Geert Lovink on Mon, 17 Jun 96 14:05 MDT

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nettime: adilkno's wetware text

Hardware, Software, Wetware
By Adilkno
(The Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge)

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

   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 civilization 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.
   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 characterized by the conditioning of the body
on 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 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 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 a sojourn into electronic space could have.

    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
bonus known as the data glove. 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. Analagous 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 of the reclamation politics which are
spreading the New Order worldwide. 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 realized under Cold War relations, causes a
potential adjustment static in the introduction phase of digital
hegemony which is combatted by an aerodynamic exercise program. The
motorized Citybike as a fashion is an integral component of data
policy, and isn't ridden by health devotees in fluorescent spacesuits
for not- hing. 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. The
subsidy tap to them symbolizes 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, or
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.

   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 charac- ter
traits which have become European hallmarks. This is the lot which the
Europeans, after so many blunders in this twen- tieth 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 synthesizer without experimental

   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 as well.
If it's up to wetware, submission to the machines, as predicted by
Orwell in 1984, need not be so dramatically represented. It need not
result in slavish submission, for wetware has a secret weapon up its
sleeve: its human, all too human, traits. The nickname "wetware" is an
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 soft- ware, 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. 
   Acknowledgment 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 fasci- nated and is not so
quick to criticize 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. The new technologies cunningly present themsel- ves in the
form of fashion and then fade into obscurity. This has recently
happened with Minitel, video phones 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 suck on wetware like no
other 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 titil- lation, 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 and returns
to its own "tele-existence" as a "human bug". This is the instant at
which wetware actually appears as a 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
recognizes 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.
   After the presentation of VR a Babylonian misunderstanding arose
over what the consequences of this next techno revolution would be. The
first report: the cyberpunk world portrayed by William Gibson would
come true. Succeeding reports told us that the matrix a 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 gotten the chance to wear the VR helmet and the data glove,
could not squelch the hype. By publicly distancing himself from the
evangelization 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 the
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 homemade projects.
On the Electronic Frontier big capital and military interests silently
recede into the background.
   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 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 dimen- sion 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 manouevres 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.


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