Live Chat: Dr. Dan O’Hara on Understanding the Virtual

On Wednesday 29 June 2011, we were joined by Dr Dan O’Hara1 for a live chat, ‘Understanding the Virtual’. Dr O’Hara was one of the organisers of the original Virtual Futures conferences and now lectures in English and American Literature at the University of Cologne. The chat centred around the subject of JG Ballard, the evolution of technology and skeuomorphs.

I’m interested in the notion of the skeuomorph that you allude to. I wonder what other types of technical tendency or material intentionality you focus on. What importance do you see in the skeuomorph as opposed to other types of tendency?

I think skeuomorphs are only one very specific kind of transition or communication mechanism. And the reason they interest me specifically is because, conceptually, they’re extremely flexible, as a thinking tool, owing to their ubiquity. One can find them everywhere; but importantly for me, one can find them both in nature and in the artificial world. Hence they offer the possibility of examining evolutionary processes which are common to both the natural and the artificial.

Does this mean you see technological development in organic terms?

Hmm. Not quite; I’d shy away from seeing tech development purely in terms of the organic metaphor. But I do discern a common pattern that connects, as Gregory Bateson describes it, behind the forming of both technological artefacts and natural beings. So I wouldn’t want to say that I’m seeing technological development in organic terms, anymore than I’m seeing organic evolution in technological terms.

Can you give us some more examples of them Dan?

I think my favourite example, to begin with a form everyone knows, is the spiral, the helix. Whirlpools, tornados, conch shells all display this shape that retains its proportions, that is the result of growth. Here’s an image of some cat’s eyes, for example: the opercula of a marine snail. This form is everywhere in nature. But it also appears in artefacts. This is why, at Virtual Futures, I began with the example of the fire drill, the stick-and-rope device for making fire. When one uses a fire drill, the rope cuts a spiral into the stick; the great historian of machines, Reuleaux, thought that this was where the idea for the screw came from.

How does skeumorphism relate to the ideas of post- and trans-humanism? Do you think our bodies will once become skeumorphs?

Certainly Stelarc does! And Orlan, the French performance artist who has plastic surgery under local anaesthetic, suggests that we’re already skeuomorphic.

Is the human appendix a skeuomorph?

Already so many parts of our bodies aren’t biologically necessary. Yes. Though the appendix isn’t ornamental… But hair, nails, pierced nipples, all get used to express a style. In the same way as, in evolution, we have exaption: the repurposing of an obsolete function.

Dan, would you mind telling us how your work with JG Ballard intersects with that of skeuomorphs?

Sure. I see Ballard as the key author, philosopher even, of the age of technology. He’s always managed to live five minutes into everyone else’s futures, and has focused on the way our natural world has increasingly become a technologized domain we don’t fully understand. So skeuomorphs, as a kind of ‘memory’ capacity of artefacts, can show us the processes that guide the evolution of the forms of technology. And I feel that Ballard affirms the moral necessity of this kind of understanding.

Does that suggest to you that we are already skeuomorphs? All, mind and body?

No, we’re not. There are many linguistic skeuomorphs: take for example on line ‘newspapers’. Which is more skeuomorphic, ‘news’ or ‘paper’? I’m not sure. But language itself is not yet skeuomorphic, though if we became telepathic, we might presumably retain language, spoken and written, as ornament.

The animation in the e-version of the Metro for example? The animation representing a page turn is a skeuomorph.

Yes, that’s a great example, like the simulation of pages turning on an iPad.

Dan – you say “if we became telepathic”? Do you think in the future we will have capacity to be telepathic?

Clearly some serious experimental scientists such as Kevin Warwick are working towards a kind of cybernetic communication which might make the distinction between telepathy and technology redundant.

Perhaps the telepathic illusions fostered by technologies like Facebook/ Twitter… You think you know what people are thinking from their updates…

That’s right; to some extent we’re using technology (and it is using us) to move towards the eradication of individual identity; the ‘disappearance’ of privacy debate is perhaps a sign of the awareness of this shift.

Is there any level on which you believe some sort of telepathic link, in whatever form, exists between persons now? For example (and of most interest) identical twins?

That’s a stinker of a question…Ow. But yes, there’s some form of communication happening on occasion, though we should avoid the word telepathy. We could do with a new Carl Jung to study such phenomena from a materialist perspective.

I still don’t quite see how you link skeuomorphism will Ballard, could you elaborate on that a little more?

I’m thinking, as you ask, of what Martin Amis said of Ballard, that he ‘seems to address a different – a disused – part of the reader’s brain’. Ballard often writes of tapping into the ‘archaeopsychic zero’: the primordial self, our common corporeal memory as a species.

I wonder if there’s a relationship to be drawn between skeuomorphism and Ballard’s often very singular use of metaphor?

Not the kind of memory you have as an individual, but that which we all possess, insofar as our bodies and minds are records of our species’ evolution. To that extent, Ballard was overtly interested in skeuomorphic processes long before I’d heard of the concept.

What Jung would call “collective unconscious” then?

That’s the model Ballard used for understanding the skeuomorphic; he took the idea directly from Jung. But it wasn’t really adequate to explain the material world; sufficient for the human mind, but not for the made environment of technology.

This has similarities with Stiegler’s tertiary retention as well.

“Consciousness is thus a network of inter-connected and multi-layered circuitry, ranging from the unconscious to the history – the memory – of “culture itself” (what Stiegler calls “tertiary retentions”).”

It’s something Stiegler develops from Husserl regarding technology as a form of memory.

I interviewed Ray Kurzweil recently & he was adamant that his mobile phone was effectively his memory.

Certainly that’s true for McLuhanist’s like Kurzweil, though the instrumentalism implicit in such reasoning is a problem, for me. He’d still see technology as a set of devices in a master/slave relation. The Kurzweil thing is nothing new.

Merlin McDonald in “Origins of the Modern Mind” linked the act of writing a diary to ESS (External Symbolic Storage). The placing of memory into external sources.

Oh, that’s interesting: a kind of ‘exteriorization’ of mind in the social. It sounds quite similar to the extended mind thesis – except this argues for cognitive and epistemic parity between states and processes inside and outside of the skin bag.

Of course it’s nothing new, but it could be argued the widespread use of mobile phones ups the stakes somewhat.

I like what Mark Fisher has to say about smartphones particularly. At Virtual Futures, he described them as libidino-electrical parasites. And that’s a much more balanced view than the instrumentalism of Kurzweil; or at least it takes into account the fact that such devices are not ‘innocent’, that their very design carries a predetermined set of ‘habits’ over into our behaviour.

  1. Dr Dan O’Hara is a philosopher and literary critic who is currently Lecturer in English and American Literature at the University of Cologne. He organized Virtual Futures whilst still an undergraduate, before moving to Christ Church, Oxford to write his DPhil, a history of the idea of the machine in art, literature, and philosophy. He was editor of Thomas Pynchon: Schizophrenia & Social Control, and the ongoing Concordance to the Works of Deleuze and Guattari. His next book Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J. G. Ballard, 1967–2008, co-edited with Simon Sellars (London: Fourth Estate, 2012) is part of a wide-ranging collaborative project encompassing a number of works both by and about Ballard, monographs, and collections. His most recently published literary criticism deals mainly with Ballard, Samuel Beckett, trauma, irony, and apocalypse; his current philosophical research deals with the concept of skeuomorphism as a theory of nonhuman agency in the evolution of objects and ideas.

Reproduced with the permission of the Knowledge Centre, University of Warwick

Photography by Andy Miah

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