Synopsis by Are Flagan
Already, at the start of memory. A synopsis of the eloquent story told by Sandy Stone embarks on a journey she initiated. This abbreviated version, in other words, returns to memory in an effort to report on a presentation and recover its meaning, in summary. Here, then, those spoken words have been condensed and displaced to be replaced by another version of the same. It is, already, like a dream haunted by the intimacy of a loss.
At the beginning of Sandy Stones exploration of on-line communities structured by text, there was an expressed wish to abandon the artifacts of technology and return to narrative in the traditional form of oral transmission. With this departure in speech, the ear records a voice as it returns to become audible for the first time, and this collapse of distance between said and heard, language and meaning, is the privileged presence of a spoken subject. When Stone tuned in to listen for the voice of technology in her own words, the immediacy of any movement was less mediated, and it was primarily with the proven memories of metaphors that she proceeded to speak of experiences that would constantly return to hearing.
The introductory tale of technological exegesis involved a blue white flash of lightning - wait - followed by the rolling echo of thunder born in the same instant, but arriving later. In this electrically charged silence, as the differential measure of two speeds, a desire embracing eyes and ears awaits the inevitable with unfulfilled expectancy. When a lingering delay creates a slippage between image and sound, perception remains paralyzed by the potential of this void until the senses are united when two disparate phenomena implode into one natural spectacle. Here, at the retention of the anticipated, time can be counted between two separate instances to decipher a distance, and this length of silence harbors the missing voice waiting to be discovered. Presence, now, becomes a calculated measure of synchronicity facilitated by what is technology: a diachronic method producing the idiosyncratic token of a temporal silence.
Stone recounted various experiments with animals to explore the meaning of this still time. Birds were equipped with latex helmets to feed them a delayed auditory feedback, and this gap in the perception of reception made them stutter, out of synch with their own voices. When the hushed span awaiting recognition failed to coincide with the habitual speech pattern, a postponed transmission of sound bred a temporary muteness in the species. Albino cats played a role in the investigation of links between pigmentation and deafness, but the tranquillity of real time links between the senses was invested with another experience of subjectivity during this research project. To establish hearing profiles for the cats, an electrode was attached to the auditory nerve, and neuronal spikes would then register as curves on an oscilloscope. In one remarkable incident, Stone substituted the graph for her own ears to trace the audio track of a cat crawling through the grass to leap on a mouse. Caught by one voice, the two bodies evidently merged in a blurred boundary of flesh and technology where subjectivity blended into one disembodied presence.
To listen in on the talk at this juncture, of human and animal, once more was caught the flash of a quiet desire manifested by another breed, joining organism and machine. Technology, in oral transmission, had somehow found its voice to synchronize the silence of subjectivity. Birds articulated a mastery of the subject in a stutter, while cats lent their near deaf ears to hear a dialogue on inter-subjectivity, and at both intersections technology intervened with a simultaneity cross-referenced in a momentous moment to make temporal distances interchangeable. This time, then, in the on-line communities of collective stimulants, remembered, here, in experimental metaphors from electronic zoology, had virtually demolished the waiting room - the cybernetic habitat had become an incarnation of silence in itself. The prevailing weather forecast for this sphere promised thunder and lightning in the turmoil of an instant. A big bang in stark electric light was pointed at technology to illuminate a chaotic world where text and image would connect across the currents of other lives. At this epicenter, amidst a sensual crescendo, Sandy Stone reached the eye of the storm.
Analysis by Stephen Chalmers
Waking up early, bristling with excitement, I would make myself a bowl of cereal and sit in front of the terminal which had found its home in our kitchen, many times larger than the laptop upon which I now write. Dialing the phone, hearing the mysterious tones, and quickly placing the handset into the rubber cradle, I would log onto a DEC System 10. At around 300 baud, the terminal slowly translated the tones into characters, scrolling from left to right. I would read BBS (bulletin board) postings, play rudimentary interactive games, and write notes to unseen friends until the evening. After a little sleep the cycle would repeat. In this new world of mine, social interaction was dramatically changed by technology - I was able to communicate and have personal relationships with people I had never met. It was a truly magical time - feeling unbound by geography, unconstrained by physical reality, making acquaintances through my typed words.
Stone still feels this magic. Walking in, without notes, sitting comfortably on the steps to the stage, she stood in remarkable contrast to the majority of other presenters. Stone is a storyteller.
Stone began her discussion about identity and meaning in Cyberspace in an unlikely way - by telling her childhood memory of a hurricane. In Stone's story, anticipation and terror filled her mind as a child while a hurricane roared outside a room filled with furniture covered with sheets. Stone gave life to an Atwater Kent radio in this room, transforming it into a frightening vision of technology gone awry. The machines are restless tonight. The descriptions were so vivid; you could imagine the sheets over the chairs, flashes of lightening, the sound of rain, and the evil radio in the dark.
Stone's interest in binary relationships person/machine, fantasy/reality, physical/ethereal states draws from this experience with the seemingly alive radio. In addition to this evil radio, such characters populated her story as helmeted stuttering birds wearing Walkmans, and cats that transmitted their auditory experience to Stone as they stalked their prey. This unlikely cast was a means to express her examination of the technologies of communication and interpretation, of the possibilities of translation without loss. Her work today continues the examination of the space between binaries. Stone's story of her urgency to affect the understanding of time and space through the study of these dualities entranced the audience.
Stone moved from stories of cyborg cats and birds, into a discussion about early computer systems. Regarding the SysOps (System Operators) of these networks, she viewed their jobs as one of fascist surveillance and control of information - in a world of limited server space, someone has to decide what material stays and what goes. Her vision of a utopian community would be one without a server, one not controlled by an individual, or even the laws of the physical world. Stone feels that technology can be liberating or enslaving, it's what we do with it that defines its morality.
Stone's story again segued from one seemingly unrelated topic to another, this time from fascist SysOps to the Zen of MOO. MUDS (Multi-User Dungeon, Dimension, or Domain) are computer applications that simulate environments, and in the primitive versions the user interacted with the computer, which responded to commands such as go west, with pre-programmed text-based responses. In later versions participants were able to interact with each other and the computer, and then eventually MOOs (object oriented, instead of text oriented MUDs) were developed, providing tools to create and modify objects with new properties. These environments are an interactive fictional world, complete with their own socio-cultural environment supporting synchronous communication. This definition of MOOs/MUDs would encompass the large (significantly larger than the number users with good social change in mind) group of gamers. In popular non-utopian games such as Quake, players can design the arena in which their virtual being can communicate with and/or kill other people's virtual beings. Stone stated that the next generations of MOOs/MUDSs are in the experimental stage, these environments will be entirely graphic based and will evolve based on the interactions between objects in the environments, even if there are no human participants.
Stone is drawn to the environment of MOOs/MUDs, because of the freedom of identity that they provide. Being disembodied in Cyberspace, you can define yourself as any person you desire. Your mind is freed from your body - your textual being is separated from your physical being. She feels that textual life has an existence of its own, which is sometimes more interesting than physical body, although the textual/physical can coexist.
Stone is hopeful that what will be done with the technology of the MOO/MUD environments will be liberating, and create a new, better social order. This new order will be one of loose and ever changing, individually defined social hierarchies.
This Utopian vision is hard to imagine. In 1994 there were just a couple of thousand of pages on the Internet, just five years later there are hundreds of millions. In this explosively logarithmic growth, the vast majority of pages are for commerce, a point that Stone did not address in her discussion. It's hard to see where technology, which is primarily business and profit driven, could effect social change, but I hope she is right.