Thursday, August 31, 2006

Universes in Cyberspace

I know some ecologically minded people who shun computers. But here is this blog and I advocate sustainability through my blog. There is the argument that computers keep people away from each other. And to some extent that is true. It's easy to spend time on a computer and you can be connected to people through a discussion forum or whatever - but it is not the same sort of connection as real life.

For some of us - it's easier to express our opinions are online. And it can be easier to find people who share opinions. And it's certainly easier to find information. But it seems worth questioning whether in the long run - the cyber world hurts us more than it helps. Balance is always a good thing.

These types of considerations come into play with what media that I choose to be creative with. I like using actual paints and things like sand and grit and other textures. It's nice to use actual stuff - instead of pixels. I know all about pixels and megabytes and gigabytes and online programs that simulate painting and all of that. But there is nothing tactile - it's all about the screen.

The artwork that I do can be reproduced into pixels. But then there is only the illusion of texture. And I do think that that is a loss for the eye and for the mind and senses. It is probably no accident that the trend in artwork has been to become more textural in this flat screen world of ours.

The following is from a book review of Let Them Eat Data: How Computers Affect Education, Cultural Diversity, and the Prospects of Ecological Sustainability by C.A.Bowers. (It's from 2001) ->

Cyberspace is not limited by the context of natural laws, as Joseph Weizenbaum points out:

An engineer is inextricably impacted in the material world. His creativity is defined by laws; he may, finally, do only what may lawfully be done. The computer programmer, however, is a creator of universes for which he alone is the lawgiver. . . .
Universes of virtually unlimited complexity can be created in the form of computer programs. Moreover, and this is a crucial point, systems so formulated and elaborated act out their programmed scripts. They compliantly obey their laws and vividly exhibit their obedient behavior. . . .he corruption evoked by the computer programmer's omnipotence manifests itself in a form that is instructive in a domain far larger than the immediate environment of the computer. (1976, p. 115)

Other testimony could be given, and it seems as though there is a chorus of voices supporting the idea that the experience of a computer, with its total subjection to the individual will, reinforces this particular attitude of individual supremacy. Thus, Bowers's description of the attitudes reinforced by computer use, and the methods he uses to explain this process of reinforcement, both seem supportable.

But why would these attitudes be troubling to those concerned about ecological sustainability? Bowers answers this question in his third chapter by arguing that the experience of computers is the replacement of “local knowledge” with data. He writes, “To digitize thought and aesthetic expression is to abstract them from their multilayered cultural and ecological contexts” (54). In contrast, ecological sustainability demands an intimate knowledge of context — a knowledge of place and of the culture that has learned to live in that place. The abstract computational impulse works against local knowledge, that is, against personal familiarity with a place's streams, grasses, soil, trees, weather. This is the knowledge that becomes vital in directing responsible human activity, such as intelligently situating a house, sewing crops, and preserving plant and animal diversity.

Bowers continues:
Knowledge of place, when it is deeply embedded in personal experience and understood as an intergenerational responsibility, also includes knowing who were the earlier inhabitants, their technology and economy, and the mythopoetic narratives at the base of their moral community. It also involves knowledge of immediate ancestors and what they learned or failed to learn as they build their community on the moral and conceptual baggage they brought with them in their immigration. We receive this knowledge through stories of their previous experiences with the land. (p. 64)


As far as people circumventing natural laws - or having that illusion - that's been going on for a long time (before computers). I don't think it's the illusion that people can "create worlds" of one sort or another that is the problem. But the attitude that people don't need this one that we are living on and dependent on. I think that the attitude - the appreciation of our world can be encouraged through cyberspace as effectively as anywhere. And there is certainly the possibility of reaching more people - for most of us. (Though it's good to get out and garden and see people also).

The truth of the matter may be as basic that electricity is not sustainable - along with our entire lifestyle. That would, of course, include all that is computers. And this blog.

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