Mall of the Wild

©1993, Andy Deck
Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth? Is the white bear worth seeing?

-- Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy 1

The computer with which I am writing sits next to a window that has been bricked up. It's just as well, since the sun's glare can make monitors difficult to use. But I attach a vaguely disconcerting significance to the bricked up window: the room with a view has lost ground to the room with a computer. The natural environment, which would be sense-able were it not for the brick, has been upstaged by software "windows" that shift experience of the exterior world from the realm of optics to that of representation.

Undoubtedly this is not simply a reductive trade-off. The relationship between the natural and computer "worlds" need not be manifestly conflictual. Progressive computer networks, such as Peacenet, provide electronic mail and computer databases concerning environmental issues. Al Gore, author of Earth in the Balance, also advocates networking and telecommunications. Computers are being used increasingly to analyze and visualize global phenomena that were once invisible and imperceptible. Whereas Apollo offered an image of the earth from halfway to the moon, orbiting satellites are making possible a virtually pan-optical visualization of the earth. 2 As before with the Apollo photos, this process of global visualization is likely to inspire a sense of responsibility toward the planet.

However, as we wait for irrefutably refined renderings of environmental devastation, already recognized abuses are being monitored rather than redressed. Various ecological problems--from ozone depletion, to the greenhouse effect, to species extinction--are waylaid chronically. New means to observe these problems are countered by complexities of denial, confusion, and despair. Because technologies that reveal global conditions can also generate false confidence, the increasingly systematized, profit-driven mediation of perception must be considered as a consciousness-shaping phenomenon.

The illusionary, metaphoric space beyond the computer monitor's glass presents a gratifying sense of order and may seem an oasis for contemporary explorers, searchers and researchers. The colonial spirit pervades this digital domain, where electromagnetic resources are ready for the taking, and where the adventurous may prosper by industrious use of the terrain. Much as the prospectors and settlers were lured to the American West by outlandish claims of plenitude and acreage, now producers of technological ephemera capitalize on the excitement of the moment, making Utopic proclamations of deliverance and empowerment. "Think of it as a launchpad for your mind," suggests one IBM advertisement. 3

This fantasy of arriving at wisdom via technology has been part of the Western narrative tradition for centuries. Swift's satire of the academic science of his day, in Gulliver's Travels (1726), anticipated the grandiose claims of computer advertising. Gulliver encounters a man who claims he has invented a contraption "linked together by slender Wires" with which

the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study. 4

Whereas Swift's rendition of the knowledge machine delivers books, Laurence Sterne adds a spatial dimension to the fabled abstraction, emphasizing its power to transform and transport the mind. In Tristram Shandy (1767), Walter Shandy is confident he has found the "North west passage to the intellectual world." 5 "The force of this engine," he claims, "is incredible, in opening a child's head." 6 Shandy's route to knowledge may be no more indirect than many modern alternatives, though his unlikely engine turns out to be auxiliary verbs. Sterne was not in earnest about an intellectual fast track, but today's advertisers are dedicated to the idea.

The rhetoric and conceits commonly pitched in the computer marketing process abound with references to escape, crossed boundaries, terrestrial exploration, conquest, and control. "Set your course for the most open Unix operating system in the field," suggests IBM.7 Responding to a popular craving for opportunity and space in a crowded world, the computer industry projects paths to Shangri-la. These energizing accounts of the digital domain conjure up an image of land waiting to be colonized. Only instead of offering physical territories, they promise sensations and productive possibilities. Even so, disembodied promises flirt coyly with a figuration of the physical, establishing an analogy between computer control in hyperspace, and the direct experience and control of the natural world.

In a two page IBM advertisement emblazoned with the words "Now's your chance to run the world," a photograph of a computer window displays an image of the earth, held firmly in a white male hand and opened (in the style of USA Today "Snapshots") to reveal its constituent substrata--DOS Apps, Windows Apps, and OS/2 Apps. 8 This illustrates the computer user as an anthropomorphic god, capable of manipulating the world single handedly. Such iconography might be dismissed as mercenary hyperbole were it not that the relationship it suggests--among humans, computers, and the earth--manifests itself in most graphical user interfaces.

Today's common human-computer interfaces tend to simulate a certain spatial, navigable quality; and this provides a rationale for terrestrial associations. But the insistent connection of computer interfaces with environments has given "environmental consciousness" a new meaning. It may well be that there is more press given to managing simulative computer environments, in Mac World, PC World, Computer Graphics World, Network World, Unix World, CD-ROM World, Info World, and a host of others, than there is to preserving the real thing--unless one is to take seriously the notion that mankind will manage the earth's environment using computers. In fact, this may be one of the latent fascinations that drives the analogy:

Do not even attempt to manage your environment without the industry's leading systems software (Computer Associates ad). 9

Faced with advice like this, one is apt to recall the techno-environmental management of the Death Star, with Darth Vader striding through the control room. This popular fantasy takes its place, beside simplistic notions of interplanetary travel and the restoration of extinct species from strands of DNA, on the wish list of planet-despoiling Homo Sapien.

The computer industry generates many expectations by saturating its publicity with talk of empowerment and emancipation. Reinforcing this mood, America's sycophantic news magazines gurgle with praise for the new releases. Regarding interactivity Newsweek claims: "New technology turns every citizen into a master of a digitalized universe." 10 This sounds like a lot of quick-fix, self-help schemes. But what does it mean to be a "master" of the sanitized geometric spaces of a digital universe? Computer interfaces, acting in their "user friendly" manner, may convey a sense of order and personal agency in hyperspace that people long for in ordinary space. Nevertheless, the orbital assertions about boundless exploration and universal control are half-truths. In reporting his computer exploits, Peter Halley finds himself somewhat closer to home:

Sitting down at the PC, with its arrays of Microsoft or similar software, is a seamless consumer experience no different from a visit to an airport, a shopping mall, Disneyworld or McDonald's. At the keyboard, one experiences, in disembodied form, the same pleasant but rigid selection of options, the same unbending direction of pathways, and the same totalized ideological seduction that one experiences in the highly regulated physical spaces of our culture. 11

In spite of the hackneyed exploration and conquest motifs, the digitalized universe is not really so vast and unvisited. When the hype gives way to experience cyber space begins to resemble a maze, where freedom routinely gives ground to channeled conformity.

Though it is often presented as a window on the world, computer mediated learning is not a simplistic extension of eyesight, in part because the viewer is cast as a consumer of information, software, and equipment. From chips to software, the dedicated pursuit of sales and brand loyalty marginalizes enquiry into the effects of the industry's products. While proponents of existing multimedia systems claim them to be essential to education and enlightenment, many of these rapidly obsolescing technologies amount to little more than confounding forms of indoctrination. A recent product offered to educators, called CNN Newsroom Global View, illustrates this caginess:

Get A Global View of the World.

Now your students can have access to the most powerful medium ever developed for understanding today's fast-moving global events. Using state-of-the-art CD-ROM technology, students can select CNN's video coverage of important global events, along with in-depth articles and commentary from world leaders. 12

What advantages does this product, which has a variety of hardware requirements, really hold over broadcasting CNN into the classrooms via television? Reading "in-depth" articles off of the suggested low-resolution monitors is no advancement. Only six topics are offered, since the "state-of-the-art CD-ROM technology" constricts the duration of the coverage. Moreover, the CD-ROM hardware is passive. The disks are stamped out for mass-market consumption, and the disk player doesn't allow the students to record their own multimedia stories. This positioning of students as information consumers is consonant with a recent CNN advertisement that says, "If all the world is a stage, CNN puts you at front row center." 13 Clearly, they are not poising students to participate in the drama. Although the CNN Newsroom advertisement claims students can explore different points of view, the philosophical diversity implicit in this assertion is not supported by the origins of the video footage. That footage, collected according to its commercial marketability, expresses CNN's point of view exclusively. Relying heavily on the public's willingness to believe in technology, CNN Newsroom industrializes history, extending the CNN's existing news monopoly to the classroom. In acceding to this "powerful medium" we are paying hand over fist for a "global view" that is obstructed not only by design limitations, but also by sensationalizing market imperatives. Whatever the future may hold, many of today's multimedia cure-alls bring to mind other awkward and dubious social services like leeching.

Even so, there is widespread excitement and fascination with the evolving abilities to manipulate and control a range of media. Unlike television and cable controls--which consist of plastic knobs, buttons, and switches--the new interface systems are heralded for their glorious tractability. Recent graphical operating systems allow images, diagrams, and text to be moved spatially, within certain limits, inside of windows.

Most of today's graphical user interfaces allow users to personalize their screen layout, albeit trivially, in much the same way one arranges an office desktop. This phenomenological analogy, supported by the existence of labeled files and folders, may come as a surprise to novices bound for the stars. IBM boasts: "You can even 'cut and paste' between any applications--the possibilities are endless." 14

And yet they are not nearly as endless as they could be. In choosing from among the limited array of corporately styled operating systems, one finds that the vendors are selling interpretive models for computer interaction. The desktop and window metaphors are established conventions that are followed religiously by commercial software developers, because of their familiarity. These metaphors have a way of subtly filtering experience through questionable analogies. Theodor Holm Nelson, author of Literary Machines, writes:

In metaphorics, we begin with a familiar image or idea and try to pack into it, and tack onto it, some coherent set of functions that are constrained to be related to that metaphor. Freely designed principles, on the other hand, do not have to stay attached to any image. (This is why "metaphor" talk is counterproductive: it makes us try to stay within some clumsy concept such as "desktop metaphor" rather than reaching by the design of principles toward a new conceptual organization that has not previously existed.) 15

The connection between the desktop interface and the workplace is unmistakable. A lot of software has been written with business consumption in mind. But is it logical that all interaction with a computer should follow this mercantile model? Undeniably, computers make a great many traditional tasks easier or unnecessary, and the ability to use them is critical for a growing number of careers. However, as the function of the computer expands from that of a production tool--Apple wants to help people "get their jobs done"--into a means of knowing the world, interfaces cease to be control panels and become cognitive intermediaries. 16 Sounding a note that is missing from Apple's Human Interface Guidelines, the former president of Apple Products, Jean-Louis Gassée, writes:

Interface builders, you are building more than control panels for computing machines. You are bringing into existence different angles on reality. You are firing up simulation engines. You are changing the way we look at the world. 17

Eclipsing and absorbing a variety of other media, the computer reshapes the cultural approach toward knowledge. Television and video can now be seen and manipulated on personal computers. Electronic mail and interactive media are opening up new relationships to information gathering. These developments, together with the emergence of the computers in education, place novel demands on the existing conceptual constructs.

Because of the remarkable proliferation of the soft window, it is one of the defining metaphors mediating our experience of computers. Designed in conjunction with the mouse (a hand held control device) by researchers at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in the late '70s, windows now serve as the basic packaging mechanism for presenting data visually; they are the locus for an interaction between a computer user, data, and coded instructions. The effect of the soft window metaphor is uncertain, but it would seem to support specious popular notions about the credibility of computers. As interface theorist Abbe Don puts it,

because contemporary cultural codes perpetuate the myth that information represented by or generated by computer is true, objective, and comprehensive, we tend to forget that computer hardware and software are mediated and constructed, produced and consumed, within a particular culture at a particular point in history. 18

The computer monitor does not have the character of clear glass, but instead an opaque and changeable demeanor, though it may seem transparent. The proliferation of the window metaphor, which is intrinsically suggestive of interior/exterior dichotomy, reinforces an aura of sensory extension. Truly, our gaze into a computer window is anything but a direct experience of exterior space; and yet the metaphor implicitly relates abstract display data to some vague outside realm. Consider, for example, the visual telephones now reaching the marketplace. Using a computer, one can look at and converse with a person on a different continent as if she were on the opposite side of the screen window. While the images we see are composed from numerical data, the window idea, with its intuitive transparency, would seem to vanish the act of representation altogether.

This "seeming transparency" is only partly new: it made film and television mesmerizing. Since the emergence of photography in the middle of the last century, people have grown accustomed to observing things too old or far away to be seen with the naked eye. Forms of aided vision have proliferated, generating an historically unique visual common sense. Although few have seen an atom bomb exploding, or a view of the earth from orbit, these images are indelibly inscribed, by photographic means, into our consciousness of how things are. When asked if he has ever seen a white bear, in Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Corporal Trim responds that he has not. Nor is this surprising, since there were and are very few such animals in Britain. Today, however, people throughout the industrialized world are inclined to respond affirmatively. It's not that the population of the polar bear has swelled: those who have not seen them in zoos have seen them in photos, films, or on television.

The conservation movement has turned to magazines, films, books, and television in order to cultivate environmental consciousness. The Sierra Club was founded to show people the natural world, so they would take an interest in saving it. According to publisher, Carol Pisarczyk, the magazine, Sierra, extends that mission, "because while you can't take 600,000 people out into the wilderness, you can bring [it] to them." 19 For photographers like Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager, the images they capture of endangered species are a record of existence, meant to make us aware of species before we destroy their habitats. In the preface to their collaborative book, Here Today: Portraits of our Vanishing Species, Wendell Berry writes:

understand that neither you nor a multitude of you could make such a creature. If you could make even a replica, you could not make it live. If it did not exist, you could not imagine it. Since it does exist, please do not neglect to imagine it. 20

Contrary to what Berry argues, humans always have been able to imagine what did not exist. Just as thousands believed in the Martian invasion narrated by Orson Welles, and just as Ginés de Pasamonte's puppet play was taken in earnest by Don Quixote, reality and representation continue to blur. Now, as the environmental movement spreads to computers, with programs like Multimedia Animals Encyclopedia, which brings "images, descriptions, and sounds of almost 2,000 species to your PC," the significance of representation is challenged by the vicissitudes of digital imagery. 21

The computer complicates the factualness of photography, because the computerization of vision subjects us to circuitous and uncertain digital digression. In this sense the computer is not only a new visual invention, it is a renewed invisible intervention, enabling incredible distortion and micromanagement of appearances. Photorealistic imagery is increasingly, elaborately produced rather than simply exposed. The computer is making it simple to synthesize photorealistic lies. Algorithmic imaging processes which incorporate complex principles of luminance and reflectivity are rupturing our ability to distinguish illustration from photography. For the first time, visual illusions are passing the boundaries of optical verification. When watching television advertisements or motion pictures, it is frequently impossible to tell what actually exists and what is a computed agglomeration of pixel dust. Computer generated special effects, like those in the movie Jurassic Park, demonstrate how distinctions between reality and fiction are becoming difficult to locate with our eyes. One teenager's review of the movie indicated that she didn't realize there was no real Jurassic Park in Costa Rica, and it would be unsurprising if some of her peers developed similar misunderstandings about the existence of dinosaurs. 22 Insofar as we presume that knowledge stems from uncorroborated images, our reality becomes more and more dreamlike, because we are unable to categorize images as truthful and fictitious.

In Clint Eastwood's recent movie about a secret serviceman assigned the task of protecting the president, In The Line of Fire, computerized special effects were used to alter Clinton-Gore campaign footage so that Clinton-Gore posters were obscured. These techniques are available to news producers, too. In a November 1992 scandal, NBC News used special effects igniters to initiate an explosion for a story about vehicle safety. An investigation prepared for the network (and cited by the New York Times) ignored the ethical implications, concluding that "budget considerations prevented performing a more reliable test." 23 In the future the temptation to make alterations, to suit editorial biases and spice up the news, is liable to be exacerbated by the ease and relative cheapness of digital transformation.

Today when one sees a film depicting improbable natural happenings, one is compelled to assume it really happened. Take for example the odd mating ritual of the elephant, filmed for PBS's Nature. As the mating pair copulates, the entire herd gathers around and makes an extraordinary ruckus. Yet, in a decade, when the ability to fabricate motion imagery has advanced and spread to smaller production facilities, who could be confident that such an odd event was not a bizarre simulation?

What we know about the outside world, if it is based on representation, is now more than ever based on trust of the image producer. With programs like CNN Newsroom, Multimedia Animals Encyclopedia, or the burgeoning on-line databases, we are asked to believe that what we see exists. But we know little about the provenance of such images, especially when they are attributed to multinational corporations rather than individuals. On the same screen it is possible to view simultaneously a person on the other end of a video-telephone line, pictures of species that no longer exist, simulations that are indistinguishable from life, and news productions of uncertain veracity. Discerning the reality that underlies these experiences is challenging in a way that a walk in the woods never was.

All representations must be attributed to an image producer and understood in terms of context and individual or corporate perspective. We cannot be fooled by obfuscations like "global view" and the "window" into forgetting the act of representation and its commensurate biases. It is not illusion that is dangerous, so much as the antiquated and inappropriate modes of cognition that conflate telepresence with presence. Seeing is not believing. Now that photographic imagery can be altered and simulated, visualization software is bound to become an influential narrative tool. Perhaps the main significance of digital windows is not that they will reduce or expand the scope of our vision, but rather that they will alter the way we interpret what we see. As visual communication becomes increasingly computerized--illustrative, photorealistic, and metaphoric--one must be especially attentive to the stories that are being told by our intermediaries.

On encountering National Geographic's uses of "creative photography," such as its digitally displaced pyramids (cover February 1982), one wonders what motivates such false constructions. The contrived image may entice more buyers at the newsstand, but the documentary function of the travelogue is jeopardized. Color correction, digital enhancement, imperceptible censorship--where does it stop? In revising what we see to make it more appealing, the magazine takes a turn toward environmental pornography. And it may be a lucrative business move. According to Time magazine, "As overpopulation makes the real world less congenial, artificial realities will become more attractive." 24

But I find such escapist artifice more disturbing than attractive. Sharing this uneasiness, Anna Quindlen describes an elementary school in the Bronx, named P.S. 291, that is noteworthy because it has no windows: "In one classroom there is a window made of paper taped to the wall, a hopeful charade." 25 In many respects the popular fascination with simulative environments reenacts this charade. Are they our response to the disappearance of an appealing landscape to peer out at? Are we tired of looking out through metal bars, or so accustomed to looking out soft windows? In spite of the computer industry's advertisements, no digital universe or reality engine can ever emancipate us satisfactorily from an environment made inhospitable by our neglect.

And what of the bears? The wild? When I was a child, my favorite bedtime record told about a bear who woke up from his winter's nap to discover that a super highway and a factory had been built over his cave. He stumbled onto the production floor and was soon told to get to work by the foreman, who mistook him for a "silly man in a fur coat who needs a shave." All day long he pushed buttons, turned knobs, and cranked cranks. He tried to prove that he was really a bear, but the zoo bears and the circus bears agreed that he was a silly man in a fur coat who needed a shave. As the needle skipped near the end of the record, the narrator was at pains to bring his story to a close. Because it was a children's story, he had to make the problems go away. The maligned bear wandered off without ever convincing anyone, found his cave, and, after yawning a few times, began to hibernate. Now I'm the silly man who needs a shave, and I'm looking for a better ending.


1 Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, p. 307.

2 Stuart Silverstone, "The Big Picture," Publish, July 1993, p. 34.

3 IBM ad, Information Week, June 7, 1993, p. 29.

4 Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, p. 156.

5 Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, p. 303.

6 Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, p. 311.

7 IBM ad, Information Week, June 7, 1993, p. 18.

8 IBM ad, Fortune, July 12, 1993, pp. 62-3.

9 Computer Associates ad, Information Week, June 7, 1993, p. 64.

10 Bill Powell et al, "Interactive: What It Means To You," Newsweek, May 31, 1993, p. 3.

11 Peter Halley, "Some Notes on the Computer Landscape," Tema Celeste, Spring 1993, p. 51.

12 CNN Newsroom Global View ad, Technology and Learning, May/June 1993, p. 66.

13 CNN ad, 20th Street & 5th Avenue phone booth, Manhattan, May 1993.

14 IBM ad, Time, Special Issue, Fall 1992, p. 33.

15 Theodor Holm Nelson, "The Right Way to Think About Software Design," The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, p.239.

16 Apple, Human Interface Guidelines: The Apple Desktop Interface, p. 2.

17 Jean Louis Gassee with Howard Rheingold, "The Evolution of Thinking Tools," The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, p. 227.

18 Abbe Don, "Narrative and the Interface," The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, p. 385.

19 Serena Herr, "It's Not Easy Being Green," Publish, July 1993, p. 19.

20 Wendell Berry, Introduction, Here Today: Portraits of Our Vanishing Species, p. 9.

21 Applied Optical Media ad, Technology and Learning, May/June 1993, p. 100.

22 "Three Thumbs Up For Jurassic Park," Lansing State Journal, 1C, June 18, 1993.

23 Kolbert, Elizabeth, "NBC Admits Bad Judgment in Truck Report," New York Times, March 23, 1993, 5 D.

24 Time, Special Issue, Fall 1992, p. 40.

25 Quindlen, Anna, "Without Windows," New York Times, December 16, 1992, A 34.


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©1993, Andy Deck