III. Bounding Lines
That reliable genealogies of informationís visual aesthetics are recoverable from events and artifacts in the popular culture of the past fifteen to twenty years is an important point, curiously underdeveloped in the (already) extensive critical literature on electronic media, and central to my concerns here. But implicit in my argument thus far has also been the contention that we are in the midst of a very real shift in the empirical basis of information itself, a shift that is profoundly dependent on the technologies and forms of visual apprehension and yet also, in some phenomenological sense, ultimately beyond the horizon of the visible. Consider the following passage from the cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter (best known for his widely read Gödel, Escher, Bach), from a monograph concerned with the question of authenticity in human-computer interaction:
Today, for instance, ultrasound allows us to see a fetus moving about inside a motherís womb in real time. Note that we feel no need to put quotes around the word "see" -- no more than around the word "talk" in the sentence "My wife and I talk everyday on the phone." When we make such casual statements we donít for a moment consider the weirdness of the fact that our voices are speeding in perfect silence through metallic wires; the reconstruction of sounds is so flawless and faithful that we are able to entirely forget the fact that complex coding and decoding processes are taking place in between the speaking mouth and the listening ear. [. . .] If, fifty years ago, high-frequency sounds had been scattered off a fetus, there would have been no technology to convert the scattered waves into a vivid television image, and any conclusions derived from measurements on the scattered waves would have been considered abstruse mathematical inferences; today, however, simply because computer hardware can reconstruct the scatterer from the scattered waves in real time, we feel we are directly observing the fetus. Examples like this -- and they are legion in our technological era -- show why any boundary between "direct observation" and "inference" is a subjective matter. (488)
Hofstadter goes on to note that, "much of science consists in blurring this seemingly sharp distinction" (488). As much or more than any of the scores of better-known prophets and pundits of the Information Age, it seems to me that Hofstadter has succeeded in putting his finger on one of the central dynamics of our times: that "information," which was once explicitly defined by computer scientists as a quality independent or indeed exempt from meaning has now, as a direct consequence of advances in computing technology, become meaningful in and of itself. By this I mean not that data is useful or intelligible without context and structure, but rather that the continuum involved in the creation of meaning through the process of interpreting data now encompasses degrees of abstraction and representational artifice which would have heretofore been considered "meaningful" only after the prior imposition of some second-order procedure or analysis. Or to put it another way, advanced computing technologies, visual and graphical for the most part, allow informationís artificial or referential dimension to function as a kind of permeable membrane through which Hofstadterís dynamic of inference and direct observation can fluctuate. Moreover, as Hofstadter rightly notes, examples of the oscillating dynamic between inference and direct observation are "legion" at the present moment -- indeed, they define the most pedestrian behaviors of the wired lifestyle. As I write this, for example, I am tracking rain cells over central Virginia using online Doppler radar available from the Weather Channelís site (I have a chronically leaky window seam and am wondering whether Iíll need to get up to arrange the pots and pans I use to catch the run-off). Precipitation displays on Doppler radar as colored blobs, the color varying from a light green to deep reds and pinks depending on intensity (figure 6). Note that unlike Hofstadterís example of the sonogram, what I see on the Doppler map does not, in any mimetic sense, "look like" rain. Yet not only do I accept the Doppler images as an accurate depiction of the weather conditions in my area (and thus a reliable indication of whether or not Iíll need to mop up my windowsill), I also tend to regard what I am seeing as simply "rain," and not as "a computer-generated visualization of the prevailing atmospheric conditions." Though I understand of course that the Doppler display is precisely that, the truth is that as a practical matter my phenomenological apprehension of rain has expanded to include images produced by radar waves reflected from bands of precipitation within what is essentially the same referential horizon as the puddles that I know will eventually appear on my windowsill.
An Urizenic bounding line between inference and direct observation also often underscores the most lyrical manifestations of a much broader array of postmodern cultural sensibilities. Wim Wendersís long but affective 1991 travelogue and science fiction film Until the End of the World culminates in a series of experiments involving a special camera capable of displaying images captured directly from a subjectís subconscious memory; the camera and its attendant visualization software are eventually used to record dreams, which are then replayed in several gorgeous and surreal sequences of computer-generated imagery -- shifting patterns and colors coalescing around the motion and outlines of human figures, footage culled from such extreme states of digital processing that all but the most elemental traces of visual form have been effaced (figure 7). Or else consider the following passage from Don Delilloís most recent novel Underworld (1998), which has as one of its central axes the story of a landscape artist painting (or illuminating, in the Blakean sense) the stripped husks of many hundreds of derelict B-52 bombers abandoned in the Texas desert. "Maybe you can tell us why you want to do this thing," a journalist asks the artist, Klara Sax, who replies:
I used to spend a lot of time on the Maine coast. I was married to a yachtsman, my second husband this was, a dealer in risky securities who was about to go bust any day but didnít know it at the time and he had a lovely ketch and we used to go up there and cruise the coastline. We sat on deck at night and the sky was beautifully clear and sometimes we saw a kind of halo moving across the star fields and we used to speculate what is this. Airliners making the North Atlantic run or UFOs you know, that was a popular subject even then. A luminous disc slowly crossing. Hazy and very high. And I thought it was too high for an airliner. And I knew that strategic bombers flew at something like fifty-five thousand feet. And I decided this is the refracted light from an object way up there, this is the circular form it takes. Because I wanted to believe thatís what we were seeing. B-52s. War scared me all right but those lights, I have to tell you those lights were a complex sensation. Those planes on permanent alert, ever present you know, sweeping the Soviet borders, and I remember sitting out there rocking lightly at anchor in some deserted cove and feeling a sense of awe, a childís sleepy feeling of mystery and danger and beauty. (75)
Besides offering aestheticized instances of the interplay between inference and direct observation, both of these works also have their own independent bearings on the study of information technology, the Wenders film about "the disease of images" (as one of the characters has it) in ways that should be obvious, and the events in Underworld more circuitously through the complex but incontrovertible synergy between the Cold War and computer science. But inference and direct observation also, I want to argue, provide something of an objective correlative for the visual aesthetics of information as I have been delineating them in the examples from popular culture, above. Firstly, tension between inference and direct observation furnishes the basic plot device in films such as Tron, in which a computer programmer who has thus far communicated with his machines solely through the abstractions of language and code -- modes of inference -- is suddenly transported inside of the machine itself, to observe (and intervene) directly in the parallel reality he encounters there (Tron teaches us that computers are populated by anthropomorphized software agents, an update of the antiquarian view of the brain inhabited by homonculi). Similarly, observation versus inference is also the basis of more sophisticated cyberpunk narratives such as Neuromancer, which turns on its protagonist Caseís ability to overcome neural damage and regain his direct connection to the only reality that matters to him, the computer-generated matrix (where he will then confront, though never "directly," an artificial intelligence named Wintermute that projects its presence through a shifting facade of persons and situations).
To generalize: the observation versus inference dynamic circumscribes the whole cyberpunk fixation on "jacking in," that narcotic and narcissistic intimacy between the brainís internal structures and the computer-generated abstractions of the datascape. Direct observation is also the ostensible mandate of a publication such as Wired, which sells itself to its readers by through the promise of an up close and personal experience with the spirit of the Information Age: "[I]f youíre looking for the soul of our new society in wild metamorphosis," Louis Rossetto enjoins in his introduction to issue one of the magazine, "our advice is simple. Get Wired." Getting wired -- or jacking in -- is thus the ultimate contact high in what Steve Johnson has aptly termed an "interface culture."