Katie McGowan
Aesthetics of Interactive Design: David Parisi
Response Paper: July 3, 200

Peters traces the history of the term “information” – and reflects on four critical stages of its development – from hylomorphism, to empiricism, to statistics, and finally, to modern computing.  “A term that does not like history”, information has gradually changed meaning, and has greatly affected societies’ concepts of embodiment of form, meaning, and communication (Peters 10).   At the crux of the word, comes simply the roots of these terms – in and form – both which Peters examines at some length in relationship to modern philosophical thought.  Munster, on the other hand, examines how modern computing aesthetics need to be examined on the account and speed with which information is “constantly updating and transforming itself” (151).  One can draw parallels to both authors on account of their concern for the embodiment of communicative form, known as “information”.

During the late Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas introduced information as a means towards ordering the universe, or in other words, giving form to (informing) the matter that surrounds us with identity (Peters 10).   Known as hylomorphism, this concept was drastically different than current means of understanding “information”.    In this case, information gives life to, or animates, matter and objects outside of ourselves.  But during the 16 th and 17th Centuries, thinkers such as Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Locke shifted the discussion of the external universe of forms toward that of the forms within ones mind.

“Cogito ergo sum”, coined by Descartes, translated as “I think, therefore, I am” helped shift the discourse from the external existence of objects outside of oneself – internally.   Now more than ever, as Munster claims, “the machine is more intimately… an arranger of our perceptual apparatus”, and we are tasked with examining Cartesian philosophy of embodied forms, in which the act of thinking has been so influenced by the digital form (151).  She claims while we ourselves, through digital connectivity and closer proximity, are becoming more socially and politically dependant of others – we are similarly accessing this connection in solitude.

But Peters traces how we went from this external/internal world paradigm.  As the world became a world of nation-states, as bureaucracies developed, modern Western thinkers like Hume began to move away from the external noise of the world towards one where the mind became the focus for order.   Known as empiricism, the discourse on information shifted from forming or shaping objects and matter towards making sense of our perceptual senses, or ones own consciousness (13). Furthermore, as information became more of a way of making sense of our own internal worlds, through empiricism, statistics became a way of making sense of the political world surrounding us.

During the same period, Emmanuel Kant’s Critique, introduced aesthetics as “the science of the beautiful”, expanding the Platonic definition of aesthetics as forms and mimesis to include “the logical and the perceptual” (Fishwick 4).   So, aesthetics and information become, over time, an interconnected relation to form, logic, and perception, making computer aesthetics, or information aesthetics, central to the discourse on human interaction and sensual perception.

“Statistics offer a kind of gnosis, a mystic transcendence of
individuality, a tasting of the forbidden fruit of knowledge.” (Peters 15)

Information, during this important historical shift, “refers to the possible experience of no body” (Peters 15).  As computers become the direct result of statistics and the formation of modern-nation states, the more disembodied becomes our interpersonal communication, which is replaced by an embodied medium that takes on an ethological quality (Peters 15, Munster 152).  As the Industrial Revolution began to shift tasks towards machines, the mind became further alienated from information.  This human-to-information alienation continued as the computer machine developed.  The Industrial Revolution saw a direct aesthetic mimesis of the human mind through information technology and development of machines.   Vannevar Bush presciently saw the scientific application of the computing machine as means of collecting, storing, and sharing the human experience in ways that would significantly advance the progress of society and nation-states.   To Bush, with logic, math, databasing, and codes, the “memex” machine would act as “an enlarged intimate supplement to his [man’s] memory” (45). At the same time, computer information removed itself from all aspects of sensory perceptions or feelings, and merely became “a network with discrete interconnected nodes” (Murray 9). Such anthropomorphic attribution to a machine begs the question brought forth by writers like Munster, Manovich, and Vesna – who are we in light of a newly embodied medium and how do we relate to it?

Licklider laid claim to an interdependent relationship between the man and machine, or symbiosis, where one cannot function without the other (74).  The “symbiotic” relationship works towards the benefit and utilizes the strengths of each other.  A computer will perform the complicated algorithms and logic that would take days for a human to solve, and a human will function as the decision maker, motivated by an end goal (77).   Over time, Licklider predicted, it would be impossible to separate the two, and does not seem at all inaccurate a prediction, as I type on my computer for my online course before e-mailing it to my professor.  Other than the obvious (a class using computers to talk about interactive technology), would the class enrollment be the same were the online option not available to the students, some of which are located all across the country?

While the capacity for increasing this network of information grew, as Licklider and Bush predicted, computers began to expand out from science and technology towards humanities and the arts (Murray 10).  Such engagement from these communities has led towards both design and interactive oriented programs that reflect the aesthetics of both old and new mediums, ones that have both made the transition from forms more acceptable and worth examining through aesthetics.

When reflecting on the Visible Human Project, Vesna sees how technology can significantly improve the understanding of human anatomy.   But she also sees how this emphasis on “information” gathering further disembodies us from the sensual aesthetic of feeling and understanding our own bodies (7).   Humans are no longer feeling or beings with consciousness, but stored and sorted information, in the modern computerized sense that Peters refers to and Bush and Licklider advocate.  Everything that identifies “me” is codified, stored, accessed, and detached from emotional human experience.

The human relationship to information and knowledge has shifted from a curated and subjective narrative (like a museum whose contents are stored in the ether) towards one that erodes the form into its more basic objective and less connected paradigm (Vesna 29, Manovich 49).  Like the problem faced by empiricists and statisticians, computers seek ways to make order and meaning out of the vast amounts of information readily accessible to human thought, a place where the interactive aesthetic of the computer becomes extremely significant. Aesthetic attempts to build a psychological narrative adjunct to information on the computer are attributed to human dissatisfaction with the computer’s encyclopedic essence (Manovich 54).

No longer does the Vannevar Bush form of computing for scientific gain hold all the water. Enter humanists and artists, who begin to explore and expose ways in which the psychological and aesthetic relationship between human and computer are formalized.  For example, Munster sees Graham Harwood’s Uncomfortable Proximities as releasing “momentary flashes of astonishment, discomfort, and squeamishness by mobilizing the capacities of digital technologies to forge extreme juxtapositions, unbearable proximities and unspeakable intimacies” (155), thereby challenging digital mediums as being strictly neutral spaces to hold information (157).   Harwood and other digital artists, like Carnivore PE, are repoliticizing and rearranging alienated distances between information spaces and their participants (Munster 156).

While Harwood attempts to expose uncomfortable distances between a participant and a digital medium, Krueger seeks to build more virtual landscapes that establish working relationships between what the participant and digital piece.   Krueger’s virtual worlds invoke what he describes as “dialogue…a personal amplifier…an environment… a game” and “an experimental parable” which can be used towards improving cognition and learning, participating in art, psychotherapy, among other relationships (386 – 389).   Krueger seeks the aesthetic benefits of interactive digital environments in which “the computer should perceive as much as possible… the participant’s behavior” in order for a meaningful “responsive environment” (379).  These aesthetic benefits, however, are more often seen today for commercial, not artistic, purposes, and have resulted in a critical introspection towards a creation of work that has cultural and meaningful implications (378).  Still, artificial intelligence, like Google’s AdSense programs, prove how computing technology’s ability to perceive behavior is not always meaningful or culturally advantageous, only promoting consumer culture, and disembodied communication with algorithm technologies.

Despite the structure of computers privileging database and algorithmic form, humans seek cinematic and narrative landscapes (Manovich 46).  Interactive designers understand this paradigm, by creating human-computer interfaces that reflect and mimic human desire and processes.   From the basic word processing functions of typing an essay, to more “direct manipulation” programming that Shneiderman speaks of, like Photoshop or a computer game, interfaces are constantly revising and rewriting forms that use aesthetics to connect to humans (485). These interface programs employ aesthetic conventions like, “presence, engagement, and immersion which facilitate human sensory connection to otherwise invisible information, or information that has minimal sensory qualities” (Fishwick 8).

Expanding on Fishwick, three components of aesthetics – modality, culture, and quality –he applies to computers.  In that order, these components mean the “ways in which we interface and interact with objects… specific artists, art movements, and genres” and finally hold “qualities such as mimesis, symmetry, complexity, parsimony, minimalism, and beauty” (Fishwick 13).  So, whether it is a concern for the historical foundation of the term “information”, as Peters examines, the ways in which artists are using the digital medium as influenced by art movements – as Vesna, Manovich, and Munster describe – or the forms with which interactive technologies mimic or relate to humans, as Krueger saw in the virtual environments, each examines these relationships to new media through a historical aesthetic lens.   The humanists and artists in a new media sphere are beginning to examine the world that technology minded thinkers like Bush, Licklider, and Krueger predicted.  In doing so, new mediums and aesthetics are being formed, and classical concepts like embodiment, form, information, art and beauty are being transformed.

Works Cited

“Cogito ergo sum.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 25 Jun 2009, 05:27 UTC. 25 Jun 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cogito_ergo_sum&oldid=298504641&gt;.

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think” The New Media Reader. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003) 35 – 47.

Fishwick, Paul. “An Introduction to Aesthetic Computing.” cisnet.mit.edu

Krueger, Myron W. “Responsive Environments” The New Media Reader Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003) 379 – 389.

Licklider, J.C.R. “Man-Computer Symbiosis” The New Media Reader Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003) 73 – 82.

Manovich, Lev. “Database as Symbolic Form.” Vesna, Victoria ed. Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

Munster, Anna. Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2006).

Peters, John Durham. “Information: Notes Towards a Critical History.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 1988 12; 9-23.

Shneiderman, Ben. “Direct Manipulation: A Step Beyond Programming Languages” The New Media Reader Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003) 485 – 498.

Vesna, Victoria.  “Seeing the World in a Grain of Sand.” Vesna, Victoria ed. Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).