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Mediamatic Magazine 7#1

winter 1992

The 1/O issue: Hardware Software Wetware

According to Adilkno, the human being is no longer an individual in the digital era, but wetware, a 'wet bag' hanging on the machine. Coupled to hard and software, the mind voyages while the body remains behind. But Adilkno perceives no slavish subjection to technology:
the all-too-human can always short-circuit

If someone wants to talk about a New World Order without taking virtual reality into consideration, they'd better keep quiet.
John Sasher

Contact between the wet and the dry is a risky business, fraught with dangers. In practice these vary from a glass of juice in the toaster, a finger in an electric socket, a burst water main, to the collision of swelling passions with sober incomprehension. With its thin skin, hard bones and sticky fluids, the human body can be reasonably well defined as a problematic water management system whose boundaries are fluid. This aquanomy is marked again and again by pieces of cloth and scent markers as well as equipped with colorants and an aura of ramshackle social codes. These serve to prevent personal overflows from getting out of hand and to cover up little accidents.

The closer we get to machines, the more wet zones are reclaimed. Depending on how technology approaches the body, boundaries are laid and erotic zones defined. Shifts may be read through clothing fashions, the dress of the poor wet slob who these days goes through life neatly and properly swaddled as a 'Euro-citizen'. At the end of the 20th century we see this thinking bio-pump being slung back and forth, panting and spluttering, between wet and dry, loose and fixed, fleeting and firm, intoxication and reason, static and signal, suddenly functional in the electronic environment. The watering and steaming Mensch factor has shocking effects on the machinery. The unavoidable contact between the wet finger and the keyboard has sparked a technological civilisation offensive. Economy comes down more and more to the tightest possible interweave between social structures and electronic circuits.

Until recently, sexual boundaries marked the danger zones. Because of this there had to be, for example, separate ladies' and gentlemen's fashion. This necessity has disappeared, and power is reaching for other means of styling fears and desires, while changing form itself. Fascist power was once a bulwark of sexual metaphors, which could be reduced to one's own firm soil and pure, flowing blood. Divisions on grounds of sex and race were intended to destroy hybrids, and had political and military consequences.

Space Suit

The antifascist Cold War, which followed, lasted long enough for racist and sexist thinking to bleed to death. The body politics of this era, now over, were characterised by the conditioning of the body to the new machines, which were no longer driven mechanically but electronically.

Space travel furnished the basic model for electronic clothing, which, like power itself, has its attractive side as well as its frightening one. The first astronauts were animals, plastered with electrodes to register the reactions of the biological water management system. The futuristic spacesuit, in contrast, glittered and shone as a prototype of the electronic New Order. The cosmic costume withstood the new dangerous conditions and came out shining, offered freedom of movement, provided protection, and guaranteed communication besides. This required a retraining of the body, which no longer came under the regime of religion or politics, but under the supervision of science. Extraterrestrial space travel, it turned out, was not an invention, which would become available to the consumer after a developmental phase, but an experiment to test the body's reactions in an electronic situation under extreme conditions. Here, too, the clothing was not only outward show but also dressage, and made it clear to the world population via the media what it means to be connected to a computer. The extraordinary quality of this superhuman performance in extraterrestrial space convinced humanity, the folks left at home, of the resounding success such a sojourn into electronic space could have.

Data Suit

After the explosion of the Challenger and the end of the dream of space, the way was made clear for ordinary mass production of the spacesuit. It has been redubbed the datasuit, with an introductory offer known as the dataglove. This awkward outfit provides the data worker with a fascinating going-out costume, with which he can dress up any location with any identity. It lets him get acquainted in a pleasant and noncommittal way with the new power type of the New Order. The premises of this are as follows: as commuter traffic dissolves and national borders blur, we are entering a clean, dust-free, sterile, medicinal space, which generates its own conception of dirt. Analogous to the danger zones in the era of sexual power, the thing now is the banishment of threats to the electronic condition. Classics like narcotic drugs, stupefying liquors and suffocating hazes of smoke appear as hot items in the reclamation politics which are spreading the New Order world-wide. This politics demands a strict anti-intoxication diet, if you want to ascend into hallucinogenic dataspace. Otherwise you'll lose the necessary concentration, and produce static.

What's new about the electronic condition is the sitting still and the minimalization of biomechanical labour. This fundamental modification in the human water condition, which just like the Delta Plan could only have been realised under Cold War relations, causes a potential adjustment static in the introductory phase of digital hegemony, which is combatted by an aerodynamic exercise program. The motorised Citybike as a fashion is an integral component of data policy, and isn't ridden by health devotees in fluorescent spacesuits for nothing. Unlike the profligate yuppies of the 80s, the Euro-citizens of the 90s strive for total moderation: of their own nutritional and media diet as well as in government spending. To them, the subsidy tap symbolises waste, in flagrant contradiction to their recycling mania and investment sense.

These cosy cocooners enjoy the freedom to stay at home and their greatest concern is the data roof over their heads. Refugees, who can't be traced in the files, are supposed to stay in their own area, otherwise the un and the ec with their developmental armies will lend them a helping hand. If you people don't want any humanitarian aid, we'll shoot. The underlying motive for this military intervention is making global connections, which span the globe like a metastructure, healthy. To facilitate further expansion and innovation, those who are switched-off and dataless must keep quiet and stay in their own places. If necessary their ghettos and their written-off social wastelands are sealed shut by electronic security.

European Hallmarks

Hardware, software, wetware are the three forms which the human/machine can take in the era of the New World Order. This trinity possesses its own geographical and historical coordinates. The hardware on which we play out all our culture and communication comes from Japan. The programs which make it possible for us to read, see and hear all this precious data come from the United States. And finally, the role of Europe is to deliver the necessary cultural products for shipment. Wetware's task is to cough up culture, which will be run on the Japanese hardware with the help of American software. In this international division of labour, what is expected of Europe is that she properly administer the legacy of Bach and Beethoven, maintain the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, and extend the Shakespeare-through-Beckett theatre tradition into the future. This is just as true for the media art, which has appeared over the last few decades. The Europeans must figure out what things of beauty can be coaxed out of all this new equipment, for there is little pleasure to be derived from the functional use of the technology. Art is only charmed into being when the equipment is connected to the history of art, to philosophy and literature and those typically human character traits, which have become European hallmarks. This is the lot which the Europeans, after so many blunders in this twentieth century, have called down upon themselves. Wetware means that we are condemned to making culture, which avails itself of technical tools, which have been designed by others. This need not be a subordinate position. On the contrary: a great deal is expected of us! What, after all, is a laptop computer with a word-processing program without all the wonderful stories that are written on it? Or a synthesiser without experimental compositions?

Human Remnant

Wetware is a body attached to machines. Wetware means that we have long been connected to the machines surrounding us; something which, as in the case of television, affords us a great deal of pleasure. If it's up to wetware, submission to the machines, as predicted by Orwell's 1984, need not be so dramatically represented. It need not result in slavish submission, for wetware has a secret weapon up its sleeve: its (all too) human traits. The nickname 'wetware' is a homage to the do-it-yourselfer who tries to make the best of things but always forgets the instructions. Flaws are deployed to safeguard dignity. Through ignorance, the urge to sabotage, and unbridled creativity, technology always goes haywire; from these accidents the most beautiful freaks spring forth, and after aesthetic treatment are effortlessly declared art. To wetware the user is not a remnant or something suppressed, but a born hobbyist who can hook together any old or new media into a personal reality, where an error message is at the beginning of a long series of resounding successes.

The term wetware was coined by Rudy Rucker. He defines it as a collection of technological innovations: chips, which are implanted in the brain, organ transplants and prostheses that replace or extend bodily functions. Unlike Rucker, Adilkno considers the wetware idea not as a following phase to upset the wobbly self-image yet again after the revolutions in hard- and software, but as the 'human remnant' who stays behind as the extensions go on longer and longer trips.

At the end of the twentieth century, the autonomous individual trying to bring his gushing fears and desires into balance has come to stand in the shadow of the technological imperative. Managing or throwing open the channels appears to be dictated to a high degree on the available equipment. Wetware is conscious of this dependence and thus sees itself not as a potentate that rules over the machines, but as a watery appendage that must adjust as well as it can to the digital conditions of electronic data traffic.

Acknowledgement of the technological a priori should not be confused with the hype, which always arises when a new system comes on the market. The buzz generated by the new equipment creates an amnesia that results in a familiar pattern: the short-term effects of a technology are overestimated, while the long-term effects are given short shrift. It is characteristic of wetware to soak in a bubble bath of simulacra, and lose sight of the military prehistory of communications technology and of the nefarious plans being hatched by technocrats and marketing divisions. Wetware lets itself be easily fascinated and is not so quick to criticise when something new presents itself. We have become accustomed to the continual introduction of new products and techniques. A cycle is slowly becoming apparent: after a phase of rumours and spectacular presentations, the first lucky few get to show off the gadgets, and critics have a free-for-all. Only then can there be acceptance by society and a market large enough for capital to be interested.

Virtual Reality

The new technologies cunningly present themselves in the form of fashion and then fade into obscurity. This has recently happened with Minitel, videophones and mind machines. At the moment it is 'virtual reality's' turn to make technological dreams material. Until now vr has been no more than one big flood of rumours for wetware. The global village where the techno-artists live has been turned upside down for a few years now: something big was supposed to happen...a megasystem was on its way that would nullify and engulf all media productions manufactured up to now, and suckle on wetware like no other medium before.

In the 'out-of-body' experiments conducted in high-tech laboratories, vr has been described as a doorway to other worlds. The distance between us and the screen becomes nil and we enter a 'mental environment.' vr is the ultimate human-computer interface (Rheingold) which encompasses all bodily movements and requires not even fingers nimble enough to operate a keyboard. vr (potentially) takes possession of the whole body in order to let the mind travel as far as possible. While all the senses, in the maximum state of titillation, are undertaking exhausting expeditions, the physical body remains behind in the 'non-virtual world'.

Because all vr efforts are focused on the conquest of the sixth continent, the part that stays behind is temporarily overlooked. But then the wetware factor reports back and returns to its own 'tele-existence' as a 'human bug'. This is the instant at which wetware actually takes on form. Despite hysterical stories of the instantaneous omnipresence of the zapping body in the live broadcast and the dissolution of locality as a natural milieu for the process of ego formation, the media user still stands up at regular intervals to grab a beer or take a piss.

These moments of absence from the media do not occur in the cyberspace myth. In it, the body is in fact an abandoned station, and life is tantamount to data travel and digital immortality. Wetware finds this a fascinating thought, but laughs loudly, because something always gets in the way. The wet Mensch recognises himself for the first time as an equal counterpartner to the immaterial sphere. The wetware story begins as soon as it is clear that technology cannot live with or without the human.

Cyberspace

After the presentation of vr, a Babylonian misunderstanding arose over what the consequences of this next techno-revolution would be. The first report: that the cyberpunk world portrayed by William Gibson would come true. Succeeding reports told us that the matrix à la Gibson, where the most intense hallucinations could be had, was still fiction: virtual reality in its infancy was nothing but a simple computer animation of a building or landscape in which you could rather jerkily look around. But even this disillusionment, which was reserved for the few who had got the chance to wear the vr helmet and the dataglove, could not squelch the hype. By publicly distancing himself from the evangelising of Timothy Leary and other electronic cowboys of the vr business, Gibson narrowly prevented his term 'cyberspace' from being tacked onto assorted carnival attractions. By Gibson's definition, cyberspace is more a neo-space where social fiction about human and machine unfolds than the name of a new technology. The first commercial applications were simply much too clean for the sopping cyberpunks.

The first vr systems are already in operation on Wall Street, in the arcades of the amusement industry, in medical laboratories, in architects' offices and at nasa. These are not especially places where techno-artists, hackers and cyberpunks tend to have admittance. Thus, for wetware vr remains no more than a fleeting item about which exciting science fiction and hefty volumes are written and critical documentaries are aired. So far the public market is nowhere to be found.

To reassure the folks in the street, John Barlow, head of the consumers' association Electronic Frontier Foundation, has proposed to stretch the definition of vr and bring it closer to the people by defining already existing electronic data traffic as part of cyberspace. He is trying to achieve a legal breakthrough by declaring this new imaginary zone free from copyright. Since, according to him, cyberspace is transnational, an international constitution for information ought to be drawn up.

Now that computer hackers in the United States are followed by the cia and the fbi, are slapped with hefty fines and are getting locked up, association with the world of virtual reality looks like an attractive option for hauling the hacking movement out of a repressive corner. Barlow's reasoning blames the problem on a fundamental lack of understanding about the current technological developments on the part of the authorities. Big names from the software world ought to call a halt to criminalization. But the question is how much we can expect from their end. Dreams of a great coalition between the upcoming vr giants and cyberpunks seem a bit naive. Even inside the small world of the vr pioneers, a tacky war is raging over copyrighting of the names given to the home-made projects. On the Electronic Frontier, big capital and military interests silently recede into the background.

Human Flaw

Is it wetware's task to fill vr with European Kulturgut, as Jeffrey Shaw has done in his Legible City, where he connects the Dutch bicycle to the city maps of European cities like New York and Amsterdam via vr? This classic wetware strategy turns high-tech into art again by splicing the newest medium to a quaint, ecological and sweaty means of transport. The continental approach to technology always has an eye for the funny sides of the Human Flaw. For if the human bug is not treated with respect, the buckets are poised ready to cool off the new medium. The new monsters must not be understood as a threat from outside, but made to dance in the new space. William Gibson articulated this insight in the phrase, There's weird shit happening in the matrix, and had Voodoo Loa trot through cyberspace on a horse.

A more realistic approach is the idea of virtual sex: safe as well as filthy. You have to understand the pornographic dimension of a medium to be able to make it a success. The Dutch telephone company had to conclude that its introduction of the teleconference was a flop, until this same switchboard connection on the 06-'partylines' made the wildest fantasies reality. The question immediately popped up in virtual reality too: was sex good there, and which body parts get the nicest stimulation? Wetware won't get excited about a slicker design for the personal cognitive cluster. What's important is whether mistakes can be made in virtual reality and what kind of Faustian and/or Dionysian chain reactions they cause. Culture is always the consequence of decline, decadence, clumsy manoeuvres and misconceptions. Technology must establish itself inside it, and not make out to rise above it in order to magically evoke the Higher. Only then can there be a fusion between wetware and its hard- and software.

translation LAURA MARTZ