Frontier of Communication
InterCommunication No.0 1992


Frontiers of Communication

ITOH Toshiharu, FUJIHATA Masaki and TAKEMURA Mitsuhiro
Translation: David D'HEILLY

Go Japanese
TAKEMURA: The other day ITOH and I were discussing the present state of Virtual Reality. And I realized how inseparable it is from the entirety of media technology. Today, I would like to try to redefine just what I see happening in the media, and explore the idea that Virtual Reality is not limited to systems that use sensory synthesis technology to allow entry into a world of electronic images. Look at simulation, for example. The idea used to be that we start with reality and then go about finding ways to construct a world-model that duplicates it. But now, the tables have turned and the question becomes how do we convert the simulated world from the computer back into reality--how can that world be realized? That is the question.

ITOH: It's a displacement of reality. The image of the future that we have had up to now and the image of the future that we have today are in phase difference. Rather than conceiving our image of the future on the basis of reality. what we are doing now is envisioning the future from the reactions of the computer's interior. TAKEMURA and I were interviewed together a few years ago, and what we said then was that images of the future were over and done with, right? Our thinking then was that it was no longer possible for us to sketch a vision of the future. Yet here we are today...

TAKEMURA: The reality inside the computer is impossible to grasp given our bodily scale. For example, things like our sense of distance and weight, questions of mass and time. The German visionary Walter BENJAMIN foresaw today's replicated-data environments in Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, as early as 1936.

ITOH: There is a strong feeling that that kind of super-accelerated transformation is going on somewhere beyond our perceptual realm. And this makes it all the more frightening--that it is not a visible, perceptible transformation. Cumulative, invisible technological speed is surrounding us. BENJAMIN saw that the special experiences or sensations produced by technology within us would completely transform existing properties of scale and perspective. The particular example he cited was the experience of speed. He spoke in terms of human beings embarking on, or preparing for, an unpredictable journey toward the interior of time, the speed of which would cause time itself to change into something utterly different. It is often said today that as a result of technology, the very space in which we live seems in some ways to have changed into a sort of transparent vehicle that can change speed freely, and enter various interfaces. Up to now, we have approached the technology and machinery of the 20th century as being subject to certain natural controls, but that is no longer exclusively the case. We are seeing technology and machinery as things that allow unknown human desires and wishes to be satisfied, things that bring out our latent potentials. I am inclined to believe that today's new computer culture, through new technologies and machinery, is beginning to articulate a new vision, by reorganizing technology as a prism.

FUJIHATA: A prism? Isn't it more like an algorithm? Take art as an example. Art history to date amounts to nothing except data about what was painted where. Rather than data, I would say the really important problem is the programs, and the algorithms which organize those programs. With data, limitless alteration is possible, but when it comes to programs, many things are possible with the same program. When we come to terms with it this way, the past looks very interesting. To put it very simply, we could say that for PICASSO there seems to have been just one program. We can understand him as, apparently, having spent his whole life creating works with similar types of variations by putting different parameters into the same program. Now that is something that I perceive through my encounter with computers, and as a result, from now on when I set out to create something, my mode of awareness is going to be different. A computer has to use a program to put an idea into language. This is because the program is what has put the algorithm into language. The operation of putting something into language is a mirror. Language has the capacity to handle very abstract things. A program is indeed a language for the purpose of rearranging, editing and composing such abstract things, yet the original programs were more direct, more concrete in that a program was something that could get hold of A and carry it to B. Now, 'carrying' in the sense of a robot carrying is really carrying, but programs have come into being without robots. We say that when we do a simulation in a computer we cause it to do an imaginary carrying operation, and that's where this idea of 'carrying' comes from. When we arrange things with just that non-substantive idea, then a completely non-substantive idea gets defined. Computer language is fundamentally different from the verbal language that we use when we speak. From the time we set out on our own creating whatever programs we liked, up to now, they have amounted to no more than art-as-data, but suddenly they can be seen as algorithmic. Taken to the extreme, this means that part of the significance of looking at art is that some degree of training is necessary. For the moments which are truly moving, some preparation is required on our part. Which is to say that the moment in which we understood genius to be genius occurred at the algorithmic level. Excellent art criticism means putting into language something that the artist who produced the work could not out into language. Because it is possible to put things into language at the algorithmic level, it become possible for the reader to comprehend them. Therefore, with the appearance of the computer, areas where comprehension is possible only for a fairly limited number of people come to be very nicely elucidated.

ITOH: That is the basic thinking behind what FUJIHATA calls algorithmic beauty. Now, there's one point on which I am not clear, and that is: If the computer is an interface, dose it provide contact with some different world? Dose the computer--which according to FUJIHATA's mind reflector concept is a device that reflects the mind--fundamentally correspond to something that is hidden inside ourselves? Or is it instead the case that the computer is an interface through which we are able to contact something different?

FUJIHATA: I don't think it enables contact with something different. I don't necessarily think that the computer can become anything bigger than we ourselves already are. I would like to think so. But for example, if I program something and it doesn't work right, when I check carefully I find some simple mistake. That mistake means, in effect, that the problem is in me. In interacting with the computer, I get the feeling that all I am able to find is my own weak points. So it something feels like I'm searching within my own self, and yet it certainly dose not seem that there is a copy of myself in there.

ITOH: The media theorist Walter ONG has pointed out that computer language resembles human language, and yet is something quite different in that it is created not from the subconscious, but directly from consciousness. I think this might have some bearing on our discussion here. He says that, whereas computer language is employed within parameters that are consciously set beforehand, human language is used unconsciously and is abstracted from our actual manner of speaking and gesturing.

FUJIHATA: I recently spoke with a physicist about chaos and interface, and I found what he was saying very easy to understand. It was this: Originally, when there were no words at all, consciousness was in a state of perfect chaos. Suddenly lightning struck. When the lightning struck, a relation was born between the area on this side of the lightning and the area on the other side. In other words, he was saying that within a consciousness that had no distinction between the outer world and the self, a new awareness dawned, the idea that the thing there is not me, the person there is not me, and so the inside and the outside were born. What makes computers interesting is that within the inside is another inside, that we have to view our own self as seen from the outside in order to know the condition of the self. In other words, the computer is interesting as a tool for modeling, inside, the situation of the self as seen from outside.

ITOH: It's a sort of nesting phenomenon, isn't it? What you mentioned about lightning is very similar to the effect of language. When language is vocalized, when it is literalized, a split is opened up, and we perceive that as a reality, and then it becomes the only thing we can think about. Of course along with the process of becoming a language some things are returned inside us, but a split is opened up here, and the ability to perceive the world itself is lost. A native American musician came through Tokyo recently, and he was saying that in his tradition the most important things are not verbalized, and because of this non-verbalization their transmission is quite precious. What I always find myself wondering is, certainly it is possible with the computer to make models and to make lightning and to make a split, and we become thoroughly fascinated by all that, but just what might there be beyond that world? Jaron LANIER has said that the crucial thing with VR is what happens in the moment when you get yourself back to a space of non-virtual reality, when you first regain your perceptions of thickness, width, depth and so on. Of course the question of the world inside the computer is very important, but I think it's high time we got to the point of thinking about it in a different form. Along the same lines, I am reminded of UESHIMA Keiji's observations about the essential nature of communication, in his essay on 'hidden systems.' In the background of any sort of exchange, there is a system of promises that sustains it, a separate communication Circuit, which remains hidden. He points out that while this may seem quite obvious, we don't usually pay it any attention, but with computers we are forced to go back and reconsider it from the start. Communication systems, no matter what kind, are in themselves extremely limited. Here we are caught again in the problem of the split, which UESHIMA calls 'the sort of fissure that might be carved into the world by a knife.'
We are ultimately forced to deal with the fact that communication itself is a contradiction. He posits the concept that transmission is fundamentally impossible, which he refers to as discommunication. Now the connotations of that term tend to destroy our existing circuits of thought programming. It points toward the birth of high-diversity systems, or multi-meaning imagination circuits. A new communication interface becomes necessary.

FUJIHATA: What got me started on the mind-reflector idea was the extreme lack of functions for mind reflection in today's computers. For example, when you write something on composition paper, if you make mistakes and erase them, those events remain in their entirety. Then when you look at it later, you can remember everything about when you wrote it. That kind of things is virtually impossible with a computer. You can't see the process of trial and error. I was thinking that computers would not progress any further on this point. On the other hand, I wondered just what mind reflection might be, and whether various tools of the past might not have had that function. For example, there was something that reminded me of sharpening and reusing a saw that had gone dull. Since you're grappling with a material object in a directly visible way, the scars remain. The question is, how can we analogically implant that reflection function in the computer?

ITOH: When you think about it that way, the computer interface is quite monotonous, isn't it? Compared with the information that exists inside a human being, the information from the cultural and social environment that is wrapped up in a person, not very much is put into computers, and that makes them very homogeneous. On the other hand, by incorporating things like bodily sensations or bodily memory into computers, it seems that a great many more different things would become possible.

FUJIHATA: We need to design interfaces for those purposes. It might lead directly to some changes in the nature of computers. They're stuck with a certain image, but we don't have to keep thinking of them as just keyboard and mouse. Now, if we could put a trackball or a mouse on eyeglass television, then we might be on to something.

TAKEMURA: Our bodies have the flexibility to receive information through the sense of smell or taste or touch. Media technology, however, has been progressing only in visual and audio information. With the human-machine interface, and especially VR, even if the machine has the capacity to measure data inside the human being, so that sensory data and movement data and biological data are all supplied into the interface, the fact is that sensory synthesis technology in the human being is always changing. Therefore it is impossible to steadily orientate or edit a given sensory synthesis.

FUJIHATA: Lately I've been going out to watch seals with some friends who belong to an environmental preservation society. They are about one kilometer away, but we can see quite a bit through binoculars, and all kinds of people come along. When someone says, 'Take a look,' and passes the binoculars, you don't really see anything, because the seals are sleeping. We looked at pictures beforehand, and we spent time at the zoo, so when someone says, 'There they are!' we know right away what we're seeing. The point is, the information changes according to the background that each person has. This is something which is very much a part of daily life. What we've been saying here would be incomprehensible without an understanding of metaphor. On moving a mouse, for example, if you can't understand talk about how to move the mouse and how the mouse moves, then the operation is impossible. This sort of thing dose become a problem.
Even if the seal is not visible, it can be seen on the retina. When a seal is visible, what that that involves is that it changes according to whether or not something was imprinted beforehand on the back of the retina. What I found really interesting about environmental protection is that we all do had things that we can't see. That question of being visible or invisible takes on very great importance at unexpectedly close quarters. For example, if an airplane is flying to someplace like San Francisco, you can't see what's actually happening. Each one of the planes that files on a given day uses the same amount of oxygen that would be breathed in a whole year by a city of five million people. You might be surprised to hear those figures, but you can't concretely view that amount, you can't see all that oxygen getting used up. I suddenly realized that there's a battle over things we can't see, and that made the ecological problem very interesting.

TAKEMURA: Americans are doing computer-graphics visualizations of smog, in order to model the actual smog flows over Los Angeles. They're finding that the wind causes convection throughout totally unrelated areas of Southern California where there are virtually no cars. The people that benefit most are the residents of Beverly Hills. With scientific visualization, the invisible becomes visible.

ITOH: Things which are completely invisible in Tokyo can sometimes be seen in other places. When I was on Bali, the local people often talked about seeing night spirits. Now we never ever see things like that here in Tokyo. Still, if you adapt yourself to the environment to a certain extent, there might be moments when those kinds of things suddenly pop into sight. It just might be an illusion, and I saw nothing while I was there although everyone in the local community sees the same things, but it would be awfully interesting if there were moments when something became visible. If we look at how we sense, how we feel, the basic thing is that our sensors do perceive things, but what's much more interesting is the significance of what they exclude. We pick things up only in certain frequency ranges, but there are many many things going by at different bandwidths. Just in the visual level, we have no perception whatsoever of X-rays and yet they actually exist, as do many other such phenomenon. To account for these kinds of issues, we're going to have to step back and address the question of communication from a different viewpoint.

TAKEMURA: Since we have a very strong sense of belonging to a highly generalized, homogenized shared reality, we tend to exclude any kind of miraculous reality be it on the personal level, the consensual level, or the alternative level.

FUJIHATA: Because it's simpler to just remove them, right?

TAKEMURA: We have an incredibly absolutist type of system, which seems to have been set up over the long term by our media and our senses. Speaking of which, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry has just begun a project to develop a computer for the purpose of sensory understanding. There's been amazing progress in positron CT scanning, and now they're mapping the brain's real-time reactions to the outside world, and building a database. They can examine someone over a long period, introducing various stimuli, and establish a sensory map for that person. I'm interested to see just what kinds of things we can comprehend by doing that.
What are we getting into by using CT scans to three-dimensionalize the previous, flat-screen brain wave data? I think we're moving onto what has been seen as sacred ground. More or less the same approach was conceived in the 1960s, but things have been quite stagnant for 20 or 30 years, and now we're inherited the problem. Things like what we're now doing with positron CT almost never come to the fore. There is, after all, a moral code concerning the investigation of sacred ground, so it doesn't come up. But once a certain amount of three-dimensional data has been accumulated, the experiments done with that database are likely to produce some interesting new perspectives.

ITOH: From now on, things relating to the human-social interface and the human-cultural interface are going to become important. We'll be making accurate measurements of the patterns through which a person enters into a certain value system, culture or society, and those will be used to establish emotional viewpoints, and then we'll be able to see just what kind of special information will bring about changes in those viewpoints. We don't know what a person might regard as most noble, but for a human being there will normally be factors that cause, say, a breakdown of feelings of love, or a change in consciousness level, and we will start to think about what things might be able to act to control those factors. That is clearly sacred ground, but in fact people everywhere have always done this kind of thing, by saying that those with a certain consciousness level are insane. Human beings couldn't survive without deviation. Modern society strongly suppresses any change in the level of consciousness. It's a world that has progressed by denying that such a thing exists. But that has reached its limit. Everyone is beginning to realize that without such change, human beings are in trouble. Some people may turn to religion or psychiatry, but it seems to me that systems for radically transforming human consciousness will appear within these approaches to perception and sensation.

TAKEMURA: As far as I'm concerned, we might as well call a computer an entertainment engine. In the past we have had engines that duplicate and amplify muscle, and computers up to now have been engines, or expert systems, that intensify knowledge and information. The next area is entertainment, which brings us to the question of how far it is possible to go in designing emotions or sentiments. At that point, I begin to think of it as a media vehicle or information vehicle. Media are connected to our desires. Now if we assume that we already have in our own bodies the basis for editing and synthesizing our desires in complex ways, then we require an interface or an engine to satisfy them.

ITOH: What people like Jaron LANIER have been telling us about VR is not that it will be the television of the future, but rather that it will be the telephone of the future. To some extent, the sound network is put forth as a model of imagination or creativity in the future.

TAKEMURA: It's really too bad that we don't have an image or a vision of the future 300 years from now. What is clear is that we don't consider the system or the framework of today's reality to be sufficient. And for now, where we tend to look for the potential to renovate reality is toward technology, toward the computer. Specifically, we look for that potential in the process of capturing into reality the product of a simulation that is designed to move the current reality forward a few steps. When the algorithms for plant growth were discovered in the early eighties, they made an even bigger impact than fractals. Alter a numerical parameter slightly, and it turns into something completely different. Now in a sense we don't have the means to carry that out, or rather, we have something resembling a type of responsibility for the result if we do. At this point, we are still able to pull back the frame so that our range of action dose not go that far.

FUJIHATA: We have had a great many potentials, but for whatever reason we have chosen to follow one particular history. We can leave the discussion about CLEOPATRA having a bigger nose than the computer. If everything that was possible had occurred, then the results that have arrived at would lose their significance. This might be an odd way to put it, but it would turn into something like a divine viewpoint, a way of visibility in which things could be visible and yet seem to be not visible. Going a step further, the meaning of attachment to life seems to be changing. What seems to be becoming the norm is the sensation that: Although I am here in the form of flesh, occasionally it only seems as if I am here.

TAKEMURA: The possibility of being wiped out exists both on the side of reality, where something reproduces according to its material basis, with potentially profound consequences, and on the side of the computer, where something is fabricated by whatever means within the system. At present, there may be some elements of the world for which generation, in the sense of the material basis of reality, is not possible. It is up to us to find out what relationship they have to our physical world.

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