Issue 19 : Fall 2010








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11 Sep 2010

C O N T A C T BETWEEN THE WET AND THE D R Y IS A RISKY BUSINESS, fraught with dangers. In practice these vary from a glass of juice in the toaster, a finger in an electric socket, a burst water main, to the collision of swelling passions with sober incomprehension. With its thin skin, hard bones and sticky fluids, the human body can be reasonably well defined as a problematic water management system whose boundaries are fluid. This aquanomy is marked again and again by pieces of cloth and scent markers as well as equipped with colorants and an aura of ramshackle social codes. These serve to prevent personal overflows from getting out of hand and to cover up little accidents.

The closer we get to machines, the more wet zones are reclaimed. Depending on how technology approaches the body, boundaries are laid and erotic zones defined. Shifts may be read through clothing fashions, the dress of the poor wet slob who these days goes through life neatly and properly swaddled as a "Euro citizen." At the end of the 20th century we see this thinking bio-pump being slung back and forth, panting and spluttering, between wet and dry, loose and fixed, fleeting and firm, intoxication and reason, static and signal, suddenly functional in the electronic environment. The watery and steamy human factor has shocking effects on the machinery. The unavoidable contact between the wet finger and the keyboard has sparked a technological civilization offensive. Economy comes down more and more to the tightest possible interweave between social structures and electronic circuits.

Until recently, sexual boundaries marked the danger zones. Because of this there had to be, for example, separate ladies' and gentlemen's fashion. This necessity has disappeared, and power is reaching for other means of stylizing fears and desires, while changing form itself. Fascist power was once a bulwark of sexual metaphors which could be reduced to one's own firm soil and pure, flowing blood. Divisions on grounds of sex and race were intended to destroy hybrids, and had political and military consequences. The antifascist Cold War which followed lasted long enough for racist and sexist thinking to bleed to death. The body politics of this era, now over, were characterized by the conditioning of the body on the new machines, which were no longer driven mechanically but electronically.

Space travel furnished the basic model for electronic clothing, which, like power itself, has its attractive side as well as its frightening one. The first astronauts were animals, plastered with electrodes to register the reactions of the biological water management system. The futuristic spacesuit, in contrast, glittered and shone as the prototype of the electronic New Order. The cosmic costume withstood the new dangerous conditions and came out shining, offered freedom of movement, provided protection, and guaranteed communication besides. This required a retraining of the body, which no longer came under the regime of religion or politics, but under the supervision of science. Extraterrestrial space travel, it turned out, was not an invention which would become available to the consumer after a developmental phase, but an experiment to test the body's reactions in an electronic situation under extreme conditions. Here, too, the clothing was not only outward show but dressage, and made it clear to the world population via the media what it means to be connected to a computer. The extraordinary quality of this superhuman performance in extraterrestrial space convinced humanity, the folks left at home, of the overwhelming success of a sojourn into electronic space.

AFTER THE EXPLOSION OF THE C H A L L E N G E R, and the end of the dream of space, the path was cleared for ordinary mass production of the spacesuit. It has been redubbed the datasuit, with an introductory bonus known as the data glove. This awkward outfit provides the data worker with a fascinating evening dress, in which he can visit any location in all possible disguises. It lets him get acquainted in a pleasant and noncommittal way with the new power type of the New Order. The premises of this are as follows: as commuter traffic dissolves and national borders blur, we enter a clean, dust-proof, sterile, medicinal space, which generates its own conception of dirt. Analagous to the danger zones in the era of sexual power, the thing now is the banishment of threats to the electronic condition. Classics like narcotic drugs, stupefying liquors and suffocating hazes of smoke appear as hot items of the reclamation politics which are spreading the New Order worldwide. This politics demands a strict anti-intoxication diet, if you want to ascend into hallucinogenic dataspace. Otherwise you will lose the necessary concentration, and produce static.

What is new about the electronic condition is the sitting still and the minimalization of biomechanical labour. This fundamental modification in human water management, which just like the Delta works could only be realized under Cold War relations, causes a potential adjustment static in the introduction phase of digital hegemony which is combated by an aerodynamic exercise program. The motorized Citybike as a fashion is an integral component of data policy, and is not ridden by health devotees in fluorescent spacesuits for nothing. Unlike the profligate yuppies of the '80s, the Euro citizens of the '90s strive for total moderation: of their own nutritional and media diet as well as in government spending. The subsidy tap to them symbolizes waste, in flagrant contradiction to their recycling mania and investment sense.

These cosy cocooners enjoy the freedom to stay at home and their greatest concern is the data roof over their heads. Refugees, who cannot be traced in the files, are supposed to stay in their own area, otherwise the UN and EC with their developmental armies will lend them a helping hand. "If you people refuse humanitarian aid, we will have to open fire." The underlying motive for this military intervention is making global connections, which span the globe like a metastructure, healthy. To facilitate further expansion and innovation, those who are switched off and dataless must keep quiet and stay in their own places. If necessary their ghettos and their written-off social wastelands are sealed shut by electronic security.

Hardware, software, wetware are the three forms which the human machine can take in the era of the New World Order. This trinity possesses its own geographical and historical coordinates. The hardware on which we play out all our culture and communication comes from Japan. The programs which make it possible for us to read, see and hear all this precious data come from the United States. Finally, the role of Europe is to deliver the necessary cultural products for shipment. Wetware's task is to cough up culture, which will be run on the Japanese hardware with the help of American software. In this international division of labour, what is expected of Europe is to properly administer the legacy of Bach and Beethoven, maintain the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, and extend the theatrical tradition, from Shakespeare to Beckett, into the future. The same goes for the media art of the last few decades. Europeans must figure out what things of beauty can be coaxed out of all this new equipment, for there is little pleasure to be derived from the functional use of technology. Art is only charmed into being when the equipment is connected to the history of art, to philosophy and literature and those typically human character traits which have become European hallmarks. This is the lot which the Europeans, after so many blunders in this twentieth century, have called down upon themselves. Wetware means that we are condemned to making culture which avails itself of technical tools that have been designed by others. This need not be a subordinate position. On the contrary: a great deal is expected of us! What, after all, are laptops and word processors without all the wonderful stories that are written on them? Or a synthesizer without experimental compositions?

Wetware is a body attached to machines. Wetware means that we have long been connected to the machines surrounding us; something which, as in the case of television, affords us a great deal of pleasure as well. If it is up to wetware, submission to machines, as predicted by Orwell in 1984, need not be so dramatically represented. It need not result in slavish submission, for wetware has a secret weapon up its sleeve: its human, all too human traits. The nickname "wetware" is an homage to the do-it-yourselfer who tries to make the best of things but always forgets the instructions. Flaws are deployed to safeguard dignity. Through ignorance, the urge to sabotage, and unbridled creativity, technology always goes haywire; from these accidents the most beautiful freaks spring forth, and after aesthetic treatment are effortlessly declared art. To wetware the user is not a remnant or something suppressed, but a born hobbyist who can hook together any old or new media into a personal reality, where an error message is at the beginning of a long series of resounding successes.

The term "wetware" was coined by Rudy Rucker. He defines it as a collection of technological innovations: chips which are implanted in the brain, organ transplants and prostheses that replace or extend bodily functions. Unlike Rucker, adilkno considers the wetware idea not as a following phase to upset the wobbly self-image yet again after the revolutions in hard- and software, but as the human remnant which stays behind as the extensions go on longer and longer trips.

At the end of the twentieth century, the autonomous individual trying to bring his gushing fears and desires into balance has come to stand in the shadow of the technological imperative. Managing or throwing open the channels appears to be dictated to a high degree by the available equipment. Wetware is conscious of this dependence and thus sees itself not as a potentate that rules over the machines, but as a watery auxiliary that must adjust as well as it can to the digital conditions of electronic data traffic.

Acknowledgment of the technological a priori should not be confused with the hype which always arises when a new system comes on the market. The buzz generated by the new equipment creates an amnesia that results in a familiar pattern: the short-term effects of a technology are overestimated, while its long-term effects are given short shrift. It is characteristic of wetware to soak in a Jacuzzi of simulacra, and lose sight of the MILITARY PREHISTORIES of communication technologies and the nefarious plans being hatched by technocrats and marketing divisions. Wetware lets itself be easily fascinated and is not so quick to criticize when something new presents itself. We have become accustomed to the constant introduction of new products and techniques. A cycle is slowly becoming apparent: after a phase of rumours and spectacular presentations, the first lucky few get to show off the gadgets, and critics have a free-for-all. Only then can there be social acceptance, and a market large enough for capital to be interested.

The new technologies cunningly present themselves in the form of fashion and then fade into obscurity. This has recently happened with Minitel, video phones and mind machines. At the moment it is "virtual reality"'s turn to make technological dreams material. Until now VR has been no more than one big flood of rumours for wetware. The global village where the techno artists live has been turned upside down for a few years now: something big was supposed to happen ... a megasystem was on its way that would nullify and engulf all media productions manufactured up to now, and suck on wetware like no other before. In the "out-of-body" experiments conducted in high-tech laboratories, VR has been described as a "doorway to other worlds." The distance between us and the screen becomes nil and we enter a "mental environment." VR is the "ultimate human/computer interface" (Rheingold) which encompasses all bodily movements and requires not even fingers nimble enough to operate a keyboard. VR (potentially) takes possession of the whole body in order to let the mind travel as far as possible. While the senses are in a state of maximum titillation and undertake exhausting expeditions, the physical body stays behind in the "non-virtual world."

Because all VR efforts are focused on the conquest of the sixth continent, the part that stays behind is temporarily overlooked. But then the wetware factor reports and returns to its own "tele-existence" as a "human bug." This is the instant when wetware actually appears as a form. Despite hysterical stories about the instantaneous omnipresence of the zapping body in live broadcasting and the dissolution of locality as a natural environment for the process of ego formation, the media user still stands up at regular intervals to grab a beer or take a piss. These moments of absence from the media do not occur in the cyberspace myth. In it, the body is in fact an abandoned station, and life is tantamount to data travel and digital immortality. Wetware finds this a fascinating thought, but laughs loudly, because something always gets in the way. The soggy human recognizes himself for the first time as an equal counterpartner to the immaterial sphere. The wetware story begins as soon as it is clear that technology cannot live with or without the human.

After the presentation of VR a Babylonian misunderstanding arose over what the consequences of this next techno revolution would be. The first report: the cyberpunk world portrayed by William Gibson would come true. Succeeding reports told us that the Gibsonian matrix, where the most intense hallucinations were to be had, was still fiction: virtual reality in its infancy was nothing but a simple computer animation of a building or landscape in which you could rather jerkily look around. But even this disillusionment, which was reserved for the few who had gotten the chance to wear the VR helmet and the data glove, could not squelch the hype. By publicly distancing himself from the evangelizations of Timothy Leary and other electronic cowboys of the VR business, Gibson narrowly prevented his term "cyberspace" from being tacked onto assorted carnival attractions. By Gibson's definition, cyberspace is more like a neospace where social fiction about human and machine unfolds than the name of a new technology. The first commercial applications were simply far too unvisceral for sopping cyberpunks.

The first VR systems are already in operation on Wall Street, in the arcades of the amusement industry, in medical laboratories, at architectural firms and at NASA. These are hardly places where techno artists, hackers and cyberpunks tend to have admittance. Thus, for wetware VR remains no more than a fleeting item about which exciting science fiction and hefty volumes are written and critical documentaries are aired. So far the public market is nowhere to be found.

To reassure the folks in the street, John Barlow, head of the consumers' association Electronic Frontier Foundation, has proposed to stretch the definition of VR and bring it closer to the people by defining already existing electronic data traffic as part of cyberspace. He is trying to achieve a legal breakthrough by declaring this new imaginary zone free from copyright. Since, according to him, cyberspace is transnational, an international constitution for information ought to be drawn up.

Now that hackers in the United States are being persecuted by the CIA and the FBI, slapped with hefty fines and locked up, association with the world of virtual reality looks like an attractive option for hauling the hacking movement out of the repressive corner. Barlow's reasoning blames the problem on a fundamental lack of understanding about the current technological developments on the part of the authorities. Big names from the software world ought to call a halt to criminalization. But the question is how much we can expect from their end. Dreams of a great coalition between the upcoming VR giants and cyberpunks seem a bit naive. Even inside the small world of the VR pioneers, a tacky war is raging over copyrighting of the names given to homemade projects. On the Electronic Frontier big capital and military interests silently recede into the background.

Is it wetware's task to fill VR with European cultural values, as Jeffrey Shaw did in "The Legible City," in which he connected the Dutch bicycle to the city maps of such European cities as New York and Amsterdam via VR? This classic wetware strategy turns high-tech back into art by splicing the newest medium to a quaint, ecological and sweaty means of transport. The continental approach to technology always has an eye for the funny sides of the human deficiency. For if the human bug is not treated with respect, the buckets are poised ready to cool off the new medium. The new monsters must not be understood as a threat from outside, but made to dance in the new space. William Gibson articulated this insight in the phrase, "There's weird shit happening in the matrix," and had Voodoo loa trot through cyberspace on horseback.

A more realistic approach is the notion of virtual sex, as safe as it is extremely dirty. One must understand a medium's pornographic potential in order to make it a success. In Europe, telephone companies were forced to conclude that the introduction of the teleconference was a flop, until the same switchboard connection on the 900 partylines made the wildest fantasies reality. The question immediately popped up in virtual reality too: was sex good there, and which body parts get the nicest stimulation? Wetware will not get excited over a slicker design for the personal cognitive cluster. What is important is whether mistakes can be made in virtual reality and what kind of Faustian and/or Dionysian chain reactions they lead to. Culture is always the consequence of decline, decadence, clumsy maneuvers and misconceptions. Technology must establish itself inside it, and not make out to rise above it in order to magically evoke something of a higher order. Only then can there be a fusion between the wet- and its hard- and software.


[This 'anti-copyrighted' piece has
been published previously
by Autonomedia (1998)]