In cooperation with Yuval Levi (visuals)
“It never occurs to people that a satellite environment can alter the perceptions of the entire human race. They have no theory that permits them to obtain such a concept of metamorphosis. In fact, we perceive the satellite environment whether we conceive it or not.” (McLuhan 1999: 83)
Very early on, Marshall McLuhan noticed the impact of new technologies on perception and thinking, redefining the concept of “media”. With a much larger number of satellites in orbit than in 1970, when the quoted interview was published, it’s still not obvious: how do we perceive them? After five decades of media theory, might we still lack a concept of the changes in perception caused by media, which are—in a way—in front of our eyes and yet invisible? Not only satellites, but also computer networks; the infrastructures and sensors “behind” mobile devices, interfaces, and websites—things that might not have an obvious connection with perception but are still shaping it?
One of the basic assumptions of media theory is that media make something visible (audible, perceptible) but disappear “behind” what is seen and heard—the picture, song or story: “We do not hear air vibrations but the sound of the bell; we do not read letters but a story” (Krämer 1998: 74). The empirical sciences offer an explanation of how perception works behind the stage of consciousness, so to speak: air vibrations can be measured, described, calculated and visualised. The latest techniques of measuring or visualising non-conscious perception seem to discover entirely new dimensions in the process, which alone become accessible in (digital) technologies. “Non-conscious cognition”, as Katherine Hayles (2017) characterises it, is based on the processing of data, which can also generate a visible or audible output—images, sounds, graphs, etc.—but does not have to. That there are pre-reflexive or unconscious processes that determine (conscious) perception has already been shown in different ways by phenomenology or psychoanalysis. What is new, however, is that the non-conscious cognition made accessible by digital technologies does not have to be related to (human) consciousness. Here, it is not consciousness, the subject, the mind or the human being who processes the perceptual data, so to speak, but machines that do not see or hear, but calculate.
New media are thus not only instruments that make something accessible that remains hidden to the naked eye, or something that allows us to see better – the smallest details or something far away. They allow us to recognize something completely different than what we (humans) can actually perceive. Moreover, they make something conceivable and perceptible which would simply not exist without them: connections between different processes in nature or society that can neither be observed nor formulated as a hypothesis, based on knowledge gained so far, but which emerge as a new relation in the analysis of large data (thanks to pattern recognition). Such new media allows to ask, how (old) media have produced the idea of a “consciousness” in the first place and why we – in this case not the human species, but culturally and historically located concrete individuals – actually see the way we see, and think seeing or see thinking. This “media apriori” implicated by Hayles would reject the idea that there is a “natural” seeing, perception that is not historically and culturally conditioned, as well as consciousness as a scientifically deduced fact. But Hayles’ argumentation is inconsistent: on the one hand, consciousness appears to be a “natural” phenomenon explained by cognitive science – and media are degraded to mere instruments with the help of which new, ever larger parts of non-conscious cognition can be brought “to light”, into consciousness: they can be described, calculated, measured etc. On the other hand, the (new) facts – data – are solely based on digital technologies that show and explain how cognition works by allowing cognitive processes to be measured, calculated and simulated. The facts/data are produced by the technologies of their processing.
Recognition in the technical sense is not only about instruments that observe, describe and measure something given – “natural” – but about generating data that would not exist without the respective technologies.
Cognitive processes are what can be computed and simulated. The consequence of “media a priori” is, firstly, to question the scientific viewpoint by bringing to the fore the manifold practices and techniques without which there would be no “facts” at all – observing, describing, measuring, visualising, etc. – as Bruno Latour and others have shown. Second, it would also be possible to reflect the specificity of digital technologies that are changing science itself – indeed, technology becoming the foundation of knowledge, as well as culture and society. However, in order to be able to show these changes at all, new technologies cannot be interpreted as the next stage in the scientific development of the human mind, in a combination of the “faith in scientific progress” and the “media apriori”. Rather, they must be understood as historically and culturally conditioned media.
However, cognitive science may offer a model of seeing in a completely different sense than Hayles’ offers, allowing us to take a closer look at media: Peripheral vision refers to non-intentional or non-conscious perception which is a self-evident and yet hardly noticed part of normal vision: We can see only 1% of our field of vision in “high resolution” (foveal vision). The other part—up to a 180° angle—allows us to “map” the whole field of vision and to focus on the parts that are relevant. For example, upon hearing the growling of an animal, you will direct the attention to a big brown spot or an “animal-like” movement that you see (in “low resolution”) from the corner of your eye—even if it might turn out just to be a rock, or a tree moving in the wind. With the focus – or “foveal vision” – all indistinct seeing disappears. It becomes only a background of what attention is directed at—the infrastructure of seeing, so to speak. Significantly, it is precisely the tiny part of the field of vision that plays the decisive role in the scientific perspective: foveal vision, which explores the regions not yet (clearly and distinctly) perceived, opens the black box of perception.
“Just as people intuitively believe that seeing is a matter only of opening one’s eyes, cognitive scientists also once assumed that visual perception is like a videotape—that the mind records what the eyes take in.” (Carpenter 2001) From a media-theoretical perspective it is not only reflected, but also shaped by media like photography, film, video. What you see is a “realistic” picture, the camera just “cuts out” a part of reality as we (the human race) perceive it. Media theory questions this idea, pointing out that vision and its media are inseparable: Vision and its understanding, seeing and thinking, are always-already shaped by optical instruments—just as much as by (techniques of making) pictures, architecture (which creates different views), and trains, ships or cable cars (which allow different kinds of the perception of a landscape than walking on foot). Photography and film do not represent how human beings see—they produce a certain way of looking. We are therefore able to say that a photograph is not a perfect representation of the real world, but a perfect representation of the scientific worldview, as Vilém Flusser suggests in his philosophy of photography, published in the beginning of the 80s: It actually shows the theories of optics or chemistry, constructing an image according to the scientific worldview: An image in which everything is clearly visible, clearly and distinctly perceived and conceived, in all its details, from different angles, not “deformed” by a subjective viewpoint in which sight and thought are prefigured by interests, memories, cultural background etc. Flusser’s crucial point is, however, that photographers have the ability to “deconstruct” this (world) picture—to play with the settings of the camera and create unexpected images, turn the attention to the apparatus, and thus its/the scientific concepts.
Decades after Flusser`s Philosophy of Photography, both intentionality and the subjective viewpoint—which allow us to focus, to see things clearly and in detail—have been challenged by a non-human viewpoint, automatically created and manipulable images: a machine vision which not only mimics scientific/photographic vision, but which also introduces different parameters: Different concepts, drawing on computer science rather than physics and chemistry, on which the invisible code of the image is based; different scales, concerning resolution as much as the amount of images; different perspectives and movements created by satellites, drones, mini cameras etc. If this challenge provokes a shift from foveal to peripheral vision, then rather than generating new pictures, it brings forth new practices or techniques of scanning, mapping, detecting, sensing. Not just the background of recognizing an object, reacting to a face or observing an action, peripheral vision allows us to address seeing as a process which always includes intentional and nonintentional, conscious and nonconscious, directed and contingent, active and passive aspects.
Peripheral vision does not suggest that we turn our attention to objects or architectures that are ignored or, more precisely, not perceived. Rather, that we take account of the changes in seeing itself. Not in the sense of a “natural” vision that is discovered or enhanced by technical devices, but of a seeing and thinking that is shaped by historically changing media of perception, which are reflected in the changes of media conditions. Following Flusser’s media philosophy, “natural” cognitive processes are as much an effect of scientific practices and techniques as different ways of seeing, hearing or feeling are effects of artistic practices. “Media” entails epistemic as much as aesthetic practices—for instance, the camera is an apparatus designed (and used) in science and engineering as well as in art, and as an aesthetic or aisthetic practice always connecting both.
Peripheral vision marks a shift in media practices, bringing forth different ways (and concepts) of perception, in/with/through new and old media. It does not follow the logic of progress of cognitive science connected to computer science, but develops in critical aesthetic-epistemic practices.
Media theory in this sense does not open the black box of (new) technologies, but rather deals with the paradox of the open secret of media effects: while there’s no doubt that they exist, they can only be traced in an “indirect” way, not as something you can see, but in the changes in vision itself.
We are aware of mechanical eyes observing streets and corridors, of grids that are as vital for urban spaces as houses, that enable the city to be managed, controlled, mapped, designed and read. Perhaps we notice the human and non-human agents of their infrastructures from the corner of our eyes. It is only on the peripheries that the grid catches our attention—in landscapes that still seem to be shaped by paintings and photographs, following different architectures of perception. A solar collector in the desert is still an eye-catcher. At first you might have no clue what the luminous tower in the middle of nowhere is—trying in vain to recognize its contours and compare it with familiar architecture, or with science fiction films; images of ancient temples and so on. It may even be a blind spot in the photographic-scientific architecture, capturing the attention and becoming invisible thanks to its reflecting surface—blinding the lens of the eye and camera. Not a tower as a landmark, designed to be seen from afar, changing its colors according to the sunlight. Not offering a view from above or shedding light on the surrounding, but “absorbing” light, using it completely independent of seeing—transforming it into electric energy. Rather than reflecting the gaze, the solar collector unintentionally tests the lens of the eye and the camera, another device analyzing and processing light. There are few moments when the changes in the landscape are so eye-catching. At other times, one perceives them just out of the corner of one’s eye. But perhaps the “corner of the eye” of the cameras are not only part of the changed landscapes and new architectures of perception, but also make it possible to to re-flect them, to bring something into view; and perhaps rather than showing something new, let us see and think in a different way.
McLuhan, Marshall ( 2002), The Medium and the Light, Gingko Press.
Siri Carpenter (2001), Monitor on Psychology, April 2001, Vol 32, No. 4, online:
https://www.apa.org/monitor/apr01/blindness (accessed on August 25th).
Flusser, Vilém (2000), Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Reaktion Books.
Hayles, N. Katherine (2017). Unthought. The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious. University of Chicago Press.
Krämer, Sybille (1998), „Das Medium als Spur und Apparat“, in: Krämer, S. (ed.), Medium, Computer, Realität. Wirklichkeitsvorstellungen und Neuen Medien, Suhrkamp.