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Art, Technology, and Cybernetic Systems:

Walter Benjamin and Bill Nichols

June 1995 ~ I can remember every occasion that I encountered a computer in the first fifteen years of my life. The first time was when my family lived in Orono, Maine (outside of Bangor), and my father was a graduate student at the university there. One day he took me up to campus to a computer terminal that spewed out rolls of paper, and he told me to play computer golf while he worked on his thesis. I was seven at the time, and golf didn’t interest me very much, especially golf that you had to read about, so I tried to get the terminal to do something else. It wouldn’t; the printer just sat there, humming and frustrating, until my father came to collect me.

My second encounter was more satisfying; the next year I was taken to the plastic paradise of Disney World. In the futuristic hotel where we stayed there was a game room, and in the room was a game called Space Wars. For a quarter, I could control a tiny white ship on a computer screen which sped through a closed world trying to shoot down another, computer-controlled ship.

I think it is interesting that I see these two events as landmarks of a certain kind; obviously, computer technology was influencing my life from the moment of my birth, and in ways I was both conscious and unconscious of. On that vacation to Florida, I was even subjected to the horror of Disney’s “audio-animatronic” Hall of the Presidents, an animated, computer-controlled wax museum of failed democracy in the midst of Watergate America. But to me, the truly profound and important moments are the ones which go beyond watching, and become interactive.

When I was 17, my parents bought me an outrageously expensive Radio Shack TRS-80 microcomputer, with 8 K of RAM and cassette tape storage. In the very same year that I failed grade 12 math, I taught myself the BASIC programming language and wrote elaborate, cascading lines of programming code. In my first semester of university I took computer science; I was good at programming, but there was something wrong with what I was doing. If I continued I imagined myself sitting in a room with no windows, eating donuts and typing out code, wrapped up in the geeky buzz of creation, constructing a world but not living in one. I took a “Philosophy of Art” course my second semester and didn’t get as good a grade.

I has always had, since then, something of a love-hate relationship with the computer. My own limited creative development as both a writer and graphic designer have paralleled my interest in computers; I wrote all my plays and stunted novels on a Macintosh, and have done most of my design work on one as well. At the same time, I have learned about computers and how they worked, and though I consider all these things creative, I would like to have a better sense of what it is I am encountering, how it has changed the way I do things, and who I am.

Walter Benjamin and Bill Nichols cannot answer these questions fully, but they do much to both problematize and illuminate the process of art and the human encounter with technology. Benjamin argues that art, in terms of both perception and practice, has undergone fundamental changes in Western culture. He makes a distinction between art as ritual and art as exhibition; Nichols builds upon these concepts by adding his notions of art within contemporary “cybernetic” culture.

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin seems to yearn for an art which was once irreproducible and sacred, a kid of art which has been replaced by forms of mass media such as film and radio. He states that while art has always been reproducible, the ease with which art can be recreated has increased, in fits and starts, over time (Benjamin 321). This ability to reproduce has had an impact on the art itself: its form, its content, and how it is perceived.

Benjamin believes that art was initially of cult or ritual value; each piece had some sort of historical and physical identification, or “aura” (322). Although a work and its copy might seem identical, the original has something of a psychic presence, a sense within the viewer that this artifact has a definite and appropriate place in time, space, and tradition itself. Benjamin gives the example of an Ancient Greek statue, which has a particular aura which would mean something different to a group of medieval Christian monks then it would to the ancients who created it (325). The aura, then, is grounded in tradition, what Benjamin identifies as the “cult value” of a work, a sense which at times would make it unimportant whether an art object was visible or seen by the masses (327-8).

Mechanical reproduction changes this fundamental of art. By putting copies of an original work in places where the original can or will not go, mechanical reproduction “depreciates” the quality of the work, detaching it from its traditional ritual location (323). The reproduced work, although bringing something of the experience of the original to the audience, substitutes “a plurality of copies for a unique experience” and destroys the “traditional values of cultural heritage” (324).

Over time, Benjamin claims, the use of art changed from ritual to political; once art was freed from its “parasitical” relationship with cult, it became portable and reproducible. He describes a contemporary art which is produced specifically for exhibition, to have a broad audience. Paintings, for instance, are not created to be shown to large numbers of people at once, while most films are (330).

In “The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems,” Bill Nichols builds on some of Benjamin’s arguments while at the same time critiquing some of his seeming contradictions. He identifies and comments upon a “correspondence” of three types of changes described by Benjamin: “in the economic mode of production, in the nature of art and in categories of perception” (23). The art influences cultural and societal choices, which in turn influences new technologies. According to Nichols, we have entered a new age, beyond one where art is cult or even mechanically reproduced, into an era of “cybernetic systems” (Nichols 26). We no longer speak simply of mechanical reproduction, but of digital reproduction and intelligent machines, the creation of systems with which we interact and not just gaze at.

Nichols’ core question becomes: how have social realities been reformed and adjusted by means of electronic communication and computer technology? Key to Nichols is his notion of the “simulacra”: the Other, separate from ourselves which none-the-less serves to “guarantee an identity based on what can never be part of oneself” (28). Over time, Nichols states, human identity has changed; first, humans are compared to animals, then machines. Now, we are both human and machine, a cybernetic system or “cyborg.”

The notion of the text also undergoes significant slippage in this cybernetic world (28). It is impossible to imagine a fixed, ritual art object, its aura intact, in an environment in which it can be so easily manipulated, and in which manipulation is expected. There is a face-to-face encounter with the text which would have been both intolerable and impossible in the past. Nichols states that this enhanced ability to test and change the environment is touched on by Benjamin when he speaks of film directing.

According to Nichols, just as mechanical reproduction makes authenticity and originality problematic, cybernetic systems make such issues as reality and experience difficult to define (30). In place of human inter-subjectivity we discover a systems interface; while Benjamin’s copy reproduces the world and therefore compromises its aura, the computer chip can simulate experience in space and time and thus destroy the aura. And although the cybernetic system gives the user what Nichols calls an “awesome feeling of power and control,” these choices are always within a certain predefined set (30).

Between them, Benjamin and Nichols describe a transformation of culture, in both practice and perception, a transformation which both writers seem at best ambivalent toward. Benjamin in particular cannot seem to decide whether he dislikes new aesthetics which might arise from changes in both technology and perception (such as Picasso), or whether the loss of cult value should be mourned.

Nichols and Benjamin raise so many issues for me that I only wish to pull out a few threads, and begin what could certainly be a long process of unraveling. I am particularly interested in two issues: the process which creates of computer technology, and the question of gender and technological control.

I was initially skeptical of Nichols assertion that cybernetic systems were developed in a manner which “for the most part ... served the logic of capitalism, commodity exchange, control and hierarchy” (Nichols 46). I would not disagree that these goals are threads which run through the development of computer technology, but they are not the only threads by any means. I would go so far as to suggest that other themes, almost completely the opposite of these, have played as important a role in the creation of such technologies within a mostly unwritten history of the development of computer technologies.

In his 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, journalist Steve Levy presents a rather complex picture of the emerging “hacker culture” which created personal computer technologies in the 1970s and early-1980s. Levy describes one incident in particular which should interest any student of contemporary technological development: the feud between a young Bill Gates (who would go on to found Microsoft) and a group of computer programmers, the Homebrew Computer Club of Palo Alto, California. The argument, never resolved, was over Gates’ insistence that members of the hacker club, who had heretofore created and exchanged computer software without any money changing hands, pay for a copy of his first commercial success, a version of BASIC for the Altair microcomputer. A basic tenant of hacker culture, before and since, has been that charging for software is immoral, an indication of greed (Levy 228). This “hacker ethic” has other ideals as well:

Access to computers – and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total.... All information should be free... Mistrust authority – promote decentralization... Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position... You can create art and beauty on a computer... Computers can change your life for the better. (39-45)

Of the Hacker Ethic, Levy writes:

The precepts of this revolutionary Hacker Ethic were not so much debated and discussed as silently agreed upon. No manifestos were issued. No missionaries tried to gather converts. The computer did the converting... (39)

While I would argue that this Hacker Ethic is one which (to paraphrase Nichols) transcends limiting and existing cybernetic models, such ideals are only part of the story. As important as they were to the developers of personal computers systems in the early-1980s, or to Internet Utopians today, we cannot ignore the source of so much of the support and funding for computer technologies: the United States Defense Department and transnational capital. Certainly, such projects as the Internet were “taken over” by programmers who wrote the first mail and conferencing protocols on their own and without permission; the Internet had not been first established to do anything more than facilitate logging-in to remote computers. But once electronic mail and other communications were part of the protocols, they ended up being used for military applications.

I want to pull out another string, related to this. Nichols writes:

The hidden agenda of mastery and control, the masculinist bias at work in video games, in Star Wars, in the reality of the simulation (of invasions, raids and wars), in the masculine need for autonomy and control as it corresponds to the logic of a capitalist marketplace becomes dramatically obvious when we look at the artificial reproduction of human life. (43)

Nichols further mentions the transformation of the cinematic “male gaze” into the cybernetic “control of simulated interactions” (31-32). Nichols is correct in his assertion that most video games players are adolescent or pre-adolescent males, while the majority of computer programmers are men. Writes Steve Levy of the male-dominated “hacker culture” of the late-1970s:

[They] formed an exclusively male culture. The sad fact was that there never was a star-quality female hacker. No one knows why. There were women programmers and some of them were good, but none seemed to take hacking as a holy calling the way [other hackers] did. Even the substantial cultural bias against women getting into serious computing does not explain the utter lack of female hackers. (84)

Levy goes on to describe one hacker’s theory that there are genetic, what he called “hardware reasons,” why women did not become hackers (Levy 84).

To me, this is one of the most difficult and complex questions around new technologies. I feel that as soon as this matter is discussed, we begin to over-simplify the nature of much of this technology, as well as both essentialize men and women. I am tempted to begin not with the barriers which keep women away from these tools, but the pathologies which might lead men into them, and the complex societal processes which disempower both genders, though in different ways. Although the Hacker Ethic I mentioned above promotes openness and opportunity, computer culture can be often be closed and difficult to outsiders, because the social aspects of hacking are never openly discussed within hacking circles themselves.

I am reminded of an article in an old issue of Mondo 2000 (which I have since misplaced) about one of the few top female names in computer technology. She said that once, when she was online engaged in a discussion with a group of (male) Internet hackers about feminism and the lack of women on the Net, one of the men finally blurted out: “Why do you think we’re here? It’s to get away from you.” I would suggest he was rejecting his anima as much as anything real within his social world, admitting his inability to deal with the feminine, social aspects of his own nature. How many young men, alienated and unable to find a social role for himself in adolecence, find in computer technology a way of interacting and doing which provides feedback but avoids judgment or humiliation?

I feel I have already waded too far out into the deep and treacherous waters of feminist theory, but would like to finish with some comments about the notion of empowerment and simulation which Nichols describes. Although I would tend to agree with his assertion that playing video and computer games becomes “an interactive ritual that becomes totally self-absorbing” (29), computer and video games have changed somewhat since 1988 when his article was published. I would suggest that one must now look at other aspects of these games in order to place them in a complete cultural context.

For instance, the playing of video games, though seemingly isolating, is often a profoundly social event, something that is done with friends. Magazines describe how certain techniques can be used in the games, and these tactics are shared among friends and acquaintances within a social process. As well, the genres of video and computer games have changed since the mid-1980s, and a sort of dichotomy has developed, with particularly violent combat games on one extreme, and complex simulations on the other. The combat games, which emphasize complicated eye-hand techniques and are particularly violent (such as Mortal Combat and Street Fighter) remain the virtual domain of men. At another extreme are the interactive environments, often on CD-ROM, which have little or no conflict and emphasize exploration and problem solving; these programs, such as Myst and CD-ROM projects such as The Resident’s Freak Show, have found broad appeal among both men and women. It may be that the seeming masculinist bias of the technology may in explained through the biases of its creators, and that with a broader range of interactions available, these gender differences will reveal themselves as not quite as “hard-wired” as we had initially thought.

Nichols and Benjamin raise as many questions as they answer about my own encounter with technology; it seems a difficult task to write about the impacts of technology on culture and perception when one is immersed in them. However, I take some encouragement from the Nichols’ last few lines; he writes:

The task is not to overthrow the prevailing cybernetic model but to transgress it predefined interdictions and limits, using the dynamic of the appreciative powers it has itself brought into being. (46)

I would identify here within Nichols some recognition, for the most part ignored by him, of the act of hacking which I mentioned earlier and which is clearly vital to the development of contemporary technologies. For the most part, the word hacking is used to refer to learning a technology and making it your own, but it can also mean using aspects of culture to transcend it. Both types of hacking now seem essential if we are to find human solutions as we encounter an increasingly cybernetic (as Nichols described it) and corporate world. ~ John Stevenson


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Harry Zohn, trans. 1936. Excerpt.

Levy, Steven. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Dell Publishing, 1984.

Nichols, Bill. “The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems.” Screen 29 (May 1988): 22-46.


Copyright © 1995, 1996, 2001 John Harris Stevenson,