Thursday, February 14, 2008

Amplification, cause and effect

One of the most interesting parts of Generation Flash by Lev Manovich is where he discusses the amplification powers of computers and digital media. He describes how a slight flick of a joystick can initiate an elaborate sequence of events within a computer game, most of which do not correspond to the user’s input in an obvious way. He writes, “this power puts a computer in line with other magical devices” (213). After reading this, I realized that such amplification is a major part of what makes digital experience so exciting. One hopes that some day, our actions will be amplified in genuinely meaningful and useful ways. Contemporary examples are less than inspiring: I can think of how missiles can be targeted and launched with a few keystrokes, and the best that Manovich mentions is Microsoft Office Assistant guessing when we need help (usually unhelpfully, I must add).

Manovich puts forth another idea that is in conflict with the appeal of amplification. In describing the Shockwave project UTOPIA, he explains, “UTOPIA is Utopia because it is a society in which cause and effect connection are rendered visible and comprehensible” (213). How fantastic: a world where we can understand everything that is going on, where rationality and preference can flourish. But if computers are to offer us amplification, where the consequences of our actions are far more complex than our inputs, how are we to feel in complete control? Amplification and unambiguous consequentiality are both exciting things that digital media can offer, but do they mix well?

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