Visceral Technologies

Marc Demarest

July 1997



The bio-electronic union between man and silicon is inevitable.

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

What Information Wants

We know what information wants. We chant it like a mantra -- information wants to be free.

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.

What Does The Intermediary Want?

On the one side, what information wants. On the other, what we want. In between -- what?

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?

Servants Or Agents Or Masters?

The simple answer is that our servants -- we learn our lessons early and well -- are not permitted to desire on their own. Are not permitted. The idea that our agents, the Intel-inside Maginot Line we raise in defense against the flood of information-being-free, might have its own agenda, might want something other than we want, might be only partly under our control, is an idea that cannot be admitted to consciousness, an idea that cannot be countenanced. Traitors in our midst, wartime treason, turncoats are not permissible.

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.


Here is some of those bellwethers.
  1. Physical encroachment.

    We will know the computer is coming for us if it steadily moves closer to our lives and our bodies.

    • 1950s: The computer is in the university. The computer is under the concrete mountain. I saw it once.
    • 1960s: The computer is in the data center. The computer is in the government office. The computer is in the space ship. The computer is the Forbin Project. The computer is HAL. It helps society do things.
    • 1980s: The computer is in the office. Somewhere. Special people use it.
    • The computer is on my desk. The computer is mine. The computer is Charlie Chaplin. The computer wants-to-play-a-game. I use it sometimes.
    • 1990s: The computer is in my briefcase. The computer is in my pocket. The computer is in the furniture store. The computer is Johnny Mnemonic. I can't work without it.
    The computer has slimmed down, smartened up, and come in close. You buy it in a furniture store, like a couch. You swap it out every two years, like a leased car. You yell at it, stroke it, pound on it, credit it with doing bad things and good things to and for you, rage against its control over your life and find life without it unimaginable. Mice can be color-coordinated with it, or your furniture, like true accessories. You personalize it, scribble your own screen saver, plaster up wallpaper, move in.

  2. Dematerialization.

    You'll know the computer is coming for you when, just as it reaches an intimate distance, encroaches on your personal space, it seems to disappear, to dematerialize.

    SOHO, they call it. The home office. The work-away-from-work place, where the computer lives. As soon as it arrives there, it seems to disperse. It's taking over for the telephone, balanced on top of your TV set, hooked into your stereo system, sharing a display device with your cable converter, connecting your home to the InfoBahn.

    Disappearing, in short, into the walls of your house.

    At the same time, the data center is evaporating. Computing moves out into the company 'net and distributes itself across the desktops and laptops and palmtops of the firm. Where is the data? It used to be "in there," behing the glass. More and more, it's "out there," on the wires.

    Disappearing, in short, into the fabric of the commercial value web.

  3. Abstraction.

    You will know the computer is coming for you when it no longer represents itself to you in software, but represents instead the world.

    Imagine the expenditure, in dollars and man-years, to produce the Windows File Manager, which is after all nothing but a metaphor -- supposedly user-friendly -- for a disk, a way to translate the storage algorithms of a drive into some human-legible model. And what a model -- vintage 1890s efficient-office-file-cabinets.

    Quicken is revolutionary because it spends its time representing the world of financial instruments. NetScape is revolutionary because the software begins, for the first time, to spend its energy representing real-world objects: places, people, things. And it spends energy letting me touch and manipulate those things. It doesn't describe itself, or represent itself -- HTML and HTTP are noticably absent unless you look at URLs, send a mail message or view source.

    As long as the computer spends its time representing itself, it's "technical". When it represents something else, like a speedometer represents forward motion, it becomes trivial and safe.

  4. Addiction.

    You know the computer is coming for you when you feel its absence as lack, as a decrease in capability, as a missing limb.

    Ask yourself whether this is not already true, in your personal life. We are a transitional generation, so answers vary widely. The younger and wonkier you are, the more likely you are to admit to phantom-limb syndrome when you leave the PC at home when you go on vacation.

  5. Substitution.

    We will know the computer is coming for us when it substitutes itself for other mnemonic devices we use to extend the capacity and capability of our wetware, and we'll know it's very close when it actually takes over some of the functions of our wetware and allows us to think newly and differently, to free up memory and processing power.

  6. Trivialization.

    Trivialization is the wrong word, but I don't know what the right word is. Let me say it like this: we manipulate and move around inside vastly complex technologies every day. We throw light switches and manipulate international power grids absolutely unconsciously. We lean against the walls of our house oblivious to the complexes of technology that make the wall a wall, make the house cohere and stand, make the home a home. We drive our cars, having never bothered to look under the hood or under the chassis, no longer comprehending if we ever did the maze of hoses and wires and bands that make cars go and stop and veer. We comprehend space travel, dial friends' phone numbers, charge our purchases, and -- amazing feat -- find our way around cities: the most dumbfounding complex of technologies ever constructed. All these technologies are trivial -- they arrived, for the most part, before we did. They are part of the landscape.

    Other technologies are in the grey area, the boundary waters between what we take for granted -- the trivial technologies -- and the dangerous magic of the computer. The VCR clock blinks --:-- in a thousand thousand households. The ATM makes our heart beat faster, raises vague anxieties: where did the money go? The Internet is a jungle, the last frontier, someplace for intrepid explorers unafraid of the pornographic spam tigers and flaming natives lurking everywhere.

    And then there is the shamanism of computing: the black or white magic (depending on your value scheme) of silicon. It's magic for us, transitional technology for our children, trivial for their children.

The Progression

So, how will it happen?

  1. The physical device will become dispersed and its components will become decorative objects or things to be accessorized. Braun will make the best monitors. Sunbeam palmtops will be de rigeur in every color-coordinated kitchen. J. Crew will sell chinos with a PDA-ready back pocket.

  2. The "software interface" will be replaced by a "software agent" -- a replica of your personality in software, acting for you in the wide open spaces of electronic commerce.

  3. The "hardware interface" will migrate upward in baud rate, from fingers and text-eyes to voice and picture-eyes. The computer wraps itself around our bodies.

  4. All applications will become games.

  5. We will teach the machine to see and talk.

  6. We will crack the neural API.

  7. We will trust the machine and the companies that make it.

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.

Do We Want What We Want?

At last, we reach the fundamental question. If this is what the computer wants, is this what we want? Do we want to let it in, now or in a generation or two? Here is a test: put aside the moral case and the value judgements and the claims of humanity to uniqueness in the universe, and delve into our popular culture, where every billboard, full-page-add and movie is a collective dream, a dark wish, a trace of desire. I delve and I find, more than ever before, billboards selling silicon-as-sex, advertisements in which technology is layered over the human form in one way or another, and movies in which we struggle to build a working model of ourselves-inside-the-computer and the-computer-inside-us. Lawnmower Man or Sneakers -- whichever way it happens, it looks like we want it, but just aren't ready to talk about it yet.

Last updated on 03-13-00 by Marc Demarest (

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