Informatics: how nice it is to be a writer today

Sometimes there are those moments in life when you can’t help but have a little laugh at yourself. That happened to me this afternoon when a friend texted to ask what I was up to and I answered, with complete sincerity, that I was alternating researching salamanders and reading a book about the science of face perception. It’s days like this which remind me how much I enjoy being a writer.

I spent this morning in the library, working from Donna Haraway’s seminal 1991 essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’. Here’s her definition of cyborg from the opening of the essay: A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. The essay goes on to discuss the re-understanding of the world according to a cybernetic vocabulary (what Haraway calls ‘The Informatics of Domination’), and the potential this holds for a reappraisal of viewpoints which rely on traditional binaries. The impression it made on me was that rather than seeing the cyborgisation of humanity  as a threat, Haraway sees it as a rich site of potential to move away from definitions to affinities: a more fluid understanding of what unites rather than what separates. Existing control strategies will be re-envisaged through the metaphor of coding, with the emphasis on communication remaining the central aspect of society (communication of information, of power, of finances, of education, of data…). Another idea I particularly liked was ‘biology as cryptography’.

In more abstract terms, I found the essay helpful for the light it shed on a cyborg’s view of reproductive aspirations, or lack thereof. By defining cyborgs as simulacras (copies without originals), Haraway made me think in more details about the need for GIL to have predecessors. Then I read this sentence: The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust. Firstly, that’s something I fundamentally disagree with: as a machine/organism hybrid, part of the cyborg is ‘mud’. Otherwise it would be all machine. But do cyborgs dream? I’ve thinking that perhaps they don’t — up until a certain point. So I’m planning to introduce previous versions of GIL (Genetically Informed Lifeware)- the non-genetic systems used to build him. In other words, the robots which preceded the cyborg. Taking from Haraway’s Garden of Eden metaphor, I’m calling them ADAM1/2/3/4/5/etc. Collectively known as the ADAMS: Amorphous DAta Management Systems.. Yes, that is an intentional reference to my own surname.

Following my own flight of fancy, I began to wonder what organic matter GIL would be created from. Since this isn’t a horror film, I’m not looking for the ‘animal’ side of the experiment to suddenly unleash some terrible power and attempt to devour the world: attributes rather than ‘personality’. I already knew I didn’t want it to be human stem cells (wrong kind of controversy), so I’d been thinking plant matter. That was the focus of today’s dialogue sketching between Ada and GIL, and what came up at the end was the salamander. A quick google later, and I was delighted to discover that the salamander is the only vertebrate with the ability to regenerate missing body parts. Not only useful, but potentially cost-effective when developing an expensive prototype. Haraway’s essay touched on the military aspects of cyborg development, and I think that’s something that’ll also need to be addressed in the storyline. Most new technologies come from military-funded research, as I understand it; leading first into medical, then into commercial application.

Reading up on salamanders this afternoon, various bits of information came up about their respiratory systems (valerian respiration — breathing through their skins) and their ability to  detect changes in water pressure (proud owners of a lateral line organ — which can also function as an electroreceptor). This all feeds into the idea I’ve been developing that GIL ‘breathes’ the (processed) data in the Informatics Forum. For me, it was one of those very satisfying  moments when everything clicks into place.

When not researching salamanders, I was reading In The Eye of the Beholder: The Science of Face Perception by Vicki Bruce and Andy Young. The book was written to accompany an exhibition on ‘The Science of the Face’ held at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in the late 1990s.I was mainly looking at chapter 7 (the neuroscience of face perception), but i found the layman’s descriptions a reassuring change from some of the more theory-heavy, specialised books (specialisms outside my comprehension most of the time) I’ve been reading recently, so I had a skim through the other chapters and at some point (that magical time in the future known as ‘free time’) I’d like to revisit them. That was research for the monologues for the Puffersphere experiments. Seeding, more than anything else, and building on the ideas discussed with Jon last week.

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