Hal vs. Machines of Loving Grace

Hal vs. Machines of Loving Grace

I've just been listening to Jarvis Cockers Sunday Service on iplayer and he was talking to Adam Curtis about his new series which starts later on this evening called All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. The title comes from a poem by Richard Brautigan writen in the mid 60's, a recording of which Jarvis played in his show.

I found it a really quite beautiful poem that explains succinctly many of the ideas behind the Urban Immune System Research project, so I thought I would post it here.

This poem presents a very different future-specitive view of the machine from those we're used too. Hal9000 from Stanley Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey is the malevolent all knowing master machine. the god-like mainframe with a master plan that has been written about in many forms by Isaac Azimov to Douglas Adams. This is a familiar dystopic techn0-narrative in which humanity is set aside for the logical higher good.

However Richard Brautigan's image of the cybernetic meadow described in the first stanza is the inverse of this. It describes machines without a master-plan, relatively 'stupid' devices that sense and respond to their biological environment. This struck a particular chord with the project, not just because of our own (coincidental) use of the data meadow analogy in the Sticky Data project, but more the notion of integrated ecologies consisting of both organic and digital systems.

This view of, essentially, networked communicating computers could describe the internet. Except the internet doesn't have a great deal of sense of biologial and environmental surroundings, let alone a mechanism to respond to it. In this way the internet is hermetically sealed from anything other than what we can tell it. it cannot see, hear, learn for itself. In essence it operates like Hal, in isolation. holding all the facts, fictions and falsehoods of humanity without a means to effectively interpret them.

Brautigan's poem puts forward a very utopic vision of technology which brings us closer to nature rather than further removing us from it. In his image the devices making up this hybrid meadow don't exist just to make humans lives easy but rather they allow us to understand our environment more easily. To sense and respond to it more effectively, and perhaps to allow the environment to sense and respond to humanity more effectively. It's a vision of the future in which digital devices integrate themselves into a wider ecology as components in a larger cybernetic system consisting of both digital and organic components that facilitate the efficient functioning of that system. Digital devices functioning as part of an organic ecosystem.

Perhaps this is a useful way of thinking about the devices we are developing for the USR and MFW. Devices that offer greater sense of space and place and facilitate our understanding of where we are. Brautigan's poem and  the interview with Adam made me think that perhaps its worth setting out some of the questions we might want to ask with the Urban Immune System products we're designing as a way of initiating a wider discussion on this blog post.

Rather than creating finite boundaries between digital urban space and organic rural space, how can the two types of systems influence, learn from, and ultimately strengthen one another? And going on from this, what happens, if anything, in this process of networking and connecting both organic organisms and designed digital devices? What is the implication of this hybridity and the new feedback it provide? As society becomes more nodal what is the impact on the node and how does their response to this influence ultimately effect their environment both digital and organic?

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