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.