Control/Automation

Sometimes one, more than the other, but they go hand-in-hand: control is the antidote to automation, the safety of manual oversight over the unpredictability of programmed systems.

 

Fears about self-driving cars going rogue or autopilot systems freezing have a certain recurrence. It’s natural to doubt an empty, fast-moving vessel, which is more software than hardware, showing no indication of its inner workings. On the other side of the spectrum, you have highway junkies—the prosumers, the adrenaline seekers, the Tesla salesmen—who will defend the need for a keyless, seamless, door-less SUV with Falcon Wings: so attuned to minute breakthroughs in vehicle design, they would sacrifice themselves at the altar of technology in the name of the bleeding edge.

 

Meanwhile, the results of what twenty or thirty years ago was just science fiction finally surface (drones, neural networks, live video games, Virgin Galactic). There’s no choice but to constantly come to terms with the now, and hope that the fleeting visions put forward by past generations of writers might positively affect travel, conceptions of the mind, and play. Sometimes, though, fiction is best left as fiction.

 

Metaphors underlie daily life, George Lakoff writes, which are based on values partly determined by “a matter of the subculture one lives in.[1] To go further, lived experience is often coded and narrated as a consequence of being participants in and end-users of the technosphere [2]. As of 2016, our narrator lives in Cambridge (or C-bridge, which is more appropriate for the American strain): research center, hatching site, and production facility extraordinaire. Strange realm if there ever was one, isolated from any recognizable markers of city life, with biotech and genetic and neurological and aeronautical and offense laboratories erected in the dense shadows of steam and fog. Many know that another, better world exists out there, yet some choose to assimilate; adopting, assuming, and acclimating to the culture of the blue chip. Take for example, some phrases which are often repeated around C-bridge:

 

The mind is a machine.

She was left to her own devices.

This graphics card isn’t powerful enough, I need a render farm.

 

A recent meme by Twitter user @bromanconsul shows Elon Musk on a zipline:

 

“Alright Elon, this is called a zipline.”

“And the humans, they enjoy this?”

“They enjoy it very much, Elon.”

“Then I shall enjoy it as well.”

 

A new wave of cognitive dissonance, in which the human identifies as the machine which performs his work. Being left to one’s own devices is when someone must survive with just their own organs, body parts, logic: in short, without any assistance. Render farm is a term used to describe multiple GPUs working in tandem to process an image or animation. While the industrial age might be over, the dot-com boom is still unfolding, and the language used reflects that transition (One can imagine “the mind is an algorithm” will reach ubiquity soon).

 

Technical and linguistic containers

Consider also the many words which take the suffix, -matic, meaning “willing” in English, taken from matos, or “willing to [perform]” in Greek:

 

auto-matic- “self” and “willing,” or self-performing

kine-matic- “motion” and “willing,” or performing motion

zygo-matic- “yoke” and “performing,” or resembling a yoke[3]

 

You might be tempted to assume what is being described is in fact a mechanical or machine process, but as Lakoff aptly notes, “linguistic expressions are containers for [deeper] meaning.”[4] Automatic is a term invoked frequently to express any type of involuntary reaction, whether the response is human-, animal-, machine-, or ecologically-generated. Vehicle designers might conduct an anthropometric, or human-measurement, study, in order to quantify the kinematics (the branch of mechanics that deals with pure motion apart from mass and force) of a racecar driver. And any object which might evoke the form of a yoke—the crossbow-shaped device used to join two draft animals, like oxen—might be called zygomatic. Use of the word conveys the similarity of shape, or the desire to herd, like a shepherd.

 

Dreams of the cybernetic man, that desire to control and communicate between animal and machine, which American mathematician Norbert Wiener and British psychiatrist W. Ross Ashby pioneered in the late 1940s, never went away.[5] “The organism is seen as message,” Wiener philosophizes in The Human Use of Human Beings.[6] When the body reaches a temperature higher than 98.6 °F, symptoms develop like overheating, achiness, delirium. Fevers brings the body into a state of excitement. Blood cells, immune systems, perspiration glands work furiously to regulate our body temperature and levels, in a process that Wiener emphasized: homeostasis. What is the work of negative feedback in mechanisms like the yoke, or the human body, if not the attainment of stability, resilience, to keep a vehicle on course, performing at its optimum?

 

 

Figure 1. Illustration of a cattle-driving (© 2017 Shwebook Dictionary Pro).

 

 

Figure 2. Saitek ProFlight Yoke System (© 2017 Amazon.com)

 

 

Steering as Governance

Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher crafted a dialogue between Socrates and Alcibiades, using the figure of the steersman or navigator to suggest a model for governance:

 

SOCRATES: For if a man, my dear Alcibiades, has the power to do what he likes, but has no understanding, what is likely to be the result, either to him as an individual or to the state, for example, if he be sick and is able to do what he likes, not having the mind of a physician, having moreover tyrannical power [135a], and no one daring to reprove him, what will happen to him? Will he not be likely to have his constitution ruined?

ALCIBIADES: That is true.

SOCRATES: Or again, in a ship, if a man having the power to do what he likes, has no intelligence or skill in navigation [αρετης κυβερνητικης], do you see what will happen to him and to his fellow-sailors?[7]

 

Steering and driving (ways of controlling direction), linger as central metaphors. The diplomat or tyrant directs his or her nation with skill and tact, just as the shepherd maneuvers his cattle, the pilot navigates turbulent air, and the gamer drives through a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. Kybernetes, or κυβερνήτης in Greek, translates to helmsman, while aretes kybernetikes, or αρετης κυβερνητικης, is a phrase roughly meaning “good at” steering.

 

From the viewpoint of human systems engineering, the machine often mimics and learns from the human mind and body—a more impressive harmony of signals, reactions, senses, and motors. During initialization, software learns from its user, and adjusts to his or her behavior. Think about setting a radio to a desired station. The car remembers. Similarly, newly purchased laptops prompt users to enter a time zone during initialization. Memory, temporal location and spatial awareness, or proprioception, are human attributes, transferred onto green and copper circuit boards.

 

The car fits like a glove, so to speak, when the push buttons, joysticks, levers, knobs and ergonomics so effortlessly communicate with the touch of its operator. Going blind is less scary than it sounds; couldn’t one just as easily feel oneself around the driver’s seat: the cloth, the leather, the wood, the shapes, reactions, hard and soft surfaces? Those who are incredulous should know the inventor of cruise control was a blind man.

 

A HUD, or head-unit display, reads numerical and positional data, altitude, GPS coordinates, yaw and pitch. A square shard of glass with green tint augments the pilot’s eye: information stored in a surface. These prosthetics might become anachronistic (remote drone centers save fighter pilots the vertigo), but currently, vision is augmented so that it can kill.

 

Her glare bore holes into his body.

(Once a figure of speech, now a reality).

 

The Abstraction of Warfare

Software is likely to turn into something that obscures the action that it does. A press of a button or the twist of a selector to speak to the machine, translated into a force infinitely amplifying the movement of a small finger. Controls are designed so conveniently as to not be out of reach: the literal extension of the foot and hand.  But where and to whom do pedals, joysticks, and push buttons extend?

 

Warfare is abstracted, through a remote-operated control panel dotted with circular shapes, square keys, and hand sculptures, making it easier to stomach. Difficult subject matter is made less visceral through geometry, a condition which abstract art proves regularly. Cy Twombly’s Say Goodbye Catallus, to the Shores of Asia Minor (1994) conveys a light, airy, series of musings, variegated clouds and red cursive script on an extreme horizontal canvas. He uses innocent media—crayons and acrylic—and refers to the famous poem with its line frater ave atque vale (“brother, hail and farewell” in English), inspired by the journey of the tormented poet Gaius Valerius Catallus in 56 B.C. to visit his brother’s graveyard in Troy, or modern-day Anatolia, near the city of Hisarlik, Turkey. What the mausoleum devoted to Twombly’s oeuvre fails to recognize, is that his interpretation of Catallus’s poem, and perhaps the Kuwaiti Shores in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, while palatable due its abstract language and pale white canvases, represent the possibility of a much more volatile and political external condition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 3. Cy Twombly, Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catallus, to the Shores of Asia Minor), 1994. Oil, acrylic, oil stick, crayon and graphite on three canvases. 157 ½ x 624 in. Painting. (© 2017 Menil Foundation, Inc.)

 

 

An act of processing: how to optimize the encounter of the drone operator with his screen, which builds on the color theory and reception principles which art values? “System analysts,” Jack Burnham once said, “are not cold-blooded logicians; the best have an ever-expanding grasp of human needs and limitations.”[8] Human expression and philosophy are included within the search query of the system analyst today, who must mine all-encompassing stratagems in order to win ideological and military battles. All tactics are collected in a sieve, and artistic particles are not strained.

 

The invention of the “post-structural soldier” is not a semantic coincidence. Eyal Weizman has tracked the overlapping theoretical approach between Deleuze and Guattari’s 1980 text A Thousand Plateaus and the Israeli Defense Forces.[9] Both conceptualize physical spaces as smooth and striated, understanding the ability of the state apparatus to undergo metamorphosis, to become a “war machine.” Anti-capitalist paradigms are reformatted by commanders like Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, who runs the Operational Theory Research Institute and trains IDF soldiers in post-structural theory, cybernetics, and other contemporary philosophies which can be operationalized. Military tactics gain credence because they co-opt the very same philosophy which pushes art forward; the relationship of message to form, receiver to environment, and the disparity between human cognition and perception.

 

Note a striking difference of interpretation: for the artist who reads Gregory Bateson, cybernetics is an open system, a dynamic process, an organism, a past progression in art; and for the technocrat, it remains another means of appropriation, a path to attain power and expansion, to rule through technological means.

 

Yusef Audeh

 

References and Notes

 

[1] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[2] Peter Haff. “Humans and Technology in the Anthropocene: Six Rules”. The Anthropocene

Review 1.2, 2014.

[3] J. G. Ballard The Atrocity Exhibition. London: Fourth Estate, 2014.

[4] Lakoff and Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2011.

[5] Norbert Wiener. Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

[6] Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1950) 95-104.

[7] Plato. Alcibiades I (Tradition Gmbh, 2011) 134(e)-135(b).

[8] Burnham, Jack, “System Aesthetics”, Artforum, vol. 7, no. 1 (September 1968) 30-35.

[9] Bois, Yve-Alain, Michel Feher, Hal Foster, and Eyal Weizman. "On Forensic Architecture: A Conversation with Eyal Weizman." October 156 (2016): 116-40.