reshape itself into an organic being. While Correspondence is grounded in the earth and its products of metal and plastics, Water explores the liquid environment from the act of sipping from a glass to a downpour in a rainforest. Hello World brings the two closer together, describing dual immersion in both the physical and the virtual to the point where the two become indistinguishable from each other, where membranes fall away and leave only a single merged consciousness.

In everyday life we are accustomed to the type of data collected by the senses of touch, taste, hearing, sight, and smell, and indeed without them we would have no way of knowing what is going on beyond the prison of our own skins. But as virtual reality artist Myron Krueger points out, computer-based virtuality is giving rise to a new and unfamiliar ontology:

We are no longer creatures of five senses. Technology has given us hundreds. We can sense the universe throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. We can hear vibrations, from the infrasound of the seismologist to the ultrasonics used in destructive testing. We can see molecular and cosmological structures. We can sniff the stars through spectral analysis. We can feel the ages of different objects. But, in every case, we must convert the data from these new senses into a form that our original five senses can understand.¹³

Another aspect of the fascination of the expanded sensorium created by computer-based virtuality is its multiplicity. As Arthur Kroker writes:

The will to virtuality privileges the ambivalent sign: frenzy and inertia, ecstasy and catastrophe, speed and slowness, crash and hyper-security, smart machines and stupid media. Never fused to a single polarity, the will to virtuality operates according to the logic of the double pulsar, simultaneously flashing contradictory sign-forms. That is its fatal fascination and its secret charm. The will to virtuality, therefore, acts as an enfolded will: always straining towards the most intensive expression possible of one singularity, while working secretly and immanently to undermine itself by the recuperation of the opposite sign-form.*14

In virtuality, he says, we experience for the first time ‘the non-space of the third body, the third sex. The third skin’.¹⁵ The online environment does indeed seem to produce an extra level of experience not encountered before, for example in the incidences of simple telepathy recorded by John Suler, Professor of Psychology at Rider University, whose website The Psychology of Cyberspace¹⁶ offers extensive and detailed writings on the subject :

…people report that even in the stripped down sensory world of [cyberspace relationships] — like text-only chat — others sometimes sense what you are thinking and feeling, even when you didn’t say anything to that effect. Did they detect your mood or state of mind from some subtle clue in what or how you typed? Are they picking up on some seemingly minor change in how you typically express yourself?

Or does their empathy reach beyond your words appearing on the screen? Perhaps they are in tune with your mind via some pathway that neither psychology nor computer technology can fully explain.¹⁷

The conceptual flexibility required to assimilate this kind of environment plays a part in the way we experience the virtual sensorium, but immersion also has an important role here. In order to know it, it seems, it is necessary to do it. Or, as the Virtual Tao asserts mysteriously, ‘We download it, and it downloads us’.¹⁸ One must involve oneself completely in much the same way that a passenger in a car cannot know the sensorial immediacy experienced by the driver until they take a turn at the wheel. In just the same way hackers, the most experienced (and often the most anarchic) group of programmers, are deeply immersed within the code they create. MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle reported:

The hackers’ response to the computer is artistic, even romantic. They want their programs to be beautiful and elegant expressions of their uniqueness and genius. They relate to one another not just as technical experts, but as creative artists. The Romantics wanted to escape rationalist egoism by becoming one with nature. The hackers find soul in the machine — they lose themselves in the idea of mind building mind and in the sense of merging their minds with a universal system.¹⁹

Turkle’s comment makes a distinction between machine and mind which can usefully be extended to the difference between the cyber and the virtual. The notion here is one of a simulation so sophisticated that it is either indistinguishable from the real or has so much veracity that it can be accepted as real in its own right. Kroker and Weinstein suggest that:

Full virtuality would constitute an environment that would be felt by the virtualised body to be complete, but would not be felt by the virtualised body to be an incident within a more genuine environment.²⁰

Note here that they refer not to feeling by a physical body, but by a virtual body stimulated by a machine into experiencing virtual feelings inside a virtual environment. Nothing beyond the machine actually exists, and yet everything is agreed to exist. Virtuality becomes reality by means of consensus.

It is clear that virtuality engages our most intimate intellectual imagination, but can we describe how it really feels? When we enter the world of machine-driven information, do we experience new and different sensations to those of which we are already unconsciously aware and which form a large part of the existing experience of any organic life-form? And if we do, do we have the words to say what they are like? My work explores the way machines and virtuality act upon our memory, imagination, and ability to fantasise, and attempts to devise a lexicon for the sensorium of the meat/machine interface. There is a growing community of users who are already very familiar with the virtual environment and well aware of its power. The late Jude Milhon, cypherpunk and hacker, known in cyberspace as ‘St. Jude’, was one person certainly not content to remain a creature of only five senses:

We need ultrahigh res! Give us bandwidth or kill us! Let’s see the ultra-violet polka-dot flowers that hummingbirds see, and smell ’em like the bees do. And crank up the sensorium all across the board.²¹

In 1983 Sherry Turkle talked to Lorraine, the only woman on a large team working on the design of a new programming language. Lorraine was somewhat embarrassed by the way she felt about programming:

I know that the guys I work with think I’m crazy. But we will be working on a big program and I’ll have a dream about what the program feels like inside and somehow the dream will help me through. When I work on the system I know that to everybody else it looks like I’m doing what everyone else is doing, but I’m doing that part with only a small part of my mind. The rest of me is imagining what the components feel like. It’s like doing my pottery… Keep this anonymous. I know it sounds stupid.²²

But it is not only hackers and programmers who know how it feels to operate within or alongside a cybernetic system, and who play with the sensual aesthetic of code. And the analogy with making pottery is not so absurd as it might seem. In an interview with Susan Stryker, performance artist and cultural theorist Sandy Stone describes her first engagements with programming, working with early Apple prototypes:

I began writing programs. One day I … made this kind of intuitive symbolic connection to the machine. It was so intense. The wheels began to turn. I could see the planets moving and the atoms vibrating, and I could see mind with a capital M. I could reach down into the very soul of this thing. I could talk to it. It was this sense of, well, here was the physical machine and here was the virtual machine, the abstract machine. It was a living creature that I could reach into and feel the circuitry. I could feel what the code was like.²³

When people enter the world of machine-driven information they experience new and different sensations but still lack the conceptual lexicon with which to describe them fully. Those of us who inhabit the industrialised world are already accustomed to living inside a crude form of auditory cyberspace, surrounded as we are by the constant hum of domestic machines and urban noise. Our brains are finely tuned to select, comprehend and digest screenfuls of text, complex blends of fast editing, dialogue, music, sound effects and subliminal messaging. Perhaps this is part of the package which comes with the machine as prosthetic, and perhaps we are becoming as attuned to it as we are to the fluctuations of health in our own bodies. As time goes on, the merging of flesh, hardware, and mind comes ever closer as we move from the cyber to the virtual, epitomised in oO/|, a character I created at LambdaMOO, a virtual entity learning to be cyborg:

The meat body in the throes of becoming cyborg. Imagining: wet~dry~cold~hot :|: steel/plastic/wire/skin :|: blood^current^fluid^light :|: open|closed :|: yes|no :|: in|out :|: low|high :|: true|false :|: 1|0 :|: flesh-bone-clip-switch Aaahhhh!²⁴

Many writers have tried to enter the mind of the machine but fewer have wondered how it would be to feel like one. Yet, as Marvin Minsky has famously and often asserted: we ourselves are simply machines made out of meat. Indeed, one of the most common fears people have of the machine is that because it is not like us, i.e. not made of meat, it is somehow incapable of conscious thought and so by extension it is incapable of morality. The argument seems to be that an inorganic being is unaware of itself and is therefore unable to scrutinise, evaluate, and modify its interactions. To this, Minsky replies:

When people ask, ‘Could a machine ever be conscious?’ I’m often tempted to ask back, ‘Could a person ever be conscious?’ I mean this as a serious reply, because we seem so ill-equipped to understand ourselves. Long before we became concerned with understanding how we work, our evolution had already constrained the architecture of our brains. However, we can design our new machines as we wish, and provide them with better ways to keep and examine records of their own activities — and this means that machines are potentially capable of far more consciousness than we are.²⁵

But is it possible for us, as human beings, to become conscious enough to know the experience of automation and to feel what it is like to respond to programming? To find out, the first step is to regard the cybernetic system as the prosthesis which enables us to reach out and touch the virtual. Sandy Stone sees this, in turn, as an opportunity to blur the very boundaries of who and what we are, and as a male-female transsexual she has perhaps an extra level of sensitivity to these concerns:

Identities appear and they disappear. They go from virtual to real, from real to virtual, crossing back and forth over those boundaries, sometimes predictably and sometimes not. So an easily intelligible answer to the question Where is that identity when it’s off the Net? is to say it becomes virtual, or potential, during that time. The presence of the prosthesis in the communication network is what makes the virtual persona become real.²⁶

This is Chapter 1 of my 2004 PhD thesis A Journey of Integration.
For more see Introduction | Ch 1 |Ch 2 | Ch 3 | Ch 4 | Ch 5 | Ch 6

I’m currently writing my 3rd novel ‘The Fault in Reality’, a story of life, nature and technology. Latest book: ‘Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age’. Amazon Author Page. www.suethomas.net

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[1] de Kerckhove, D. ‘Network Art and Virtual Communities’, Parallel, Australia, 6 November 1995, http://www.va.com.au/parallel/x2/journal/derrick_dk/ddk.html Accessed 1 October 2004.

[2] Thomas, S. Close Encounters of the Machine Kind, 1988. Unpublished BA dissertation, Nottingham Polytechnic.

[3] Thomas, S. ‘Between the Boys and their Toys’, 1990, Where No Man Has Gone Before, ed. Armitt, L. Routledge, London, pp.109–122.

[4] Thomas, S. 1992, Correspondence, The Women’s Press, London; 1993, Overlook Press, New York.

[5] Thomas, S. 1994, Water, Overlook Press, New York; 1995, Five Leaves Press, Nottingham.

[6] Thomas, S. 2004, Hello World: travels in virtuality, Raw Nerve Books, York.

[7] Los Angeles Reader, 1993.

[8] Guertin, C. Noted on the jacket of Hello World.

[9] Sondheim, A. ‘Books I like and highly recommend’, Nettime 10 May 2004, http://amsterdam.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0405/msg00023.html Accessed 1 October 2004

[10] Flanagan, M. and Booth, A. eds. 2002, Reload: rethinking women and cyberculture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge. The writer was probably unaware that in 2000 I was invited to transpose Correspondence to the web and had already used the opportunity to create a hypertextual postscript to the book http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/suethomas/correspondence/.

[11] Thomas, S. 2004, Travels in Virtuality, http://travelsinvirtuality.typepad.com/.

[12] These workshops involved inviting participants to discuss and to draw their perceptions of their physical relationships with their computers. The first was at the Incubation Symposium at Nottingham Trent University, July 2004, and the second at the Visions of Humanity in Cyberculture, Cyberpunk and Science Fiction Conference in Prague, August 2004.

[13] Krueger, M.P. 1983, Artificial Reality, Addison-Wesley, Reading, p.83.

[14] Kroker, A. & Weinstein, M.1994, Data Trash: The Theory Of The Virtual Class, New World Perspectives, Montreal, p.50.

[15] Data Trash p.48.

[16] Suler, J. The Psychology of Cyberspace, http://www.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/psycyber.html

[17] Suler, J. ‘The Showdown between In-Person and Cyberspace Relationships:

Sensory Integration and Intuition’, Selfhelp Magazine http://www.selfhelpmagazine.com/articles/internet/showsens.html. Undated. Accessed 15 September 2004.

[18] Besher, A., Engebretson, P. and Bollerot, F. 1995, ‘Virtual Tao, A Cyber-Meditation’ Shambhala Sun Magazine, http://www.shambhalasun.com/Archives/Features/1995/July95/VirtualTao.htm Accessed 1 September 2004.

[19] Turkle, S. 1984, The Second Self, Granada, London, p.320.

[20] Data Trash, p.162.

[21] Cross, R. February, 1995, ‘Modem Grrrl’ Wired 119, San Francisco.

[22] The Second Self, p.115.

[23] Stryker, S. ‘Sex and Death among the Cyborgs’, Wired 4.05, May 1996, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.05/stone.html?topic=&topic_set=. Accessed 29 August 2004.

[24] LambdaMOO Object Number #14929.

[25] Minsky, M. 1987, The Society of Mind, Heinemann, London, p.56.

[26] Stryker, S. ‘Sex and Death among the Cyborgs’, Wired 4.05, May 1996, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.05/stone.html?topic=&topic_set=. Accessed 29 August 2004.

Sue Thomas

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Writing my 3rd novel ‘The Fault in Reality’, a story of life, nature and technology. Latest book: ‘Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age’. www.suethomas.net

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