A Question for May 11th Convivium

The process by which a Question emerges is perennially fascinating to me. This week it began with this on the current yellow pad:

Looking back over the last 50 or so years,what really changed your life, and took it in a new direction? What seem to have been watershed moments or events? Might be an innovation, might be a realization, might be an encounter with a person who stopped your world...
For myself, it occurred to me that one candidate would be hypertext (the medium in which you're reading this), in the burgeoning context of my entanglement with computers. Hypertext changed how I thought about and pursued writing and scholarship, and welded me ever more firmly to the armature of the computer, a story/process worth exploring further (in my own inimitable Narrative fashion).

My Question-spawning process is often colored by whatever I happen to be reading at the time, and this week N. Katherine Hayles' Postprint: Books and Becoming Computational (2021) has been one of several. She floats the idea of cognitive assemblages as a framework for exploring how computers have changed our lives, and turned us into cyborgs ('cybernetic organisms') of a sort:

all cognitive processes depend on material processes, such as chemical reactions, that are not cognitive in themselves because they do not perform interpretations, make choices or selections, or create meanings. It took the spark of life to activate those possibilities, and it took millions of years more for that spark to evolve into life-forms capable of creating similar cognitive possibilities in artificial media...

As far I know, no computational media are conscious. Nevertheless, like nonconscious organisms, computers have internal and external milieus: they process and interpret information, including information from sensors and actuators when these things are present, and they create meanings in the sense of performing behaviors that have efficacy within their environments...

the extension of human cognition through computational media has been and in all likelihood will continue to be a major driver in human evolution now and in the foreseeable future. Human cognition no longer relies solely on the glacial pace of biological evolution but now proceeds through the exponentially faster processes of cyber-bio-evolution, where evolution through generational change is measured in months rather than in hundreds of thousands of years...

interpretations and meaning-making practices circulate through transindividual collectivities created by fluctuating and dynamic interconnections between humans and computational media, interconnections that I call cognitive assemblages. Much of the world's work in developed societies is increasingly done through cognitive assemblages...

Much of the infrastructure of developed societies already incorporates and completely depends on cognitive technologies, including electrical grids, communication networks, currency and monetary exchanges, transportation vehicles in all their forms, and so forth. In fact, I will make the bold claim that daily life in developed societies can proceed in normal fashion only because of the incorporation of cognitive assemblages, without which crucial infrastructural systems simply would not function. (pp 7-8, 12)

So with that background, here's the Question as it has evolved:
Consider what differences computers have made in life and how you live it. Where have they touched, and not touched? To what degree and in what realms have you become a cyborg, entwined with (dependent upon) the work of microprocessors? Just how have these machines invaded (enriched, augmented, corrupted...) your life?


My own computer entanglement has probably been longer than that of other Conviviants (dating from 1952, when brother John had a work-study job INSIDE MIT's computer, changing burnt-out vacuum tubes) and has probably affected/infested more domains of life. I've been aware of being active as a functioning cyborg since my first PC (a TI-Pro) in 1984 ...and of the prospect of becoming a cyborg since the late 60s (when brother-in-law-in-law Steve Butterfield showed us email on the brand-new ARPANet interwebs), and even more so upon reading William Gibson's Neuromancer and the stories that preceded it (in which cyberspace was instantiated as "a consensual hallucination"). While I happily and constantly use dead-tree technology, pretty much everything I've been up to in the last 30 years has been inflected by the affordances of microprocessors. I am, in N. Katherine Hayles' words, a participant in multiple cognitive assemblages, a composite of organic, digital, and superorganic (the lattermost includes consciousness, and resides who-knows-where). A chronological list of books sketches a sequence of thoughts and attempts at understanding. To see an example of the building of a cognitive assemblage for a particular purpose, in this case remotely controlling a camera, check out Vadim K. Riez.

If I ask when I noticed that EVERYTHING had changed in my relations with computers, I come up with an again-and-again list, each entry a story in itself:

  1. 1962 work for Bob Textor, just being around IBM cards and their algorithmic management
  2. 1969 Steve Butterfield and ARPANet email
  3. March 1984: began using the TI-Pro, for texts and to make maps. Changed my life in a day, became the platform for my teaching and the beginning of computer writing
  4. ca. 1987 learned about HyperCard, started to explore linked and allusive writing
  5. 1990 Mac SE30: HyperCard multimedia Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments
  6. 1991 the WELL, conversation and community via modem
  7. 1992 Gopher and controlling message to audience (presentation to the Virginia Library Association May 1994); followed by a decade of WorldWideWeb development at W&L
  8. 1998 ESRI and GIS: making maps to illuminate data
  9. 1999 log files ==> blogging
  10. 2000 Napster, etc. ==> sound and images augmenting text
  11. 2004 podcasting explored
  12. 2005 Ruminations on Infospace
  13. 2009 digital photography
  14. 2015 50th Class Report summary

It's worth reminding ourselves that 'computing' in the 1970s was mostly mainframe and mini computers, nothing "personal" about it, and I didn't have occasion or opportunity to explore the emerging possibilities until a 1979-80 sabbatical at Stanford. In the 1980s I incorporated computers into my teaching in various ways, but there was no WorldWideWeb, and very little that escaped the desktop. My main context for computer engagement after January 1991 was libraries, and my initial appointment at W&L was "Coordinator of Bibliographic Instruction". John Doyle's implementation of Gopher was the wind beneath my wings... and pointed me outward, beyond library walls and toward the building of Information Spaces. The basic idea of sharing, of expanding access, was at the core, and was enticing to librarians as custodians of Information, and gatekeepers to the vastnesses of stored information in multiple forms. But librarians were primarily oriented to their traditional role of serving "patrons", and not as interested in the creation of publicly-available documents and resources; and most professors were uninterested in experimenting with new media in their teaching. Nobody at W&L was as enthused as I was about the glorious prospects for the transformation of teaching and learning via computers and hypertext. In 2005 it was time to retire.

I moved my digital presence to oook.info and moved the physical body (and its plentiful stuff) to St. George, and after several years of struggle with the Windows environment I'd been using in Virginia I returned to the Macintosh platform, with its atmosphere of welcome for the domains of graphics and sound that I meant to explore. It doesn't take long for the Mac to feel like a digital prosthesis, the place to go to find the tools of my everyday life: Flickr and YouTube and Wikipedia and Google and RSS and Spotify were and have remained my primary tools, and the move to digital photography breathed new vitality into a long-running interest in the visual.

Smartphones, e-books, and the iPad have been game-changing affordances of the last 15+ years, such that I'm rarely far from computers in their various form factors, and in many senses I'm dependent on them. Or is it addicted to? You decide...

As for output, oook.info leads to pretty much everything. The blog ( oook.info/blog/ ) is as close as I get to public commentary. YouTube and Blurb have been distribution platforms for my creations, with the paradox (or is it a conundrum?) that I don't much care about recognition. As with blog posts and weblets like oook.info/Conviv/, and photographic explorations, and my own music, the pleasure of creation is enough reason to work on projects as they come along. None of this would be possible or even conceivable without the entanglement with computers. So yeah, pleased to identify as a cyborg, in a pretty much harmless sense. Managing Information (in its various guises) and learning new stuff (in its various guises) have been my main activities for pretty much all my life. What would I do, else? Take up golf... seek out community...

As for Community, Skype and Zoom have become essential tools for communication; and texting, and still for us old folk, e-mail. And I use Patreon to support people and projects I admire. BUT I have eschewed most "social media" from their beginnings. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. are an affront to what we Mouldy Figs think of as the frustrated promise of the the web as it seemed before The Fall of being overwhelmed by .com (cue George Booth cartoon of a grouchy old dude on his porch).

musical interlude

Despite the Figgism that sometimes appears, I continue to be adventurous in navigating new possibilities, and continuing to build things in Web space. A primary focus in recent years has been Rudy Rucker's concept of the Lifebox—in essence a personal catalog of one's doings, the building of which is something of a geas ("an obligation or prohibition magically imposed on a person") or maybe a compulsion. Or a sly exculpation...

There are people out there exploring in realms I know I'm not going to venture into, like Virtual Reality and Meta-like spaces. What are those immersions going to do to them?


In case this plea for the emergent cyborg seems forced, consider the cognitive assemblage[s] involved in digital photography, and how different image-making now is from the mechanical and photochemical processes that produced the vast number of images in my photobook library. The final images in our gallery shows are ALL from digital cameras, and the subjects captured in the visual computers that our cameras have become are further mediated through very complex software to produce the final results, as realized and stored and distributed by Flickr as digital images—and further mediated to produce the metal and fabric end products that hang on gallery walls. These images could not exist without computers (hence the salience of Alvy Ray Smith's Biography of the Pixel). This is not an instance of a mechanization of the human mind and its perceptual powers, but an emergent example of the mutualism of human and computer capabilities, which we affect to control... The increasing complexity of the relationship of /human/ and /machine/ changes the nature and content of the resultant imagery, and moves us into new territory (e.g., the imagery from remote sensing).

As 3Mustaphas3 were prone to saying:

Forward in All Directions!