Monday, September 21, 2009

It took me two hours to figure out how to post this...

Several months ago I was mournfully greeted with news of the passing of my favorite author, James Graham Ballard. Ballard, a brilliant explorer of the delicate human mind in the face of technology and change, impacts my life to this very day. Whether I am trying to emulate his graceful writing style or trying to fathom the complexities of the human condition, Ballard is, and shall always be, my launch pad for thought, creativity, and introspection.

When Ballard died, I was taken aback. Emotions I had yet to define consumed my thoughts. I was devastated that the world must forge forward without his prophetic visions, crafted images of the future that warn of darker days. I had to do something.

With my mind clouded by a strangely disconnected grief, I sought solace in the technological landscape that rested beyond the boundaries of cyberspace. Within this electronic realm my words might reach an audience of thousands of readers like myself.

The BBC, the website that first heralded the grim news, carried with it an option to write a short "guestbook-style" post regarding my reactions to Ballard's death. "My" reactions...

In the past, I would often read reactions to articles when the BBC offered guestbook-style postings, though there was always a sense of separation that permeated the writing. It may have simply followed that I am cocky or overwhelmingly fastidious when it comes down to the written word, but each circumstantial precis, each account from around the world, lacked a sense of integrity. It was as though the authors knew that they were writing within a bastardized medium, a place where information assumes a negative connotation because of the public understanding. However, this would soon change.

My eyes locked on the open text box as neither adversary nor challenge, but as an opportunity. Competition seared through my blood as my fingers deftly crafted words so fragile that a wisp of air would send them toward oblivion. In a few minutes, my eulogy for Ballard was complete. Proudly, I submitted my account. It was done. I had entered text into the cyber-realm and would await the accolades that follow.

Praise never came.

Every hour, I renewed the webpage, waiting to see if someone had "liked" my account. Nothing. The competition that once consumed my passion was replaced by frustration and anger. How dare the denizens of the web deny me glory! How dare my text fall upon uncaring eyes! A new devastation came upon me. It was not the unease of registering for an online service such as or other shopping sites - that was business as usual, and the text was crafted without concern for an audience. No, this was a sensation of grave denial, but not internally. Rather, I was denied what I had anticipated. I was denied the satisfaction of knowing that someone out there cared in the least about what I had to say.

I was defiant for several hours, even after I left the computer. But after I calmed down, I realized that glory is fleeting when you traverse the internet. The web grows exponentially, and without that humility in mind, anyone will readily suffer the agonies of defeat. However, should we be made to suffer at the hands of an electronic construct?

My understanding of psychological interactions has always been tainted by "the chicken or the egg" metaphor - does cognitive science follow common sense or does the common sense itself derive from the century of research that has become implanted within our cultural understanding?

Regardless, I know that each user will approach the machine, that engaging, yet ominous presence, within the confines of his or her own subjective view. This presents several problems, especially those that Light and Wakeman confronted in their research. Following the rigid confines of scientific method - confines that, for a change, reinforce repetition rather than disintegrating subjectivity - these researchers employed a method of studying text on the web as an element of interaction with the machine. Some were frustrated, some were confused, but most saw this interaction as a means toward a goal. Interestingly, as the researchers note, the machine ceases to partition itself from the human world. As it assumes the role of a companion rather than a tool, users shift their pronouns from "it" to the "they" and even "he." What does this mean? Certainly we cannot really believe that this device deserves the dignity of a human being! Isaac Asimov himself asserted that robots (machines) are subject to the whims of their human creators.

But step back for a moment...

Things are not desperately amiss. Rather, this interaction, guided by that same subjectivity that possesses us to qualify the machine as a fellow, bestows upon it the dignity that we feel it needs. If I spoke directly to television screen, or a radio, or an electric guitar, someone might have the presumptions to deign me mad. Maybe we grant the machine human like qualities because we understand that we need to relate our interaction toward something recognizable. Again, this is not to say that we must always follow this pattern of interaction because we recognize things as human-like, but rather it affords the machine an opportunity to become an extension of the human intellect. It affords us speed and adept processing that solidifies the thoughts faster than a human can consider. If I may quote my beloved hero of the ages, Soren Kierkegaard (whose epistemic principles go criminally unheeded):

"A man wishes to make an important confession, but the man he wises to unbosom himself to does not come at once, so he says something quite different..."

With the text that we enter to a machine, we record a snippet of life as it happens. Light and Wakeman knew this principle well when they designed their research, because the only system that worked eliminated direction, but preserved the subtle subjectivity of the user must bring to truly eliminate the partition.

When I wrote about Ballard, I knew that I was inscribing my words into cyberspace. I knew, that in all reality, only a handful of people would see them. But despite my agitation, I was still proud to instill my reflections within this realm. And I knew that even though it was "merely" words on a page, they could carry with them a message that unifies myself with the past, myself with the present, and myself with the machine.

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