Technology and the Stories We Tell

It is sometimes suggested that human beings may be characterized as tool-using animals. Some, for example Katherine Hayles, have alternatively ventured to define human beings as meaning-making animals:

“… the primary purpose of narrative is to search for meaning, making narrative an essential technology for human beings, who can arguably be defined as meaning-­seeking animals …”

To put this point another way, we might say that human beings are story-telling animals.

Interestingly, Hayles suggests a link between technology and narrative by defining narrative as a kind of technology. In Technology Matters, historian David E. Nye also links narrative and technology in a slightly different, but likewise intriguing manner:

“Consider the similarity between what is involved in creating and using a tool and the sequence of a narrative …. Composing a narrative and using a tool are not identical processes, but they have affinities. Each requires the imagination of altered circumstances, and in each case beings must see themselves to be living in time. Making a tool immediately implies a succession of events in which one exercises some control over outcomes. Either to tell a story or to make a tool is to adopt an imaginary position outside immediate sensory experience. In each case, one imagines how present circumstances might be made different.”

A little later on Nye adds, “To improvise with tools or to tell stories requires the ability to imagine not just one outcome but several. To link technology and narrative does not yoke two disparate subjects; rather, it recalls an ancient relationship.”

And further on still, “A tool always implies at least one small story. There is a situation; something needs doing.”

All told, Nye is arguing that tools and narratives emerged symbiotically, seemingly as byproducts of a capacity to imagine that was not temporally encased in the present, and that human culture depended on their emergence. Nye is hesitant to enter into debates about the chronological priority or primacy of either tools or narrative and this strikes me as a rather sensible position to take.

It is interesting, however, to entertain the problem if just momentarily. In one respect, seeking to discern the primary partner in the relationship is a variation of the debate over technological determinism. Let us agree that we have, for all intents and purposes, always told stories and always made tools. But what frames what? This may be the critical question. Do our stories define our tools or do our tools shape our stories? (Of course, I admit at the outset that this is most likely a misleading question in that the best response is of a both/and rather than either/or nature.)

Narrative is essentially geared toward the production of meaning. We tell stories to make sense out of experience. To understand our relationship to technology, then, it is worth asking what stories we tell about our tools.

Immediately, I am reminded of the grand narratives of progress told by Western societies — and perhaps American society most enthusiastically — in which technology has been a central character, if not indeed, the central character. These stories have framed the place of technology within society; they have given a certain meaning to the presence and evolution of technology. As Leo Marx, among others, has noted, as the grand narrative of progress mutated over the course of the nineteenth century, technology assumed a dominant role, eventually making the story of progress coterminous with the story of technology. This was a powerful story and it influenced the nature of technology’s relationship to society as long as the story was widely affirmed.

The conventional wisdom is that postmodernity has fatally undermined all such grand (or, meta-) narratives. I’m not so sure. I think there is certainly something to the claim, no doubt. Certain kinds of totalizing grand narratives seem intuitively implausible, or what amount to the same thing, unpalatable. Yet, even though varieties of technological pessimism seem more widespread, the myth of the machine, to borrow Mumford’s phrasing, seems alive and well. The transhumanist project and its quite grand narrative is just one example. On a less grandiose scale we may perceive a survival of the grand narrative of progress in the popular insistence (or hope) that the answer to the problems introduced by technology is simply more technology. And, of course, the myth of the machine/progress still infuses a good bit of advertising.

Moreover, if we are indeed meaning-making, story-telling animals, then it is unlikely that the lure of grand narratives will ever permanently fade away. Certain types of grand narratives will undoubtedly pass from the scene, and all grand narratives may for a time leave a bad taste in our mouth, particularly if we have binged on one of them, but in time, I suspect, our taste for them will return and we’ll go looking once again to make sense of it all.

Returning specifically to the narrative of technological progress, it was undoubtedly challenged more recently by the dystopian stories of the twentieth century, particularly postwar science fiction, which framed technology within darker, more ambiguous narratives. These stories, many of which are quite popular, elicit a more reserved and chastened posture toward technology. But, more to the point, they are narratives and as narratives they frame technology in a meaningful way.

Along with these macro-narratives that order a society’s relationship to technology, we should also note the micro-narratives we weave around our own personal tools and devices. These micro-narratives may tell the story of how we came to possess the technology, they may instruct others in using the technology, they may explicitly tell of the technology’s significance to us; in all of these ways and more, they constitute our meaning making activity with regards to technology in our lives. These micro-narratives, in conversation with the macro-narratives, go a long way toward ordering our own personal relationship with technology, or at least they are symptoms of that ordering (or dis-ordering as the case may be).

Additionally, at a level between the micro- and the macro-, we might also consider the stories of particular technologies and the way these stories intersect with larger grand narratives and more personal accounts. One might take the story of the car, for example. The story of the automobile has a privileged place in narratives about the character of American society in the twentieth century. It is intimately woven into local histories such as that of Detroit, and it may even feature prominently in our personal histories. Who, after all, doesn’t remember their first car? The story of the automobile also attracts other prominent thematic elements that comprise the larger stories we tell about our culture including freedom, motion, autonomy, and restlessness. At this level we might also include the role accorded the printing press in the larger story of the Protestant Reformation or that accorded the cotton gin the story of the American Civil War. These stories may not always be entirely truthful, but they are believed and so secure their influence.

Altogether, we may distinguish at least the following kinds of technologically related stories:

a. Narratives about a particular technology

b. Small vignettes about our personal experience with technology

c. Large scale narratives in which technology figures prominently

d. Grand narratives that frames cultural attitudes toward technology

Technologies, we might then conclude, elicit a multiplicity of narratives. They invite meaning and encourage its construction.

Finally, I’m inclined to add that while it is true that narrative preceded literacy, literacy reshaped narrative. We have always told stories, but the shape and form of those stories have shifted in response to the appearance of new communication technologies, be it the stylus, the printing press, the radio, or the motion picture, to name but a few. And so again we are left with a reciprocal relationship. Narratives shape the way we use our tools and our tools shape the way we construct our narratives.

A. Leydenfrost, "Science on the March" (1952)

Technology, Habit, and Being in the World

Picture 274

Thinking about the social and personal consequences of technology often leads to a debate between those who believe technologies are more or less neutral and those who believe technologies exert some kind of formative influence over human actions. The latter view I’ve taken to calling technological voluntarism, and the former is typically identified as some variety of technological determinism. On the one hand, it seems obvious that choices are being made by those who use technology, and those choices could reasonably be made to the contrary. On the other hand, an influence is felt, at the individual and societal level, which cannot easily be discussed without assigning, at least rhetorically, some causal power to technology. If it is difficult to argue that technology wholly determines our situation, it would also be difficult to argue that technology does not at all condition our situation. The challenge is to characterize the nature of this non-determinative, yet formative influence.

Here is one approach to this discussion that I would like to commend: evolving mutual reciprocity. The emergence and adoption of technology are a function of human agency, the ability to choose how technology is to be used, but human agency is itself conditioned by our prior use of technology. This approach grants primacy neither to the tool nor to the act of choosing. Our choosing is always already conditioned by our tools, and this conditioning is always already a consequence of our choices. But in order to advance this argument it’s necessary to conceptualize the manner in which this reciprocal state of affairs is actualized. To do this I’m going to borrow from an Aristotelian account of moral formation with particular emphasis on the embodied, and thus pre-cognitive, dimension of human action.

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, choice is the foundation of the moral life: “Again, we feel anger and fear without choice, but the excellences [or, virtues] are choices or involve choices.” Choices, however, eventually become habits, and habits dispose us to choose in certain ways and not others. Notice the reciprocity between doing and being in Aristotle’s account of courage: “by being habituated to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them.” Act bravely to become brave that you may act bravely. Aristotle illustrates his point by comparing the cultivation of virtue to the cultivation of skill at playing the lyre or the work of building. Skill at living well is acquired analogously to these other practical skills — it is acquired by embodied practice. So, Aristotle explains,

by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence we become brave or cowardly…. Thus, in one word, states arise out of like activities.  This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states correspond to the difference between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.

There are two directions in which we can apply this insight to the question of technology and human agency. First, it suggests that the choices we make with our tools are initially experienced as choices, but in time take on the force of habits. These habits, if sufficiently ingrained, then act as would virtues or vices in Arsitotle’s schema, i.e., they condition subsequent choices. If we’re inattentive to the force of habituated action, we may be unable to fully account for the influence of technology, individually or socially.

The second direction follows  Aristotle’s own examples and emphasizes the embodied dimension of habituated action. Lived experience consists of a circuit comprising mind, body, tools, and world.  This circuit of perception and action typically runs so smoothly through these nodes that it may hardly be noticed at all. In fact, the tendency would be to lose sight of how deeply integrated into the experience of reality tools have become and how these tools mediate reality. To put it in a slightly different way, tools become the interface through which reality is accessed.  (Putting it this way also illustrates how tools provide the metaphors by which reality is interpreted.) Katherine Hayles drew attention to this circuit when, discussing the significance of embodiment, she wrote,

When changes in [embodied] practices take place, they are often linked with new technologies that affect how people use their bodies and experience space and time.  Formed by technology at the same time that it creates technology, embodiment mediates between technology and discourse by creating new experiential frameworks that serve as boundary markers for the creation of corresponding discursive systems.

New technologies, in other words, produce novel ways of using and experiencing bodies in the world.  With our bodies we make our tools and our tools then shape how we understand and experience our bodies.

This often unnoticed circuit through which we experience the world is sometimes disrupted by some error in the code of digital devices or breakdown of machinery. We typically take these sorts of disruptions as annoyances of varying degrees; but because tools are an unnoticed link in the circuit encompassing world, body, and mind, disruptions emanating from the tools also elicit flashes of illumination by breaking habituated patterns of thought and action. Let’s call this the Empty Milk Jug Effect. When you pick up an empty milk jug that you think is full, you’re caught off guard; you experience a palpable rupture between unconscious, embodied judgments and the feedback flowing back through the embodied instantiation of those judgments. Likewise, the malfunction of our tools may elicit similar instances of startled realization with regard to the countless pre-cognitive and habituated dispositions and assumptions that facilitate our experience. Thus Hayles again:

. . . unpredictable breaks occur that disrupt the smooth functioning of thought, action, and result, making us abruptly aware that our agency is increasingly enmeshed within complex networks extending beyond our ken and operating through codes that are, for the most part, invisible and inaccessible.

While not referencing Aristotle, Hayles also employs the language of habit. She writes, for example, of bodily practices which have sedimented

“into habitual actions and movements, sinking below conscious awareness.   At this level they achieve an inertia that can prove surprisingly resistant to conscious intentions to modify or change them. By their nature, habits do not occupy conscious thought; they are done more or less automatically, as if the knowledge of how to perform the actions resided in ones’ fingers or physical mobility rather than in one’s mind.”

An example: I recently switched to a MacBook Pro after years of using a variety of PCs. After a couple of weeks of using my new Mac I had become fairly well accustomed to the interface. When I went back to my PC to access some old files, I found myself making Apple gestures on the PC trackpad that I knew, had you asked me, would not work on the PC. But my fingers had already learned certain habits and sought to apply them. That is a seemingly insignificant illustration, but consider the implications if similar patterns of habituated expectation and action were consistently realized throughout the whole range of our technologically mediated experiences. I imagine, for example, that if we were to perform a careful case study of the embodied habits that have accumulated around our use of cell phones, we would come away with a string of other, more significant, examples of our technologically conditioned habits of being in the world and with others.

Returning to the question of human agency and technology equipped with the categories of habit and embodiment, a mediating position that transcends the impasse between voluntarism and determinism emerges. Technology does not achieve its influence apart from the countless choices to use technology in this way or that, and those choices to use technology are never free of the earlier habits acquired by the use of technology.

Technologies do not change the character of their age merely by their appearance, they do so through the use to which they are put by individuals whose perceptions, assumptions, and sensibilities are thereby re-ordered and re-calibrated. When this use becomes habitual, the new perceptions, assumptions, and sensibilities achieve a taken-for-granted status and become, as it were, a second nature. This technologically induced “second-nature” then becomes the ground for the subsequent inter-play between human agents and new technologies.

If we’re mindful of the manner in which technology exerts its influence, we may have a chance to address whatever we take to be the less desirable consequences of technology, at least on a personal level. We do well to remember Aristotle’s counsel: those who would transform their character by “taking refuge in theory” are like “patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do.” If character is formed, at least in part, by technological habits, then the use of technology must be calibrated by practices and counter-practices that will yield virtue. Merely thinking about how we would like to change won’t get us very far at all.

The Internet, the Body, and Unconscious Dimensions of Thought, Part II

The Embodied Unconscious

Part Two of Three. Part One.

Ulmer’s project — fashioning a heuristic apparatus that brings the social unconscious partly into view — focuses on the semiotic elements of the socially situated self. Yet, this is only one of the unconscious, or pre-cognitive, dimensions of identity and action. In How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles drew attention to the relationship among embodiment, cognition, and subjectivity.  The group subject emerges, according to Hayles, not only out of the realm of image, symbol, and language, but also out of the matrix of embodied practice.

Ulmer’s unconscious may be labeled the semiotic (or iconic) unconscious.   Adapting Lacan’s psychic schema, Ulmer proposes to map the group subject by recognizing the pattern of recurring signifiers within the four discourses of what Ulmer calls the popcycle (Family, Entertainment, School, Career).   The recurring signifier, analogous to the Lacanian symptom, takes on the role of Guattari’s “existential refrain”: “An implication for electrate identity,” according to Ulmer, “is that a unique refrain, a singularity, may be the clasp that holds together a collectivity (that the nation, so to speak, ‘hangs by a thread’).” The emerging apparatus of electracy allows the group subject to be written, and thus to emerge, at least partially, from its blind spot.

Hayles supplements the semiotic unconscious with what may be called the embodied unconscious.  The embodied unconscious consists of “bodily practices” which have sedimented

into habitual actions and movements, sinking below conscious awareness.   At this level they achieve an inertia that can prove surprisingly resistant to conscious intentions to modify or change them. By their nature, habits do not occupy conscious thought; they are done more or less automatically, as if the knowledge of how to perform the actions resided in ones’ fingers or physical mobility rather than in one’s mind.

Pierre Bourdieu

In articulating the significance of the embodied unconscious, Hayles draws heavily on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.  Bourdieu arrived at his conceptions of practice and embodied knowledge through his study of a group of Berber tribes known as the Kabyle living in North Africa.  Bourdieu observed that the seasonal rituals of the Kabyle conveyed considerable “understanding” about the world, but did so by communicating not “abstractions,” but “patterns of daily life learned by practicing actions until they become habitual.” Habitus, as Bourdieu put it, preserves “a past which survives in the present and tends to perpetuate itself into the future by making itself present in practices structured according to its principles,” and it does so by embedding this knowledge or remembering in the body.

In summarizing Bourdieu’s findings, Hayles concludes that his

work illustrates how embodied knowledge can be structurally elaborate, conceptually coherent, and durably installed without ever having to be cognitively recognized as such . . . The habitus, which is learned, perpetuated, and changed through embodied practices, should not be thought of as a collection of rules but as a series of dispositions and inclinations that are both subject to circumstances and durable enough to pass down through generations.  The habitus is conveyed through the orientation and movement of the body as it traverses cultural spaces and experiences temporal rhythms.

This durable knowledge carried in the body and yielding dispositions and inclinations is transmitted through the ritualized practices of a society.  Ulmer tends to associate embodied knowledge and its modes of acquisition with oral cultures and religious liturgies, consequently this form of subject formation is unfortunately marginalized in his analysis of literate and post-literate societies.  By contrast, Hayles forefronts this form of knowledge and argues for its ongoing significance.  She concludes her discussion of Bourdieu by identifying four key elements of embodied knowledge that emerged from his research:

First, incorporated [or, embodied] knowledge retains improvisational elements that make it contextual rather than abstract, that keep it tied to the circumstances of its instantiation.  Second, it is deeply sedimented into the body and is highly resistant to change.  Third, incorporated knowledge is partly screened from conscious view because it is habitual.  Fourth, because it is contextual, resistant to change, and obscure to the cogitating mind, it has the power to define the boundaries within which conscious thought takes place.

The fourth point is particularly significant in relation to ATH or blindness and Arendt’s call to think what we are doing.  Hayles explicitly links the obscurity of embodied knowledge with the contours within which conscious thought flows.

Walter Benjamin

Connecting embodied knowledge with blindness is not intended to disparage embodied knowledge.  In fact, without offloading certain procedures, interactions, and functions to the embodied unconscious, it would be difficult to function at all.  But the benefits of embodied knowledge come at a price.  Here it is helpful to recall Ulmer’s discussion of Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “optical unconscious”:

The capacity of the camera to separate itself from the human physical and mental eye, combined with the theories of psychoanalysis, produced the notion of the ‘optical unconscious’ (Benjamin).  The attitude toward truth as standpoint in the image apparatus of electracy is that clarity is an effect of repression, blindness (ATH).

“Clarity is an effect of repression” is a dictum that applies not only to the optical unconscious, but also to the embodied unconscious.  The benefits of the embodied unconscious come at the cost of installing habitual repression into our experience of the world.  Habituated forms of attention are simultaneously habituated forms of inattention.  Interestingly, the connection between repression and habituation appears in Rosalind Krauss’ analysis cited by Ulmer in his discussion of the optical unconscious:

As Rosalind Krauss explained, applying the poststructural psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, the ‘extimate’ inside-outside nature of the human subject installs an opaque obstacle “within the very heart of a diagrammatic clarity that is now a model both of vision’s claims and of vision’s failure . . . . The graph of an automatist visuality would show how the vaunted cognitive transparency of the ‘visual as such’ is not an act of consciousness but the effect of what is repressed:  the effect, that is, of seriality, repetition, the automation.”

Just as we often see through habituated acts of not seeing, we also often act through habituated acts of not thinking.

Data Seeks A Story

Digitization has enabled the accumulation, storage, and manipulation of enormous amounts of data.  The numbers involved are mind boggling and we’re becoming familiar with ever larger orders of magnitude (remember when a gigabyte was a big deal?).  And we’ve been hearing similar claims long enough now that we hardly notice when someone like Google CEO Eric Schmidt tells us that every two days we create as much information as we did from the beginnings of civilization until  2003.  And, of course, we are told that the pace will only quicken and we will keep achieving ever larger orders of magnitude in data production.

So the question seems to be, what do we do with all of this data?  A good deal of it is of little or no value, and so filtering through it presents a significant challenge.  Representing data meaningfully can also be a challenge and here visualization can be quite helpful.  A couple of recent instances of visualized data come to mind.  The first is Google Lab’s Books Ngram Viewer.  The Ngram Viewer allows a user to search a database of  digitized books published from 1500 to the present for particular words or phrases.  The Viewer then generates a graph plotting the frequency with which the words or phrases have been used during a particular time period.  So for example, here is a graph tracking the occurrences in English books written between 1700 and 2010 of the names of three philosophers –  Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes:

One of the limitations of the approach comes to mind when you can’t be sure if a movement in the mentions of “John Locke” is owed to greater interest in modern political philosophy or a certain television character (or, more interestingly, both together).

Here is another graph, this one plotting the use of the words nostalgia and Nostalgia (the search is case sensitive) just because I’m intrigued by the idea:

Another recent and more elegant instance of visualized data comes from Facebook.  The graphic below was generated by potting lines representing a sampling of FB friendships.  What is most fascinating about this graphic is that no independent lines representing the continents were included, all shapes emerged from the data:

So we have two instances of data rendered intelligible, at least let us say manageable or usable. But there is still another question, what does it mean?  How do we interpret the data.  The charts and image above represent a tremendous amount of data, but what do we make of it?  That still requires judgment, context, and a story.  This is more or less the point Katherine Hayles makes in her response to Ed Folsom’s “Database as Genre:  The Epic Transformation of Archives.” Here are some comments I’ve taken from Hayles’ essay which apply rather well to both cases, especially to Google’s Ngram Viewer (keep in mind her responses are to Ed Folsom who maintains the Walt Whitman Archive online):

What it means that Whitman, say, used a certain word 298 times in Leaves of Grass while using another word only three times requires interpretation—and interpretation, almost inevitably, invokes narrative to achieve dramatic impact and significance …

These structures imply that the primary purpose of narrative is to search for meaning, making narrative an essential technology for human beings, who can arguably be defined as meaning-­seeking animals …

Manovich touches on this contrast when he perceptively observes that for narrative, the syntagmatic order of linear unfolding is actually present on the page, while the paradigmatic possibilities of alternative word choices are only virtually present. For databases, the reverse is true: the paradigmatic possibilities are actually present in the columns and the rows, while the syntagmatic progress of choices concatenated into linear sequences by SQL commands is only virtually present …

No longer singular, narratives remain the necessary others to database’s ontology, the perspectives that invest the formal logic of database operations with human meanings and that gesture toward the unknown hovering beyond the brink of what can be classified and enumerated.

In other words, data seeks a story because humans seek a story — it’s our primordial way of navigating the increasingly dense forest of data.  It is also worth bearing in mind Jerome McGann’s observations regarding databases (also in response to Folsom):

No database can function without a user interface, and in the case of cultural materials the interface is an especially crucial element of these kinds of digital instruments. Interface embeds, implicitly and explicitly, many kinds of hierarchical and narrativized organizations. Indeed, the database—any database—represents an initial critical analysis of the content materials, and while its structure is not narrativized, it is severely constrained and organized. The free play offered to the user of such environments is at least as much a function of interface design as it is of its data structure—whether that structure be a database structure or, as in the case of The Walt Whitman Archive, a markup structure . . .

Bottom line:  The interface is not neutral and for that matter neither is the data because it has already been tagged and marked up in certain way when the database architecture was designed and the information entered in accordingly.

If databases and interfaces that give us access to the immense amount of information being digitized are going to be useful to us, we need to make sure we understand the embedded limitations so that these limitations do not become immense blind spots for us as we try to do what we must always do with information — make a story out of it.  And the making of the story, a basic human drive, requires an awareness of context, judgment and discernment, and a certain wisdom that, as of yet, the database and clever, even elegant, means of representing the data stored in them, are not by themselves going to bring to the task.  It may be worth remembering the old adage, information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom.

Breaking the Spell

In the not too distant past there were a series of Visa Check Card commercials which presented some fantastical and whimsical shopping environment in which transactions were processed efficiently, uninterruptedly, and happily thanks to the quick, simple swipe of the check card.  Inevitably some one would pull out cash or attempt to use a check and the whole smooth and cheerful operation would grind to a halt and displeasure would darken the faces of all involved.  For example:

Cynic that I tend to be, I read the whole campaign as a rather transparent allegory of our absorption into inhuman patterns of mindless, mechanized, and commodified existence.  But let’s lay aside that gloominess for the moment, it is near Christmas time after all and why draw unnecessary attention to the banality of our crass … okay, no, I’m done really.

But one other, less snarky observation: These commercials did a nice job of illustrating the circuit of mind, body, machine, and world that we are all enmeshed in.  This circuit typically runs so smoothly that we hardly notice it at all. In fact, we often tend to lose sight of how deeply integrated into our experience of reality our tools have become and how these tools mediate reality for us.  The emergence of ubiquitous wireless access to the Internet promises (or threatens, depending on your perspective) to extend and amplify this mediation exponentially.  To put it in a slightly different way, our tools become the interface through which we access reality.  Putting it that way also illustrates how our tools even begin to provide the metaphors by which we interpret reality.

Katherine Hayles drew attention to this circuit when, discussing the significance of embodiment, she writes,

When changes in [embodied] practices take place, they are often linked with new technologies that affect how people use their bodies and experience space and time.  Formed by technology at the same time that it creates technology, embodiment mediates between technology and discourse by creating new experiential frameworks that serve as boundary markers for the creation of corresponding discursive systems.

Translation:  New technologies produce new ways of using and experiencing our bodies in the world.  With our bodies we make technology and this technology then shapes how we understand our bodies and this interaction generates new ways of talking and thinking about the world.

But as in the commercial, this often unnoticed circuit through which we experience the world is sometimes disrupted by some error in the code or glitch in the system.  We often experience such disruptions as annoyances of varying degrees.  But because our tools are an often unnoticed link in the circuit encompassing world, body, and mind, disruptions emanating from our tools can also elicit flashes of illumination by disrupting habituated patterns of thought and action.  Hayles again, this time writing about one of the properties of electronic literature:

. . . unpredictable breaks occur that disrupt the smooth functioning of thought, action, and result, making us abruptly aware that our agency is increasingly enmeshed within complex networks extending beyond our ken and operating through codes that are, for the most part, invisible and inaccessible.

Thinking again about Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” we might say that disruptions and errors break the spell.  And depending upon your estimation of the enchantment, this may be a very good thing indeed, at least from time to time.