Posts Tagged ‘Virtual Reality’

Yesterday’s Science Fiction as Today’s Reality: Bruce Sterling’s ‘Heavy Weather’

September 13, 2017

Bruce Sterling was, with William Gibson, one of the leading members of the ‘Mirrorshades’ group of SF writers, who launched cyberpunk in the 1980s. This is the SF genre set in dystopian, corporate futures, whose streetwise picaresque heroes entire a VR cyberspace through jacking into the Web. If you want an idea what the genre’s like, see the film Blade Runner, although the film actually came out while Gibson was writing his groundbreaking novel, Neuromancer.

This week the news has been dominated by hurricane Harvey and the other storms that are wreaking such havoc in Florida, Bermuda and other parts of the Caribbean. In a previous article I put up this evening about Trump’s appointment of Jim Bridenstine, a scientific illiterate, who doesn’t believe in climate change as head of NASA, I discussed how Jimmy Dore and his co-host Steffi Zamorano and Ron Placone had said that these storms bear out the continuing decline of the Earth’s climate. Way back in the early part of this century, after several heatwaves, climate scientists warned that climate change meant that the weather would become more extreme.

And Bruce Sterling wrote an entire book about the superstorms that would arise due to climate change in his 1994 SF novel, Heavy Weather (London: Millennium).

This was set in the devastated Texas of the early 21st century, where the aquifers have dried up. It’s a state wracked by violent storms, where thousands have been left homeless and forced into refugee camps by the unstable climate. The blurb for the book reads

2031 – the atmosphere’s wrecked. The Storm Troupers – media unit, scientists, techno-freaks – get their kicks from weather. Hooked up to drones through virtual-reality rigs, they can plunge like maddened darts into the eye of a storm and surf a ride from hell.

Their Holy Grail: the F6, a tornado so intense it’s off the scale. Dangerous in the extreme. Also dangerous: certain people’s sick dreams, full of tornado trails, shining insane paths of endless howling destruction.

The high-tech wonders of a decaying world … and a bunch of wild nomads longing to be blown away.

I think the book was a response by literary SF to the film Twister, about a group of meteorologists chasing tornadoes across the southern US, starring Piers Brosnan. I don’t think we’ve quite reached the level where masses of Americans are being left homeless in refugee camps, nor are their groups quite like the Storm Troupers. But these violent storms are becoming a reality, and will become ever worse as the climate deteriorates.

As Max Headroom used to say in his trailers for Channel 4: ‘The future…is now’.

And it’s disgusting that Trump’s trying to close down climate research, and put in charge of NASA someone who knows precious little about science, and doesn’t believe in climate change.

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Frontiers Magazine on Robot Weapons

October 23, 2016

The popular science magazine, Frontiers, way back in October 1998 ran an article on robots. This included two pages on the ‘Soldiers of Tomorrow’, military robots then under development. This included drones. These are now extremely well-known, if not notorious, for the threat they pose to privacy and freedom. The article notes that they were developed from the unmanned planes used for target practice. They were first used in the 1960s to fly reconnaissance missions in Vietnam after the US air force suffered several losses from surface to air missiles. Drones were also used during the Cold War to spy on the Soviet Union, though instead of beaming the pictures back to their operators, they had to eject them physically. They were further developed by the Israelis, who used them to spy on their Arab neighbours during their many wars. Their next development was during the Gulf War, when they broadcast back to their operators real-time images of the battlefields they were surveying.

Apart from drones, the article also covered a number of other war machines under development. This included remotely operated ground vehicles like SARGE, and the Mobility Module and remotely controlled buggy shown below.

robot-army-cars

SARGE was a scout vehicle adapted from a Yamaha four-wheel drive all-terrain jeep. Like the drones, it was remotely controlled by a human operator. The top photo of the two above showed the Mobility Module mounted aboard another army vehicle, which contained a number of reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition sensors. Below it is a missile launcher fixed to another remote-control buggy. The article also carried a photo of a Rockwell Hellfire missile being launched from another of this type of adapted vehicle.

robot-army-car-missile

Next to this was a photo of the operator in his equipment, who controlled the Tele-Operated Vehicle, or TOV, as the developers were calling such machines.

robot-army-car-operator

Another of the machines described in the article was the Telepresent Rapid Aiming System, a robot gun designed by Graham Hawkes and Precision Remotes of California as a sentry robot. As the article itself notes, it’s similar to the tunnel machine guns used by the Space Marines in the film Aliens. It could either be operated by remote control, or made fully automatic and configured to shoot live ammunition. At the time the article was written it had already been tested by a number of different law enforcement agencies.

The only vaguely humanoid robot was the Robart III, shown below.

robot-solider

This machine was able to track a target automatically using its video vision, and possessed laser guidance to allow it to be operated remotely. In demonstrations it carried a pneumatic dart gun, capable of firing tranquillizer darts at intruders. In combat situations this would be replaced with a machine gun. It was designed to be used as a mechanical security guard.

The article also stated that miniature crawling robots were also under development. These would be used to creep up on enemy positions, sending back to their operators video images of their progress. If such machines were mass-produced, their price could fall to about £10. This would mean that it would be easily affordable to saturate an area with them. (pp. 56-7).

The article describes the state of development of these machines as it was nearly 20 years ago. Drones are now so widespread, that they’ve become a nuisance. I’ve seen them in sale in some of the shops in Cheltenham for anything from £36 to near enough £400. Apart from the military, they’re being used by building surveyors and archaeologists.

And while robots like the above might excite enthusiasts for military hardware, there are very serious issues with them. The Young Turks, Secular Talk and Jimmy Dore have pointed out on their shows that Bush and Obama have violated the American constitution by using drones to assassinate terrorists, even when they are resident in friendly or at least non-hostile countries. Despite all the talk by the American army about ‘surgical strikes’, these weapons in fact are anything but precise instruments that can kill terrorists while sparing civilians. The three programmes cited, along with no doubt many other shows and critics, have stated that most of the victims of drone attacks are civilians and the families of terrorists. The drones may be used to home in on mobile signals, so that the person killed has been someone using their phone, rather than the terrorists themselves. Others have been worried about the way the operation of these weapons through remote control have distanced their human operators, and by extension the wider public, from the bloody reality of warfare.

Way back in the first Gulf War, one of the French radical philosophers in his book, The Gulf War Never Happened, argued that the extensive use of remotely controlled missiles during the war, and the images from them that were used in news coverage at the time, meant that for many people the Gulf War was less than real. It occurred in Virtual Reality, like a simulation in cyberspace. Recent criticism of the military use of drones as killing machines by whistleblowers have borne out these fears. One, who was also an instructor on the drone programme, described the casual indifference to killing, including killing children, of the drone pilots. They referred to their actions as ‘mowing the lawn’, and their child victims as ‘fun-sized terrorists’, justifying their deaths by arguing that as the children of terrorists, they would have grown up to be terrorists themselves. Thus they claimed to have prevented further acts of terrorism through their murder. And they did seem to regard the operation of the drones almost as a video game. The instructor describes how he threw one trainee off the controls after he indulged in more, unnecessary bloodshed, telling him, ‘This is not a computer game!’

And behind this is the threat that such machines will gain their independence to wipe out or enslave humanity. This is the real scenario behind Dr Kevin Warwick’s book, March of the Machines, which predicts that by mid-century robots will have killed the majority of humanity and enslaved the rest. A number of leading scientists have called for a halt on the development of robot soldiers. About 15 or twenty years ago there was a mass outcry from scientists and political activists after one government announced it was going to develop fully autonomous robot soldiers.

I’m a fan of the 2000 AD strip, ‘ABC Warriors’, which is about a group of robot soldiers, who now fight to ‘increase the peace’, using their lethal skills to rid the galaxy of criminals and tyrants and protect the innocent. The robots depicted in the strip are fully conscious, intelligent machines, with individual personalities and their own moral codes. The Frontiers article notes elsewhere that we’re a long way from developing such sophisticated AI, stating that he did not believe he would see it in his lifetime. On the other hand, Pat Mills, the strips’ writer and creator, says in the introduction to one of the collected volumes of the strips on the ‘Volgan War’, that there is a Russian robot, ‘Johnny 5’, that looks very much like Mechquake, the stupid, psychopathic robot bulldozer that appeared in the strip and its predecessor, ‘Robusters’. None of the machines under development therefore have the humanity and moral engagement of Hammerstein, Ro-Jaws, Mongrol, Steelhorn, Happy Shrapnel/ Tubalcain, Deadlok or even Joe Pineapples. The real robotic killing machines now being developed and used by the military represent a real threat to political liberty, the dehumanisation of warfare, and the continuing safety of the human race.

Readings for the Cyber Age

October 15, 2013

Neil Spiller, ed., Cyber_Reader: Critical Writings for the Digital Era (London: Phaidon 2002)

Cyber Reader

Information technology is one of the most powerful scientific development of the past century. It, and the related fields of cybernetics and robotics, have profound implications for the nature of the brain, consciousness, sex, gender, humanity, life and even reality itself through the ways scientists, engineers and games designers have managed to simulate, model or recreate these aspects of our existence in the virtual worlds of cyberspace. This book is a collection of texts by scientists, engineers, philosophers and Science Fiction novelists exploring the theoretical and scientific underpinnings of information technology and cybernetics, and exploring the technologies’ philosophical implications and their impact on our lives in the future. The texts include extracts from

Babbage Engine

A Model of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine of 1871

Charles Babbage, ‘Of the Analytical Engine, 1864’, discussing his manufacture of his famous ‘Difference Engine’;

E.M. Forster’s pioneering SF story, The Machine Stops, of 1909, in which a future society that has become absolutely reliant for every aspect of its citizen’s existence on a vast machine has to come to terms with its end when that machine finally breaks down.

Vannevar Bush’s ‘As We May Think’, from 1945. Bush was the originator of the concept of hypertext in his idea of the memex machine. This was to be library reading desk that would call up microfilms and project their contents onto a screen. The user could, however, create trails between texts using various levers on the device. In this article, published in the Atlantic Monthly, Bush predicted the kind of devices he felt were just around the corner.

Turning's Man Cover

J. David Bolter’s ‘Essays of Operation’ from 1989, which provides a short description of Alan Turing’s Turing Machine and Johnny Von Neumann’s Design for Computers.

Norbert Wiener’s Organisation of the Message of 1950. Wiener was the father of cybernetics through his book, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine of 1948. In the extract from the Organisation of the Message included in this collection Wiener’s expresses his opinion that there is no difference between the transmission of information and the transmission of material, and looks forward to what we would now call teleportation.

JCR Licklider’s ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’ of 1960, which analyses humans’ relationship to computers as analogous to the symbiotic relationship between bees and flowering plants.

Douglas Engelbart’s ‘Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework’ of 1962, which laid the basis for modern interactive hypermedia. It was Engelbart’s research, which created the foundations for the computer mouse, teleconferencing, e-mail and distributed client-server networks and the internet.

Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis’ of 1964. McLuhan was the Canadian media guru, who coined the phrases ‘the medium is the message’ and ‘the global village’. In his exploration of the myth of Narcissus, McLuhan considered that the artificial, mechanical extension of the human self through technology created a sense of numbness. He believed that the media had created a state where everybody was somehow nearby. This allowed people in a sense to leave their physical bodies. For some this could be liberating, as it left the physical realm, and gender and disability behind. On the negative side, it meant that people no longer had the terrible fear of war.

Gordon Pask’s ‘The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics’ of 1969. Pask was an architect and the inventor of ‘Conversation Theory’. This explores ideas of the ‘observer’ and ‘users’ and their influence on the complex outcomes of cybernetic systems. The extract contained in the book is his account of Cedric Price’s and Joan Littlewood’s attempts to create the Fun Palace, constructed from huge steel columns and beams, which could be radical reconfigured.

Cedric Price’s ‘Generator Project’ of 1976. This was an attempt by Price to create an ‘intelligent’ building that ‘knew itself’ and ‘dreamt’ cybernetically. The various components of the building were fitted with a logic circuit linked to a central computer, in order to assist in the building’s reconfiguration. Price’s team were afraid that the human users would not fully utilise the building’s potential for radically altering its own structure. They therefore programmed the system so that it would register its own boredom, and make suggestions for possible alterations.

Paul Virilio, ‘The Aesthetics of Disappearance’ of 1980. Virilio is a French architect and one of the leading Postmodern critical theorists. In his Aesthetics of Disappearance, Virilio used the figure of the aircraft engineer and obsessive recluse, Howard Hughes, to express his own views on the disappearance of technology as it becomes faster, smaller and increasingly invisible. He stated that due to technology, the world was speeding up, and time was being ‘jump-cut’. He also believed that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity had destroyed static relationships, and that things now existed only in relationship to something else.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaux: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1980. Deleuze was professor of philosophy at Paris University at Vincennes, and Guattari was a psychoanalyst and political activist, who practiced at the experiment psychiatric clinic, La Borde. In A Thousand Plateaux, Deleuze and Guattari analysed the ‘spacescape’ created by computer technology. They saw reality in terms of the rhizome and Riemannian manifold, metaphors for the complex interrelationships between things that changed over time. These ideas strongly influenced the annual ‘Virtual Futures’ conferences held at Warwick University in the 1990 by scholars exploring the philosophical implications of cybernetic research.

Neuromancer Cover

It also includes a chapter from William Gibson’s pioneering 1984, SF novel, Neuromancer. Gibson is one of the founders of Cyberpunk. His outlaw heroes have been altered so that they can access the vast, virtual information world of Cyberspace. Spiller included the extract because it had been so massively influential, that it was now difficult to know whether it had predicted modern Virtual reality, or merely described what was already happening.

Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, of 1985. Haraway is a socialist feminist, who sees cyberculture as a way of removing the old dualisms of male/female, white/black, animal/machine and heterosexual/homosexual. She believes the modern feminists, in championing the underdog, have actually reinforced these dualism and the existing system of exploitation. She believed that the cyborg was ‘committed to partiality, irony, intimacy and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence’, and with no conception of the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden with its gender divides and division of labour.

Drexler Cover

K. Eric Drexler’s ‘Engines of Abundance’, from his 1990 book, Engines of Creation. This laid the foundations of nanotechnology, and looked forward to the development of atomic and molecular machines that could build anything out of anything, so that rocket engines could be built in vats.

Carbon Nanotubes

Computer Visualisation of Carbon Nanotubes, developed under the direction of Deepak Srivastava at NASA’s advance Supercomputing Division

Greg Bear’s 1990 novel, Queen of Angels. A cyberpunk novel set in 2047, this follows Public Defender Mary Choy as she goes to a Caribbean island to bring back to Los Angeles an insane mass-murderer. On the island, she secretly uses nanotechnology to build a gun on her hotel dressing table.

Difference Engine Cover

William Gibson’s and Bruce Stirling’s ‘Steampunk’ SF novel, The Difference Engine, of 1991. this explores what the world would have been like, if Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine had been built, and Victorian Britain and France become steam-driven computer societies.

Wearable Computer 1

A Wearable Computer System developed by MIT

Howard Rheingold’s ‘The Origins of Drama and the Future of Fun’ in his Virtual Reality of 1991. Rheingold was the editor of the Whole Earth Review, the successor to the 1960’s counterculture Whole Earth Catalog. His book, Virtual Reality, was one of the first popular books on the new, Virtual worlds now possible through computers, head-mounted displays and data gloves. Rheingold optimistically believed that this technology would allow us to recreate any experience we wished, a view that was attacked by Benjamin Woolley a year later in Woolley’s own Virtual Worlds.

Manuel De Landa’s ‘Policing the Spectrum’, from his War in the Age of Intelligent Machines of 1991. This was a history of weaponry from the machines of the Renaissance to the computerised technology used in the first Gulf War. He analysed their development in the terms of nonlinear emergent dynamics, and the apparent spontaneous emergence of order out of chaos. This results in curiously life-like behaviour in inorganic matter. De Landa has therefore developed the notion of the machine phylum, in which matter and energy in states in vastly disorganised states result in the self-assembly of machines. He sees the process by which machines are built by humans as similar to industrious insects pollinating and independent species of machine flower that does not possess its own reproductive organs.

Marcos Novak’s ‘Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace’, from the 1991 book Cyberspace: First Steps, edited by Michael Benedikt. Cyberspace: First Steps was a collection of essays by a variety of scholars and writers, including cultural commentators, artists, anthropologists, systems engineers, architects and software designers. Novak at the time was an assistant professor at the University of Texas. Novak has been credited as one of the first architects to show how his discipline could use cyberspace and its technologies to create new forms of architectural space. In ‘Liquid Architectures’ Novak argued that architecture that could and was built is only a small part of what architects actually produce. Through history there has always been architectural designs that could not be, and were never intended to be built. The ‘liquid architecture in cyberspace’ was Novak’s idea of the deliberately impossible structures architects could now design and build in Virtual reality.

Daniel C. Dennett’s ‘An Empirical theory of the Mind: The Evolution of Consciousness’ from Consciousness Explained, 1992. Dennett considered that consciousness was an emergent property of the brain, a feature that spontaneously arose from the brain’s structure and operation, but which could not be predicted. he drew an analogy between it and the way geese fly in ‘V’ formation, another emergent property that cannot be predicted from an examination of individual geese. In the chapter ‘An Empirical Theory of Consciousness’, Dennett argued that the brain and its components are analogous to parallel computer networks, all of which were capable of pretending to be other machines. It was an attempt to explain the emergence of consciousness, and humans’ ability to move from one mode of thought to another.

Neal Stephen’s 1992 SF novel, Snow Crash. This is set in the Virtual world of the Metaverse, and the Street, the Virtual space at the heart of it. Attached to the Street are various spaces where gravity and linear time do not exist. The novel is about the attempts of the central character, the appropriately named Hiro Protagonist, to combat the Snow Crash virus infecting this Virtual world. Although the book is set in Cyberspace, the book also has overtones of Augmented Reality, in which it is possible, using goggles, to see both real and Virtual space simultaneously.

Stephen Levy, ‘The Strong Claim’ in Artificial Life: The Quest for a New Creation, 1992. Artificial Life was a book tracing the development of the concept and the personalities and minds behind it. It combined science writing with biography. The concept of artificial life is based on the idea that as biological life is the manipulation of information, it should similarly be possible to replicate this in computers, which also manipulate information. Levy began his account of the idea’s development with the ‘finite automata’ of John Von Neumann before going on to John Horton Conway’s Game of Life. This is a version of cellular automata, and has been used to create Virtual creatures, which interact with each other and develop. These Virtual creatures are the Strong Claim, which this extract from Levy’s book explores.

Roger Lewin, ‘Life in a Computer’ in Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos, 1993. Lewin’s book, Complexity, discussed the changing patterns and order that can emerge from complex systems, such as the weather or colonies of animals. Genetic algorithms, invented by the American computer scientist John Holland, are algorithms designed to achieve optimum criteria. These are constructed according to genetic principles to achieve optimum performance by negotiating ‘fitness landscapes’ in the same way living organisms have done in their evolutionary development. In the extract reproduced here, Lewin discussed the use of genetic algorithms to construct the automata, or Virtual creatures with the capacity to evolve by Tom Ray in a simulated ecology of artificial life.

Pixel Juice Cover

The chapter, ‘Stash Rider’s, from Jeff Noon’s Vurt, 1993. Noon is a former pop musician, painter, and playwright. During his career he was playwright-in-residence at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Vurt was a cyberpunk novel set in a future Manchester, in which people use an all-purpose nanotechnological smart lubricant, Vaz, to mend their bodies, physiologies and machines. The Vurt of the book’s title is a psychedelic drug taken by using a feather to tickle the back of the throat. As well as ordinary humans, Mancester also has a population of half-human dogmen, shadowcops and robocrusties, second-class citizens who are the products of a previous fecundity affecting humans, animals and objects in a bio-technological disaster. The book is based on Norbert Wiener’s idea that the brain is similar to the computer. This was developed by some cognitive psychologists into the suggestion that the brain could similarly be programmed and dissected as a series of programmes.

PK Dick Religion

A Page from Robert Crumb’s The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick, depicting the strange Gnostic experiences that occurred to Dick in March 1974, and which formed the basis of his book, Valis.

Techgnosis Cover

Erik Davis, Techgnosis: magic, memory, and the Angels of Information, 1993. Davis here argued that underlying modern information and image-rich culture was the ancient, human urge to create mythologies placing events and objects within a cosmological hierarchy, imbuing them with order and meaning. The book is therefore an exploration of the connections and similarities between the new technologies of cyberspace and ancient, arcane and scientifically discredited concepts.

Metropolis

The evil robot from Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis, which mixed Science Fiction with religious imagery. The inverted pentagram behind the robot links her and her creator to world of black magic.

Scott Bukatman, ‘Terminal Resistance/ Cyborg Acceptance’, in Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, 1993. Bukatman is Assistant Professor in the Media Arts Program at the University of New Mexico, and the consulting editor for the academic journal, Science Fiction Studies.In Terminal Identity he examines the way space and technology in SF. He considers that modern society is in crisis, as the established relationships between humanity, space, machines, and gender and sexuality and the way they are represented have been broken down. He argues that in the past there was a dichotomy between the external, rational world and the internal world of the mind, which was full of ghosts, fantasies and Virtual beings. Digital technology has reversed this relationship, so that it is now the external world that is full of the strange, fantastic and unreal. Modern information technology offers a kind of transcendence, at the cost of the violation of the purity of the flesh, as the body is invaded by the products of technology.

Anne Balsamo, ‘Feminism for the Incurably Informed’ in South Atlantic Quarterly’, 1993. Anne Balsamo is Professor of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and the author of the 1996 book, Technologies of the Gendered Body. ‘Feminism for the Incurably Informed’ is a feminist reading of Pat Cadigan’s SF novel, Synners. The Synners of the title are people, who take images from the brains of performers and rearticulate them for mass consumption, in a shifting, Virtual world, that is also always being reconfigured, repackaged and resold. Balsamo identifies Cadigan’s recurring motif of ‘change for the machines’, as encapsulating the issues that surround digital technology and its effect on the gendered body. She believes that humans have now become used to using machines as part of their identity, and wonders what this actually means and whether we can avoid being excessively reliant on them.

Sherry Turkle, ‘Constructions and Reconstructions of the Self in Virtual Reality’, 1994. Turkle is a clinical psychologist and the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Sociology of Science in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT. Turkle uses Allucquere Rosanne Stone’s concept of the ‘consensual locus’ to explore the formation of identities in Multi-User Dungeons in Role-Playing Games such as Dungeons and Dragons. The ‘consensual locus’ is a person’s online persona, and their real-world personal interactions. She considers the consensual locus and the different realities it creates constitute a means for therapeutic interactions in the Virtual worlds of online Role-Playing Games. In an argument that should delight many fans of the RPG, she contradicts the image of them as lonely, socially retarded, rather sad individuals. she instead shows that the Virtual scenarios encountered in the games allow them to negotiate similar social situations in reality.

Kevin Kelly, ‘An Open Universe’, from Out of Control, 1994. Kelly is the former editor and publisher of the Hippie Whole Earth Review, and is the executive editor of Wired magazine. In Out of Control Kelly speculated on the vast possibilities that would arise through the hybridization of the biological with digital technology to form what Kelly calls ‘the neo-biological’. Kelly feels that this would result in the appearance of biological machines that would use emergent behaviour to evolve in relation to each other, rather than according to the strict parameters laid down by their programmers. The chapter included in the book examined the similarities between genes and their potential to create a massive ‘gene space’ of infinite possibilities through their capacity for recombination, and parallel computing, in which programs also evolve rather than proceed linearly. Kelly discusses the definition of artificial life by one of its pioneers, Chris Langton, and the way the genetic model can therefore be used to create forms of it, which evolve according to a changing ‘fitness landscape’.

Johnny Mnemonic

Keanu Reeves enters Cyberspace in this scene from Johnny Mnemonic, scripted by William Gibson.

Greg Egan, Permutation City, 1994. Egan is a Science Fiction writer and computer programmer. In his novel, Permutation City, Egan examines the concept of Strong AI: the claim that computers may be able to develop true artificial intelligence similar to that of humans, and what it would be like to exist as a disembodied intelligence, downloaded onto a computer. One of the book’s main characters, Paul Derham, creates a computer copy of himself as part of his research into Strong AI. The book describes the differences between the relative speeds and virtual capabilities of Virtual and real space, as well as the possibility of creating copies of one’s personality to form ‘conscious’ avatars in Cyberspace, as Derham does in the book.

William Mitchell, ‘Soft Cities’, from City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn, 1995. Mitchell is another architect, who has investigated the potential impact of cyberspace on their discipline. He is Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. In City of Bits Mitchell was one of the first researchers to consider the impact cyberspace and e-commerce would have on the structure and morphology of cities. The new cities formed by the impact of digital technology would be more than their visible, built environment. They would be connected to Virtual reality via the information superhighways.

Wearable Computer 2

Members of MIT’s Wearable Computing Project, modelling some of their inventions.

Karen A. Franck, ‘When I Enter Virtual Reality, What body Will I Leave Behind?, in Architectural Design, 1995. Franck is a professor in the School of Architecture and also the Department of Social Science and Policy Studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. Franck is interested in the body and gender, and in the essay collected in this book examined the extent to which people left them when they entered cyberspace. She considered that rather than losing them when they entered cyberspace, people split their bodies, with parts of them coming with us and allowing us to experience the Virtual realm. She believes cyberspace offers the opportunity to construct an area free of the gender stereotypes and ideas of beauty of normal space. Virtual reality offers a new kind of protection for the body, when people enter cyberspace, that allows them to experience more of, and understand, the other.

John Frazer, ‘A Natural Model for Architecture/ The Nature of the Evolutionary Model’, from An Evolutionary Architecture, 1995. Frazer was a unit master at the Architectural Association in London, Director of Computer-Aided Design at the University of Ulster, at which he received a personal Chair in 1984, as well as lecturing at Cambridge University. He was one of the founders of Autographics Software Ltd in 1983, which pioneered microprocessor graphics. Impressed by information ecologies and the spaces between objects, Frazer and his colleagues have developed computer architectural experiments using genetic algorithms, cellular automata, emergent behaviour, complexity and feedback loops to create a dynamic architecture, whose forms are beyond the total control of architect that programmes them. He models his approach to the built environment to the multi-celled structures found in nature. His own evolutionary architecture uses a ‘genetic code script’, with rules for the code’s development, the code’s mapping to a Virtual model, the characteristics of the environment for the model’s development, and the selection criteria. Spiller in his introduction to Frazer’s chapter notes that ‘he goes beyond the usual notions of architectural beauty and aesthetics’, although his work is not without them. Frazer was also pioneering in recognising the potential computers have for allowing architects design buildings, and create varied spaces in both the real, and Virtual worlds.

Nicholas Negroponte, ‘Iconographics’, from Being Digital, 1995. Negroponte is director of the Media lab at MIT, and the founder of Wired magazine, for which he also writes. Being Digital was Negroponte’s account of the revolution in digital technology. He stated he wanted to write the book, as it was aimed at parents, politicians and executives, who at that time did not have access to the digital media in which it could otherwise be published. He also wanted to revisit some of the old ideas in his Wired column, and see whether they were still true due to the very rapid changes in the technology and its application that can occur in a short space of time. Surprisingly, and heartening for the defenders of hardcopy books now under attack from their digital competitors like Kindle, Negroponte was of the opinion that the printed page still had the greater capacity to stimulate the imagination than the computer screen.

Stelarc Arm

Performance Artist and Cyborg Stelarc with his artificial third arm.

Stelarc, ‘Towards the Post-Human: From Psycho-body to Cyber-system’, Architectural Design, 1995. Stelarc is an Australian performance artist, several of whose performances involved him being suspended in public spaces on meat hooks. He believes that the body has now been rendered obsolete by technology, and that it must be hollowed, hardened, dehydrated and often anaesthetised. He has also used medical, cybernetic and Virtual reality technology and procedures to explore and enhance the body’s own capabilities. He has amplified his brainwaves, heartbeat, blood flow and muscle signals during his performances, as well as filming the interior of his lungs, stomach and colon. He has a prosthetic ‘third arm’ attached to his stomach, which operates through the movements of the muscles there. In another performance, he attached galvanic stimulators to his body and wired himself up to the internet. A search programme looked through the net for images of body parts. When it found them, those parts were stimulated electronically. viewers of the performance about the globe in three different cities could also stimulate his body remotely. He has also had a third ear grafted, with a proximity sensor that makes it make a loud screech if any comes close. He was one of the researchers into the Transhuman condition, who was interviewed, along with that master of transgressive literature, J.G. Ballard, in BBC 3’s excellent and stimulating series, Grave New Worlds.

John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, 1996. Barlow is a former rancher, and lyricist for the LSD-influenced hippy band, the Grateful Dead. He has written for a number of publications, including Communications of the ACM, Mondo 2000, the New York Times, Time, and been on the editorial board of Wired. He was one of the co-founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990. He wrote the ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ in response to the passage of the Telecom Reform Act in America in 1996. This made it illegal to use any of the seven dirty words forbidden in broadcast media on-line, to discuss abortion or to talk about any bodily function except in the most clinical terms.

Lawnmower Man

The sex scene from the 1992 SF film, Lawnmower Man.

Mark Dery, ‘Robocopulation: Sex Times Technology Equals the Future’, from Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, 1996. Dery is a cultural critic, who has written on the numerous subcultures that have arisen through computer technology in a number of magazines, including Wired, Rolling Stone, Mondo 2000, The Village Voice and New York Times, and edited the book Flame Wars. Escape Velocity explored these new technological subcultures of cyberpunks, net hippies, techno-pagans and others. In the chapter ‘Robocopulation’, he explored the way artists in the past, as well as people in the present, have tried to use and explore the sensual and sexual possibilities of the machine. These have included the French painter, Francis Picabia, who tried to depict in his art a ‘mechanomorphic’ sensuality. Dery also described the new digital technology of ‘teledildonics’, where the participants are separate from and remote from each other, but experience the sensations of sex through special electronic suits fitted with sensors and stimulators. He also discussed the way the internet has been extensively used to broadcast pornographic images and the sexual conversations of Cybersex.

Terminator

Everyone’s favourite menacing cyborg: Arnie as the Terminator.

Hans Moravec, ‘The Senses Have No Future’, 1998. Moravec is the director of the Carnegie Mellon University Mobile Robot Laboratory. He is supposed to have built his first robot when he was ten years old. His work attempts to give robots three-dimensional spatial awareness through a variety of sensors. He was made famous, or infamous, for his 1988 book, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. In this book, Moravec predicted that by the middle of this century, if not sooner, it would be possible to download human consciousness, either into cyberspace or into a robotic body. Moravec himself believes this will be necessary if humans are to keep pace with the rapid evolution of machine intelligence. The book points out that Moravec views have been challenged at two points. First, Moravec believes that during the downloading process the brain would be destroyed as it is gradually scanned and copied, layer by layer, until the brain case is empty. If current technological trends continue, however, Greg Egan’s view of the copying process in Permutation City may be more accurate, and the process may not involve the destruction of the original human. Furthermore, Erik Davis in Techgnosis notes that psycho-neuro-immunologists argue that consciousness arises from the entire body. Meditators and mystics across the world also consider that there are many different states of consciousness that cannot be identified with the conceptual activity examined by cognitive science and which Moravec wishes to simulate.

Michael Heim, ‘The Virtual Reality of the Tea Ceremony’, The Virtual Dimension, 1998. Heim teaches internet and new media design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, where he also directs at Tai Chi group. Heim views the computer as introducing a new technologized space of thought that it contemplatively ordered, erotic and poetic. He has stated that cyberspace is a metaphysical laboratory for examining our sense of the real. He believes that as western science has progressed, it has become increasingly similar to eastern mysticism. He cites as examples of this the liquid metaphors used to describe the transmission of information, and fractal computer interfaces that are curiously similar to Zen gardens. He is afraid that the navigators and builders of cyberspaces are in danger of performing unsymbolic and thoughtless work work, to which a similar philosophy exists in the tea ceremony. He therefore argues that the tea ceremony may give cyberspace more of a sense of place and move it away from being blandly ubiquitous.

Anthony Dunne, ‘Hertzian Space’, Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design, 1999. Anthony is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal College of Art in London. He and his design partner, Fiona Raby, create designs for products and architectural elements that respond to the electromagnetic spectrum. They deliberately reject the ‘form-porn’ aesthetic in which the skin of a product is designed to conceal a set of very ordinary components, and to become as obsolete as swiftly as possible. They are in favour of a design philosophy in which nothing is overwrought, accentuated or just there for its own sake. They note that many objects react to and respond to the electromagnetic impulses all around us, such as the ring of the telephone when it receives its signal, or a computer mouse that can quack like a duck, tweet, or laugh like a baby if so designed. In Hertzian Tales Dunne describes his aspirations, the people he admires and who have influenced him, and his concepts of the ‘post-optimal object’, ‘para-functionality’ and ‘infra-ordinary space’. The book’s introduction is by Gillian Crampton Smith, the former Professor of Computer Related Design at the RCA. She notes that objects are rarely purely functional, but also have ritual or symbolic meanings. This fact has largely been ignored in the design of computer technology. She views Dunne’s work as introducing an ‘aesthetics of use’ into electronic objects, through the interactivity made possible by computers. This in turn seeks to produce a more nuanced cooperation with the object, which may in turn enhance social contact and everyday experience. Dunne, Raby and Smith therefore hope that such computerised products will encourage the user to enter a new space of communal interaction, rather than the lonely and self-obsessed spaces they see as often produced by the technology.

Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, 1999. Wertheim is a science journalist specialising in the relationship between physics and religion. Wertheim considers that the internet and Virtual reality are portals into a new, religious space – a ‘soul space’. This is in contrast to the way the industrial revolution and the secular spaces of modernism collapsed the old, medieval dualist concept of space, divided between heaven and Earth. Wertheim goes on to show the parallels between the conceptions of space in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the renaissance ‘theatres of memory’ mnemonic devices explored by Frances Yates in her book, the Art of Memory. Dante’s Cornices acted as mnemonic device for memorising the place of things and ideas in the cosmic hierarchy, while his trilogy is also full of less elevated references to contemporary politics and gossip. Contemporary cyberspace also possesses a ‘low code’ content, which, along with its elusive phenomenological character, makes it a ‘new soul space’. Cyberspace is only partly located in real, physical space, and so lies outside the multitude of dimensions and hyperspace posited by physicists and scientists. It is a realm beyond physical law. Her conception is the complete opposite of Stelarc’s, which far from viewing Cyberspace as the modern version of an ancient concept, sees it as a completely modern innovation that has rendered the old ideas about the body obsolete.

The last extract in the anthology is Spiller’s own article, ‘Vacillating Objects’, from Architectural Design, 1999. Spiller was the guest editor of the ‘Architects in Cyberspace’ edition of Architectural Design in 1995 through his interest in invigorating architecture through Cyberspace and the blurred boundary between the real and the Virtual. His own research has included the changing status of architectural drawings, smart materials, computer-aided manufacturing, emergent systems, responsive environments, the architectural design of Cyberspace, interactivity, cybernetics, evolving systems and algorithmic design, as well as cellular automata and complexity. Spiller was interested in using algorithms as a way creating responsive, non-prescriptive architectural designs. Algorithms offered a way to describe fluctuating conditions in responsive environments. That edition of Architectural Review was the architectural publication to describe the immense potential information technology offered architects since the 1960s. It included articles by philosophers, architects, performance artists, theorists of digital art and psychologists. It was followed by Digital Dreams and ‘Architects in Cyberspace 2’. He predicts that the architecture of the future ‘will be an architecture of ecological wefts, technological distortions and digital necromancy’. He believes it will mix objects not often connected with each other for aesthetic or practical reasons, or for exploration. Objects, some of which will be invisible, will simultaneously flit across a variety of terrain and so demolish the idea of the privileged site plan as the objects become ubiquitous and doppelgangered.

Cyberspace, Architecture and Post-Modernism

Phaidon are publishers of books on art, and so, as you’d expect from such a publisher, the book contains a profuse number of beautiful illustrations. Spiller’s job as an architect, and the various other contributors to the anthology, who are also members of the profession -Gordon Pask, Cedric Price, Paul Virilio, Marcos Novak, William Mitchell, Karen A. Franck John Frazer and Anthony Dunne – explains why Phaidon, rather than a science publisher, should publish it. Several of the contributors – Deleuze, Guattari, and Virilio, for example, are also key figures in Post-Modern philosophy. They and their ideas have recently come under attack. Spiller notes that Deleuze and Guattari are extremely difficult to understand. In fact the American mathematician, Alan Sokal, and his Belgian colleague Bricmont, have demonstrated in their book, Intellectual Impostures, that much Post-Modern philosophy is actually nonsensical. They took a number of leading Post-Modern philosophers and showed that they misunderstood the scientific concepts they included in their writings. These did not add anything to their arguments, but were simply there to make their confused, often incoherent prose seem far more intellectually profound than it really was. It has been widely known for some time that Post-Modernism originally arose in architecture, where it was defined by the inclusion, or quotation, of historic architectural features in modern buildings, before it moved into philosophy. What is new, which this book demonstrates, is how the founders of Post-Modernism were influenced by the new information technology, and, in Virilio’s case, cyberspace.

The selected texts include some of the classic works on information technology, cyberspace and its effect on humanity, such as those of Babbage, Forster, Bush, Bolter, Wiener, Licklider, Engelbart, McLuhan, Moravec, Stelarc and, most famously, Gibson’s Neuromancer. Before Reading University’s professor of Cybernetics, Kevin Warwick, experimented with being a cyborg, Stelarc was very nearly the real thing, wiring himself up to the Net, and giving himself another, prosthetic arm and ear. When he announced his intention to have this last added to his anatomy on Radio 3’s Grave New Worlds, it made the poor continuity announcer feel quite ill. She was heard after the programme saying something along the lines of, ‘And if that hasn’t made you feel too bad, you can recover by listening to one of the great pieces of classical music on next’. Others have talked the talk about cyborgs, but Stelarc really did walk the walk.

Stelarc Body

Graphic from Stelarc’s performance, ‘Involuntary Body/ Third Hand’.

Philosophical Objections to Downloading

Many, perhaps most, of the pieces, are highly controversial. The possibility of downloading one’s intelligence into a computer rests on the identification of mind with brain, and this is open to strong criticism on philosophical and neurological grounds. Many philosophers, such as the former neurologist Raymond Tallis, have pointed out that the brain is not a computer. This is just the latest metaphor used to describe the most complex organised structure in the universe. Previous centuries have described it in terms of a telephone exchange, or a series of fountains. Daniel C. Dennett’s attempts to explain consciousness in terms of brain function and evolutionary history has also been criticised. Despite the book’s title, it does not actually explain how consciousness arises, only how various parts of the brain perform particular cognitive or mental functions.

Genderless Societies Unpopular, Shown in Criticism of Star Trek Episode by Gay Fans

Some of the feminist ideas about Cyberspace and cyborgisation are also probably too radical to be acceptable for most people. Feminism is about raising the status of women and promoting greater equality between the sexes, particularly with the intention of giving women greater freedom to pursue careers and occupations previously only open to men. Although this naturally involves the redefinition of the gender roles, I doubt very many would want humanity to move beyond gender altogether. The controversy surrounding one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which acted as a metaphor for homosexuality and related gender issues is an illustration of this. In the episode, ‘The Outcast’ the crew of the Enterprise encounter the J’naii, a race that has evolved out of gender. Occasionally, however, a throwback occurs, which is either male or female. These individuals are persecuted by the state. If found, they are captured and forcibly given therapy and medical intervention to make them a normal member of their sexless race. One of the J’naii, who has been on the Enterprise assisting with its latest task on the planet, is just such a throwback. It is a female, and in love with Riker. She is arrested, and taken away. Riker attempts to free her in a raid, but it is too late. The person has already been treated and so can have no romantic interest in him as a member of a race with gender.

Jnali Trek

Riker pursues a forbidden romance with a genderless alien in the Star Trek:TNG episode ‘The Outcast’.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was lampooned when it first appeared for being ‘politically correct’. It was firmly anti-racist and anti-sexist. The phrase ‘Where no man has gone before’ in the opening dedication had been altered to ‘Where no-one has gone before’. The ship’s security officer, Tasha Yar, was a woman, and the Federation stood for inter-planetary multiculturalism, rather than simply the multi-racial tolerance, mixed with 1960s American values of the Classic Trek series. There was pressure at the time for the series to promote a pro-gay stance. The gay members of the SF milieu, such as the organisation of gay SF fans, the Gaylaxians, wanted the producers to introduce gay characters and stories. They hoped, for example, for an episode in which Picard would perform a ship’s marriage for a same-sex couple. David Gerrold, one of the script editors and writers on the original series, who went on to become the script editor for the 1980s Buck Rogers show, was supportive. This was, however, too radical a step for the producers and the TV networks. The episode with Riker and his paramour from a genderless society was therefore seen as a compromise, an attempt to present a pro-gay message, albeit metaphorically.This episode angered rather than satisfied the show’s gay fans. They were particularly upset by the suggestion that somehow gays were opposed to gender, and wished to create a genderless society.

Some of the ideas about the creation of alternative bodies and identities in Cyberspace is also morally dubious. One of the examples of this cited by Truckle is of an individual, who came on-line claiming to be severely disabled woman. This person could only communicate using the keyboard through a probe mounted on their head. This person became popular and attracted many friends. One of these tried to track her down and meet her in person. When they did so, this disabled woman turned about to be a fit and well man. ‘Her’ friends, especially the women, were understandably upset and felt betrayed. Even more seriously, there is the problem of paedophiles grooming their young victims on-line, by pretending to be other youngsters.

Virtual Personas Little Different from Conventional Strategies for Real-Life Anonymity

It’s also true that the creation of different, Virtual personas on-line isn’t radically different to the strategies people have adopted throughout history in real life. Conmen are once example of this, but far more benign examples have been the way authors have adopted pseudonyms to get their work published. The great German satirist, Kurt Tucholsky, wrote under a series of pseudonyms and personas, some of which argued with each other in the Weimar press. If you do it on-line, it called using sock-puppets. Many of those, who adopted pseudonyms and fake personas were women authors, who would otherwise not have been published if their true gender and identity had been known, such as George Eliot. Another example from Science Fiction literary history is James Tiptree junior. Tiptree was the author of a number of prize winning short stories between 1967 and 1977, and was lauded as the equal of Robert Silverberg and Ursula Le Guin. He was the author of such great stories as ‘Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death’. Outside of his writing career, he had a high-power job in Washington. He was finally unmasked in 1977 by a fan, Jeffrey D. Smith, as Alice Sheldon. Sheldon had travelled widely in Africa as a child, been a professional painter, and the first woman to go through the US Air Force Intelligence School. With her husband she helped form the CIA. She had used the techniques taught to her as a spy to construct the false persona of Tiptree.

In the world of the Role-Playing Game, whether real or on computer, it’s also the case that changes of identity and gender are taken as fun, rather than anything more profound or serious. I’ve known a number of RPGers, who’ve played on board and computer games as members of the opposite sex without any deeper interest in issues of gender and identity. They were just interested in playing a particular character, that happened to be of the opposite sex, in an adventure game.

Robocop 2

The Cybernetic hero of the film, Robocop.The story of a policeman, Murphy, who is transformed into a cyborg policeman after being brutally gunned down and his attempts to bring the criminals and the corrupt businessmen behind them and his transformation to justice. Murphy as the Robocop is initially very much a machine, until he rediscovers his own humanity during a dream. It represents the terrible dehumanisation that could result from such radical mechanisation of the human body.

Danger of Dehumanisation in Cyborg Enhancement

As for cyborgisation, while this does offer immense opportunities for personal enhancement and augmentation, it also presents serious ethical dangers. I doubt many people would object to the idea of immortality or longevity offered by the prospect of nanomachines repairing the damage to their cells caused by the aging process, such as has been suggested by that great Transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil. On the other hand, there is the terrible danger of complete depersonalisation as advanced technology replaces everything we most value and cherish about humanity. The end result of this process is the emotionless, depersonalised machine creatures of Science Fiction, the Daleks and Cybermen of Doctor Who, and the Borg with their collective hive mind in Star Trek. The Cybermen were the result of a conversation between their creator and his mother. They had been talking about spare part surgery, and the monsters’ creator found himself wondering if this would result in a creature that didn’t know whether it was a man or machine. He depicted them without emotion, because he believed that they would not need them through living in a completely technological environment. Few people would want to join them in their machine hell.

Much Modern Architecture Ugly

Modern architecture is also contentious. While the chapters on computer-aided design and Cyberspace and computer design philosophies are fascinating, it’s unfortunately true that much of modern architecture actually isn’t very attractive. One only has to read the ‘Nooks and Corners’ column in Private Eye to read what their writer, ‘Piloti’, thinks of many of the great contemporary architects, such as Richard Rogers, and their attempts to deconstruct architecture. The results of this have been some truly unattractive buildings of the type Prince Charles once memorably and notoriously described as ‘monstrous carbuncles’.

Despite these criticisms, the pieces presented here are thought-provoking, stimulating and present powerful insights into way computers and digital age have revolutionised modern culture and society, and their immense potential for radically changing not just society, but humanity and its conception of self and reality, as well as the alternative world that would have resulted had Babbage’s great machine actually been built.