Opening Statement - David Kolb

Do the technologies of representation offered by computers offer an alternative to the mirror, to the limitations of mimetic, causal realism?

A broken mirror reflects in all directions.

(Even a good mirror usually reflected badly. For most of history, mirrors were not good at making images; they were made of metal polished and flattened as much as possible.)

Is "mimetic, causal realism" is all that old? While it is fashionable to indict the whole tradition from Aristotle down, this can turn into a kind of dualistic myth-making that exalts ourselves. Traditional figures are not so easily caught in such simplistic nets, but we need to be able to dismiss them easily so we can have the energizing sense of beginning anew. This may be helpful, but it is also dangerous since it can lead to the same sort of dismissive attitude today.

At the least we might see that "mimetic realism" is much more an artifact of modernity. Sixteenth and seventeenth century modernity wanted to read the Bible literally, to pare down medieval and Renaissance poly-meaning, to pin down metaphors and regiment language and tie it to a rationalist or empiricist epistemological base.

(Maybe we will go back to discourse feudalism, and the queen of the sciences will be a distant rumor.)

Computer technology, especially in the form of VR, could actually lead to *more* regimented appearance and a kind of ersatz "mimetic realism." Think about all those web sites that try to develop their own unique--and consistent--feel. Virtual Disneyland will sell the Disneyland feel, so once you enter that world there may be a greater consistency in the virtual world than you would meet out on the street.

(On Neal Stephenson's "Street" in _Snow Crash_ there is great variety, but the places you enter are selling themselves, so they need a constant self to sell (though granted that here or there what they sell might be a deliberately broken self). )

Computers offer many things depending on the form of life that surrounds them.

Ours is not the computer age but the digital age, and the key seems to be, as Richard Lanham says, transformability, that the same sequence of bits can be used as sound, visual, or text, and so on, while those bits themselves can't be "presented" or "represented" as information "as they are in themselves." There won't be so many single canonical expressions (this is "the" text). That needn't end 'realism' any more than multiple modes of language and complex analogical models ended realism in the middle ages and the Renaissance. But it does end a certain "fundamentalist" or "puritanical" sort of realism.

But I don't think either the realism or what might enlarge it are due to technology in any simple way. Marx would say that the technology is being carried/driven by something other than itself. I think he's right, though it is also the case that new tech introduces new unexpected possibilities. But then we have to ask why some possibilities are immediately realized, and why these rather than those among the new.

Here's an example I think is instructive, but I forget where I read it. Recall Edison's original wind-up phonograph, which used wax cylinders and needle and a diaphragm with a big metal horn. (The dog is optional.) There is no electricity in that machine; it is made of shaped metal; there is nothing in that machine that is out of the technological reach of the Greeks or Romans or the ancient Chinese. That technology for recording sound was "available" and "possible" millennia ago. But no one even thought of trying to make a machine to record sound. The goal didn't occur to anyone. (It didn't occur directly to Edison at first; he was trying to make a machine to record telegraph messages, and noticed that when run too fast by accident the machine made sounds, and then he thought of the possible new goal of recording sound, but he had little idea of the changes it would make possible in society.)

That machine is an example of a technology coming about and opening up more than its inventor or early users dreamed. But it was not the technology by itself that did that. There was popular interest in music, the capitalist system, and mass distribution already available as a social form (in newspapers), and various interests in recording speeches, and recording data about people, and so on. If the machine had been built in Rome or China it would presumably have had very different social effects (especially since the tech to electrify the apparatus would not have been available, but remember how wide-spread the Edison phonographs became even without electricity, as well as the growth of the market in recordings made for that machine.)

So it seems misleading to talk of technology as an agent in its own right.

David Kolb

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