Media Theory for the 21st Century

January 29, 2008

carrier: becoming symborg

Filed under: Discussion,New media art,Readings — Dr. Dave @ 3:25 am

My presentation tomorrow will focus on Melinda Rackham and and Damien Everett’s carrier: becoming symborg. Inspired by Rackham’s experience with Hepatitis C, this site generalizes the idea of code to include viruses and DNA, while exploring some of the same issues we have been talking about. I want to explore how the work plays into the following debates about code:

Surface and Depth: Is code a deep structure whose effects are only felt through the system rather than exposed by it? The work’s references to DNA suggests that in the case of the human body, we do not know what does our thinking, by which I mean the code of the human body are not directly visible to what it manifests (us). At the same time, on the message board, infection causes technical medical language to enter their conversation; the virus is felt by its effects, both in the body and in conversation.

On the technical side, while the work’s code is concealed, being written mostly in Java, Shockwave, and VRML, the proliferation of various languages brings them all to the forefront. On the original site, though, there is a “diagnosis” page, which helps users configure their browsers appropriately. The work begs us to look deep into its code. I’ve included the source code of some of the Java I find interesting here: infect.jar, fear.java, and DoubleHelix.java.

Execution vs. Surface, Cayley vs. Mez: Does the work’s use of the structures of the program’s execution as signifiers complicate our knowledge of code depth? Upon visiting the site, the browser downloads infect.jar. This simulation of the process of infection uses the system’s operation as a metaphor to make parallels between the computer and the body. This is a supposedly-hidden execution that the reader is meant to see, which complicates Cayley’s divide between machine and reader audiences. This is something seen in the structure of a language, not the actual code. Where does this fall on the Mez-Cayley spectrum?

The definition of code work: In addition to using the execution as a signifying structure, the work uses code-inflected English in a simplified Mezangelled aesthetic. Does this demonstrate how code begins to permeate language in a more subtle way? I’m thinking in particular of the lines “sHe extends [you]” and the punctuation on the Intimate screen, which allude to Java, but use the signs in different ways, showing how perhaps the presence of programming code frees us to use punctuation in novel ways, not necessarily those ways that are meaningful in the language.

The quote “sHe extends [name]” (a line in CarrierLingo) in Java, means “sHe is a type of object that builds on the functionality of the [name] object.” This line is targeted at the user rather than the system, asking us to imagine that sHe somehow takes a part of us and extends its own functionality that way. Interestingly, there is no sHe object in the source code. sHe is the (Infectious)agent that drives the program, but is the sum total effect of several other classes (see below), yet is experienced by us as a unified thing because we experience it as such. This questions the idea of there being a central signified driving the development of language and code.

Code as execution rather than artefact: Carrier suggests that life is defined by the activity of code copying rather than by an essential material, or meaning. The guiding agent, sHe, is made of Java classes that only contain parts of its behaviors; there are CarrierLingo, InfectiousAgent, and CarrierSite classes (in infect.jar), but no sHe class. A living creature (or an artificial one) is portrayed as the sum total of its actions rather than as an object. In the LifePoet nodes (fear and love), intent and order are contested by the placement of random text over Conway’s life (a process we can see is random in fear.java); activity takes the place of meaning.

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