Diana McCarty on Wed, 3 Sep 1997 20:41:16 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Heim's anxieties full version 1

[this is an updated text we already published a part of in zkp1]

 Copyright (C) 1997, Michael Heim
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    Reflections                        the
    Reflections            on                   computer screen
    Reflections            on                   computer screen
    Reflections            on                   computer screen
    Reflections                        the

                                                by Michael Heim

Look closely at your video display.  If you adjust the viewing angle just
right, you can glimpse yourself there on the screen.  Let your thoughts
float, as if looking into a quiet pool of water or into a crystal ball.  Now
you and your world make ghostly reflections overlaying the data on
screen.  The reflections make a portrait of "User with Data."

"User with Data" is an image of philosophy.  Philosophy begins
when we try to catch a glimpse of who we are and what we are becoming
as we go about our work.  This kind of reflection doesn't produce more
information, nor does it necessarily build a better future.  It simply
connects the two sides of ourselves, the productive and the intuitive,
making us feel more complete and whole.  "Know thyself," Socrates was
fond of saying.

Works of art spur reflections too.  "User with Data" is a theme in art
works.  Art reflects who and where we are.  When the artist does a
portrait of "User with Data," the picture is not always pretty.  One
sculptor, George Segal, gave us an anxious portrait of the computer user.
Segal's portrait appeared on the cover of the January 1983 TIME
magazine which celebrated the "Machine of the Year" -- in lieu of the
customary "Man of the Year."  The picture was vivid.

Standing atop an old-fashioned wooden table, a personal computer
displays colorful charts and words.  The surrounding walls are inky black.
In front of the computer, a chalk-white, life-cast, male figure sits on a
wooden chair.  He slumps slightly, pale hands immobile on the knees, and
stares passively at the computer screen.  Nearby, another desktop
computer occupies a smaller table where a female life-cast sits in a
wicker chair.  She relaxes cross-legged, coffee cup in hand, turning her
line of vision away from the screen.  Both cast figures stand out stark
white against the black background where the single large white frame of
a window is the only relief.  More blackness fills out the big window.
The computers and furniture beam bright primary colors, while the
surrounding atmosphere hangs claustrophobic.  Mostly colorless and nearly
empty, the room suggests an bleak banality.  Segal's sculpture shows us
humans as the spiritless peripherals of our information devices.

That was 1983.  Back then, most of us were just learning about computers,
just beginning to imagine how we might use them.  We harbored some
fears about the new technology.  We wondered whether we could cope
with the changes underway.  We sensed the threshold of a new world and
were gathering the courage to cross over to it.  Our anxieties acted as
springboards to creativity.  Several years later, we now find ourselves on
the other side of the computer revolution, participating in a global
cotechnology, on line with the first strands of networks without
geographical distance, afloat in a new informational space ("cyberspace").
Here we move through structures of data and communications of which
we had not the slightest inkling in 1983 -- less than 10 years ago.

First impressions are often the best, and the most trustworthy.  As we
move forward, we need to occasionally stop and glance backward, become
philosophical, and reflect on whence we came and whither our actions are
taking us.  To survive, we need occasional glances in the rear-view mirror.
Without those glances, we might be overtaken from behind by a heedless
rush into the future.  The rear-view mirror is a device of prudence, not
an atttempt to revert to a past life.  

Join me, then, in reflecting on the computer screen.  In a slightly off-
focus, dream-like, meditative state of mind, we will face our fears,
anxieties, and worries.  Fear often highlights new challenges.  The
anxiety we face can increase our creativity -- not necessarily in ways that
are predictable.  Our worries about the computerized world can give the
impetus for making more humane structures.

To explore the anxieties of the computerized world, let us begin with
a direct examination of the physical User with Data you see on screen.


1. Some PHYSICAL HAZARDS of computers.

  1.1. The invisible TOLL ON OUR EYES.

The physical hazards of computing remain nearly invisible to the user.
We usually look through the interface unawares.  We can face the
interface only by getting a certain distance from it.  At the interface,
things look differently.  We peer through an electronic framework where
our symbols -- words, calculations, simulations -- come under precise
control, where things appear with startling clarity.  So entrancing are
these symbols that we forget ourselves, forget where we are.  We become
used by the interface.  With our faces up against it, the interface is
hardest to see.  Because information technology fits our minds, it is the
hardest of all to think about.  Nothing is further from us.  We can miss it
as easily as we overlook a pair of eyeglasses on the bridge of the nose --
or a contact lens on the cornea.

Phosphorescent symbols on the screen hold a hypnotic attraction.  So
intensely do they attract that human eyes blink less frequently when
viewing computer screens.  The cornea of the eye requires frequent fluid
baths, and eyelids normally bathe and massage the eyeballs by blinking
every five seconds.  Interacting with a computer calls for concentration,
and the sustained stress tends to fix vision in a stare.  As blinking
decreases, the eye muscles have difficulty focusing.  Users also tend to
hold their breath when trying to see the screen better.  This decreases
blood circulation and increases bodily tension.  The resulting strain
eventually leads to refractive error, most often chronic myopia.

Computer use is the latest and most demanding of all the close-up work
our life-style promotes.  Lenses are symbols of modern civilization.  The
human eye evolved naturally to focus on distant objects.  Looking into
the distance, the internal eye muscles relax.  Close-up work, on the
contrary, causes the eye muscles to reshape the cornea.  Protracted close
work strains the eye muscles.  If the eye strains sufficiently, the muscles
undergo spasm, which then changes the actual shape of the eye.  With
frequent strain, the eye remains in a shape that impairs distant vision.
The malady progresses.  Once thrown out of shape, the cornea causes poor
drainage of the internal eye fluids, which in turn increases the eye
pressure and eventually elongates the posterior position of the eye.  The
result is further nearsightedness.

Corrective lenses tend to increase myopia, especially for computer users.
Because they bend the incoming light patterns, lenses reduce the visual
field by at least six percent, and distort color waves by an even greater
amount.  Our technologically advanced society promotes a
characteristically more nearsighted population.  Even though the causes of
myopia are partially genetic, the main reason for widespread myopia is
the modern need to view things close-up and to fix things through
symbols and simulations.

The eyestrain at the interface begins with the modern ideal of vision.
>From Descartes to Berkeley, the modern understanding of vision
inculcates the fixed stare, as David Levin has shown in his study of
POSTMODERN SITUATION, by David Michael Levin, (New York:
Routledge, 1988).  The classic study of the dynamics of vision and staring
is Aldous Huxley's THE ART OF SEEING, (New York: Harper, 1942.)

Modern theories of vision assume that the aim of seeing is to dominate,
master, and control things.  The thing in view is supposed to be a fixed
object, an unmoving patch of qualities, a bundle of measurable light
quanta.  To capture a view, the eye casts an unyielding and unchanging
gaze over it.  The eye stares.  It observes.  Like a camera, the eye tries to
hold things in a clear and precise focus while keeping them at a distance
for observation.  With a fixed focus, the eye petrifies the visual event.

Contrary to the modern ideal, nothing ever remains absolutely immobile
in the field of vision.  Seeing requires the constant movement of the eye
in tiny shifting motions.  The movement is spontaneous, dynamic, and
uncontrollable by the conscious will.  When relaxed into its own
dynamics, the eye continually shifts and enlivens the visual field.  The
movements  of the eye are nearly imperceptible, tiny vibrations called
saccades (from the French word for the flickering of a sail in the wind).
These saccades last from two one-hundredths of a second to ten one-
hundredths of a second.  They travel from two minutes of a degree to
twenty minutes of a degree (a minute being 1/21,600 of a circle).  When
your attention pauses on something, it may seem as if your eyes are
stationary at that moment.  The saccadic dance in fact continues around
smaller points, bringing ever new perspectives into the central fovea
where vision occurs.  The eye continually plays with the light and shade
of contrasting backgrounds.  The tension of the stare freezes the
thousands of tiny shifts and soon leads to distorted or impaired vision.
The effort to dominate things visually fails, harming the eye in the

  1.2. The visible TOLL ON OUR HANDS.  The stress of digital
  writing breeds more than myopia.  Because it is intensely interactive
  and yet nearly frictionless, computer work involves more prolonged
  strain than pencil or typewriter.  You take fewer rest breaks.  You
  have no  paper file cabinets to visit, no corrections to make by hand,
  no variety of physical motions.  Fingers just keep moving, repeating
  the same keystrokes.  You hardly notice your unrelieved adaptation to
  the machine's specifications.  The result is a workplace epidemic
  called Repetitive Motion Syndrome (RMS).  The inflamed hand and
  arm tendons of RMS patients often require surgical operations, and
  doctors are finding permanent damage to bodily movement in many
  RMS patients.  The  word processor is not merely a glorified
  The LA Times is finding RMS a serious problem among its employees.
  Even as you talk with a Times reporter over the telephone, you hear
  the constant clatter of her fingers taking notes as you talk.  The
  computer is always running.  Even when you ask about RMS, your
  questions become data, feeding the interface you are talking about.
  Reporting is becoming data entry.
  1.3. I should mention some possible remedies here.  COMPUTER EYE-
  STRESS by R. Anthony Hutchinson (New York:  Evans, 1985) gives
  some useful exercises for alleviating focusing stress.  But hardly
  anyone in America today has absorbed the discipline needed to apply
  such exercises to daily work where the emphasis is on productivity.
  Chinese Qi Gong exercises are wonderful for healing and preventing
  the RMS syndrome.  But how many industries will actually move
  forward to protect their people by providing the time and the training
  for these exercises?  I doubt that any corporations will take up this
  challenge.  Companies tend to conceived productivity in the narrowest
  sense, seeking profit in the short-range rather than long-range sense of
  the term.

  1.4. The TOLL ON OUR BODIES.  
  The computer interface reinforces the sense many people have 
  that the human body is becoming "obsolete."  Maybe not obsolete 
  in every sense, but obsolete as a major component in our daily 
  awareness.  The computer is drawing us into a total electronic 
  interface with the world of experience.
  In the future of the home, a corner of the house" may soon be
  "dedicated to communication," with one gadget combining the
  powers of: tv, videodisk machine, vcr, computer, printer, phone,
  answering machine, fax, electronic protections gadgets, and others
  yet to be invented. This one omni-gadget will constitute a new kind
  of symbiosis between human and device. It will work more intimately,
  more internally than any previous machine.  No one will find such
  a device easy to resist.  We will soon become dependent on it, as
  we have become dependent on automobiles and airplanes and fossil fuels.
  The novelist EM Forster once wrote a short story called "The Machine
  Must Stop."  The machine Forster described resembles Don Straus'
  omni-gadget.  So helpful is that total interface gadget that human
  bone structures have atrophied beyond recognition.  Humans have
  "evolved."  Only one young person dares break the spell by seeking out
  the thrill of sheer physical existence.  The teenager climbs out of the
  artificial environment and basks in the sun.  It nearly kills him.  But
  with his action begins the revolt against the wonderful
  communications technology we are now dreaming up.
  Full physical presence with personal depth may soon become a precous
  commodity, something we may first forget in order to remember
  We are only now beginning to examine how cultures teach us to treat
  our bodies and get us to assume different postures to inhabit our
  living space.

2. Some ECOLOGICAL HAZARDS of computers.
  2.1. The visible TOLL ON OUR SURROUNDINGS.  In an article
  "Why I Am Not going to Buy a Computer," the poet Wendell Berry
  explains another physical danger of computer use, this time not the
  danger to the individual person but the danger to the long-range
  ecology of the planet.  Berry's article appeared in the Autumn 1987
  issue of NER/BLQ, which was excerpted in HARPER'S MAGAZINE,
  September 1988, followed by a spirited exchange of letters in
  December (Letters) 1988.
  Wendell Berry opposes word processing in principle -- not because he
  thinks it has a negative impact on the quality of writing, nor because
  he has a personal phobia about technology.  Berry opposes word
  processors because the computer is an unnecessary electrical appliance:
  the more appliances we use, the more electricity we consume; the more
  electricity we consume, the more we plunder the earth's limited
  energy supply.  If you can accomplish a task equally well with a
  simpler technology, like paper and pencil, says Berry, you are morally
  obliged to do so.  Berry's sees the personal computer as another aspect
  of American consumerism.  Berry renunces computers because he is
  concerned about our dwindling energy resources.  By energy he means
  fuel, specifically coal.  Electrical appliances have caused the strip-
  mining of the Appalachian coal fields.  Ruthless greed, Berry says,
  will plunder the environment and soon obliterate what remains of the
  wilderness.  He considers most consumer appliances extravagant
  because they deplete the earth's finite natural resources.  So Berry
  lives on a farm in the South, plows with horses instead of tractors,
  and writes during daylight hours so he can avoid using electric lights.
  Berry's wife types his manuscripts on a 1956 Royal typewriter.
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