Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Seven Eleven

In the morning I go to the convenience store. I have been going to the same store for almost a year. The man behind the counter wears a chequered shirt and a blue apron. He speaks no English and I speak no Korean. He has silver glasses which match his silvery hair. When we first met he was as any other shop assistant. Now, he smiles when I enter, and when I lay my usual purchases on the counter, he doesn't bother telling me the price. Instead, he gives me a knowing look - our silently shared secret.

This morning I walked into the store. A man greeted me in a generic voice. I bought generic things. Then I left.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The ‘AMAZING’ telectroscope

Hello and welcome to the re-launch of jenniferyong.com!! After procrastinating for some time in the land of the morning calm, I have finally reached a decision. My blog will no longer be kept private amongst the (very) few who actually bother to read it, but shall be re-launched as the cyberfeminist space of my dreams.

And it just so happens I couldn’t have chosen a better time. For at this moment, hordes of people gather to witness the ‘amazing’ telectroscope in action.

If you haven’t already seen or read about it, the telectroscope is a marvellous piece of technology which, through the use of a lengthy tunnel, connects London to New York. People standing in London’s South Bank can literally see their Atlantic neighbours some 3471 miles away in Brooklyn Bridge. And if that’s not cool enough, the artist and inventor, Paul St George, has designed the scope – or at least the visible parts – to perfection. At each end, a monstrous tunnel bursts through the ground, polished and brassy, an H G Wells wet dream.

Sounds awesome? Well, I suppose it is. But the real question is why. Why are people so blown away by a piece of technology (really an art installation) that is a primitive version of something we are already familiar with? After all, the telectroscope is really just an enormous, silent webcam. But this is precisely my point. Webcams are familiar – they are everyday devices that no longer impress us. Digital communication is normalised; not even an extension of our culture, but intrinsic to our culture. In short, we are witnessing both the normalisation of technology as well as the technolization of culture.

The reason for this phenomenon can perhaps in some ways be attributed to the invisibility of modern technology. When we use a webcam, the binary technology it utilizes is generally too complex for its users to comprehend, and so through some unfathomable magic, my image appears on my screen, and on the screen of my dear distant mother. We are connected in a virtual experience that poses as a real one. This is what cyborg theorists call ‘disembodiment’, and to some, this is the new human experience. We are defined by our minds and not by our bodies. Indeed, the body is seen as a hindrance, particularly to any theorists concerned with race and/or gender. It is also arguably more useful to consider ourselves not as matter but as information, for if nothing else it liberates us from our mortality – a fairly desirable pursuit.

Yet in an era which appears to privilege information over materiality, I would argue that disembodiment is not really favoured at all, and regardless of whether or not we realise it, biological embodiment is the only condition of being human. So let’s go back to the telectroscope.

The banner on the telectrosope blog reads ‘Do you believe in the telectroscope?’ and I think this is very telling. For in order for us to be amused by the device, we must first believe that Paul St George actually did connect New York to London through non-digital means. If we believe otherwise, we feel utterly cheated and underwhelmed. As mentioned above, I believe this is partly due to the normalisation of technology, but I think there is another, more obvious reason as well. I believe that we are so impressed by this primitive device precisely because it does away with the virtual, and in doing so, it brings back something highly cherished: really real embodied bodies.

The third layer of complexity

I guess when it comes down to it, its kinda obvious that we would prefer the real over the virtual, right? Well, the time has come to get to grips with reality, or rather our slippery notion of what constitutes reality. You see, despite what Paul St George would have us believe, the telectroscope really is just two webcams on either side of the Atlantic. Far from being primitive technology, the telectroscope boasts 2 high-definition webcams, giving users the impression that mirrors are in use, but the image is no different from the one my mother sees on her monitor at home: my image transferred into binary code and reconstructed on a screen.

So what does this mean? Haven’t we just gone full circle, and are back to the point about the normalisation of technology? Well, kind of. Except that this time, the telectroscope has proven that as well as being the norm in culture, we are unable to distinguish between the real and the virtual. We have entered an age where the virtual is real, and vice versa. And when virtuality and reality become blurred, then pretty much everything else follows.

This is precisely the driving force behind cyborg theory – the blurring of boundaries. For when boundaries are blurred, the binary oppositions which define our culture (real/virtual, man/machine, body/mind, male/female) are thrown into question, and the only logical step is to redefine these terms, and to reshape reality.

The virtual may be liberating, but that liberation should be used as a starting point that seeps into reality as well. As mentioned above, embodiment is the only condition of being human, but what can disembodiment teach us about being human? For one, it throws gender out the window (on the internet, can you really tell if you are engaging with a male or a female?), and if gender can be confused through disembodiment, then doesn’t that prove its nonattachment to our minds? Our reality is a social construct that is not synonymous with our humanity, and only by deconstructing these norms can we ever truly be free.