The Long Dark Phone-in of the Soul

By Matthew Fuller, 10 September 1997

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So, it seems, is intelligence. If you are using agent technology, at least. Intelligent technologies may seem like a friendly helping hand for those who feel lost or overwhelmed in the information age. But is it really a jungle out there? Matthew Fuller looks at some popular information-myths and questions who and what intelligent agents are serving.

In Los Angeles they are collapsing in the streets. Down the stock exchange, brains are melting. More is happening than anyone can possibly cope with. Information overload - the very contemporary scurge.

Possibly the most abundant and competitive life form in this apocalyptic effusion of detail - factoids. Shake a media executive for an opinion, and along with his wallet and dandruff you're likely to get: "A typical issue of the Los Angeles Times contains more information than a 17th century Englishman was exposed to in his entire life." <1> Notwithstanding the complete fatuousness and curiously obvious unprovability of such an assertion, it is one that resonates with a general apprehension. Rather than being faced with a qualitative improvement in intelligence, the human race is doomed to fry under the sheer quantitative inrease of infotainment to be processed. In an information economy in which anxious formats format an anxious relaity there is a handy answer being proffered. For delicate sensibilities exhausted by mental stimulation, intelligent agents are hailed as as sure a tool for coping with the spew as a machine gun is for doing business with a banker.<2>

Independent software agents that roam the nets; crawlers; ultra personalised data-services from the aggressive to the ambient; insidious taxonomies sheathed in unctuous butlers or data-santas with the tastes of a magpie and jammy hearts of gold. But before we get into the technical specifications...

The Intensive Care of the Self

A moist, warm, little homunculus of tender flesh, sheathed in thick sweet musuc is clamped down hard into layers and layers of bone. Bone with can - under the correct conditions of clemency and etiquette - be progressively stropped off to reveal the true being. As the bone and metal casing folds down, resplendent in the force of its sovereign originality, a purple clot of compressed flesh cowers naked, yearning for an intimacy that it can never accommodate. In its skull bunker air is changed every two seconds. A thick purple umbilical cord trails slackly down into its spine. In the windowless white tiled production areas which have airlocks and are kept at a constant 37 degrees centigrade by a coddling system equivalent to 9200 hostess trolleys, the human is panicked at being 'misrepresented' by its agents. Its heart, opened to the page on the account book where all the frauds and tenderness are stored, reads:

The world outside is strange, complicated and incoherent.

This delicate clot of feeling is dropped like a fish into fat. Into a new room. A capsule with flickering walls. It opens its eyes and sees a bewildering collage of images each in its own window: flowers, details of European cathedrals and Shinto temples, Chinese landscape art, magnified images of insects and pollen grains, many-armed Indian goddesses, planets and moons of the solar system, abstract patterns from the Islamic world, graphs of mathematical equations, head shots of models male and female.<3> The rapidly accreted symbology of cyberspace pastorale: great lurid globs of data, sphinxes thrown up by mist; bit-mapped epiphanies; time-lapse video of colourful diseases; insurgencies mapped into larva-lamp belches; them wire-framed; the very miserable zentertainment.

Intelligent agents form around a compound of three usages of 'intelligences'. That of facts or news that are discovered, and perhaps made commerce of. That connoting an individual mental understanding, here perhaps more closely, as a quality that can be scientifically measured, (if not quite put into operation) as IQ. And finally, the definition offered by James DerDerian in looking at the field of International Relations, "Intelligence is the continuation of war by the clandestine interference of one power into the affairs of another power."<4>

The development of intelligent agents is also at the same time, the development of those destined to use them. From this neat little loop ramifications multiply out into the production, distribution and formatting of intelligence. The human frame, once feared incapable of being hurled along in an automobile at an immense thirty miles per hour is now assailed by a tripartite hurricane of bits. Intelligence as object, intelligence as suppleness or technique and intelligence as war.

The point of intersection of all these spiralling foundations is subjectivity.

For the user the services of agents are invoked to give you the information htat you need, to give you the information you on't ordinarily have time to find, and to have it given when you need it,in a manner that suits your humour. Whilst for the agent, if the user is |"a man of the least spirit he will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid."<5>, the agent is also to take these breaks, shudders, deviations, and insolubles and reconcile them into a recognisable whole.

Such a mix of behaviours corresponds to the first two definitions of intelligence: that of intelligence about an object or fact, and that of intelligence as measurable quality or technique. This modulation of two patterns - those of the agent and the user - into one, could perhaps be said to produce a gestalt, a third mind that is the recording sum of the developement and changes in the patterns as they move through time. However this gestalt is not just one of a harmonious synthesis but also the point of leakage - one that is directly implicated in intelligence as war - that pulls things out of equilibrium and into the realms of meaning-making apparatus and power.

One response is to take a step back from this cacophonous danger, and reformulate the relationship. For the user, the agent can function as a kind of sympathetic magic. Purify the self by its endless bespoke repetition. A way of finding an other that will be always self-similar. This is the escape from information overload through the construction of safe worlds. Just as the Hilton or McDonald's is a place you can go where it will always be the authorised version of America, this is an escape from history into cyclical time.

Here the agent, potential vector of not just communication but transformation, becomes another tagging device in the social prison. The tag locks you into one place and stops you moving. The agent roams the nets to return with a mirror. Stay where you are. Don't move. Hooked up as a device for the reiteration of the One, narcissus becomes narcosis.

Attempting to maintain and pursue only its own interest, and therefore by-pass alienation, the loop between agent and user rapidly contracts into nothing. For, if "self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact, that it so exists for another; that is it exists only in being acknowledged"<6> the master is always dependent on receiving the gaze of the bondsman, who, in a reflex of liquid termination, absorbs the One and winks out of existence.

From Obliteration through purity, backzoom.

Formulated somewhere in the tension between the regurgitated alienation epiphany of the doom gurus and a legitimate technical problem, the following scene:

almost entrepreneurial, almost newly gut-bucketed, not so much dressed down as dressed across, (so great is their will to communicate). The heroically swivel-chair bound cosmonauts of inner space. Optic nerves toasting in the light of reports back from the front. Reports of superhuman passions and superhuman perversities. File transfer debauches perpetrated without enthusiasm and without hope. This is not so much a scenario of the agent being a fragment of ego, detached and flung out into the world to forage for glory, so much as the ego as glutinous aggregate that forms in the place of a common-sense compromise between ideal and possibility.

In the same way that Lyndon B. Johnson, on ascending to the White House after Kennedy's brief and brutal reign insisted on having all of his phone calls tapped, agents can provide a strictly empirical answer to the matinee re-screens of the eternal questions: what am I and what the fuck am I doing here? This is the problematic formed in the tension between formatted information and formatted data-personality: the version of the user stored in the agent's database. (How long before an exciting hospital drama features an attempt to restore personality to a post-traumatic amnesiac by what emerges as stored in their databases?)

Autonomous software agents make choices and execute actions on behalf of the user. They embody the expertise to find and present information to the user, respond dynamically to the user's changing goals, preferences, learning style, and knowledge. In many contexts, this implies the ability to find or create alternate representations of information. The aspect of autonomy requires some degree of intelligence in the agent, and, given the current state of artificial intelligence, of pre-existing structure in the underlying information.

The other bottleneck is formulated well by Jaron Lanier. "I am concerned that people will gradually and perhaps not even consciously, adjust their lives to make agents appear smart. If an agent seems smart, it might really mean that people have dumbed themselves down to make their lives more easily representable by the agents' simple database design."<7>Fragments are added to the spew as a consequence of what? Public relations? Debt? The ingestion of substances? A capsized mind? Tight shoes? Philately? The occurrence of both of these bottlenecks is rooted in the transition of something ostensibly more messy into something conforming to database needs. Both multiplied and perplexed, the Bakhtinian version of dialogue as the word as two-sided act is subject to an uncanny mutational turbulence wherein machine hermeneutics meets vivisection. Acted upon by the labelling, classification, positioning and fixing routines of databases, perception becomes rooted to observable stimulus events which can be manipulated and - hooked up into a polygraph of inhibitory and excitatory interactions - correlated (correctly or incorrectly) to the internal events of the user, database or agent. Thus, between and within: the continuing onrush of the spew; the databases formatting the spew and making it readable to agents; the interpretative interaction of the agents and databases; the interaction between agent and user - whereby both are read and reformatted; and the messy transformational behaviour of the user on behalf of which the agent is making choices and executing actions, there is a possibility for the development of a plurality that can resist anything better than its own diversity. This possibility however is the point at which intelligence as technique and suppleness segues into intelligence as war.

Currently, as Lanier points out, the fog of intelligence is thinned by the depletion of possibility. Just as users of handwriting recognition PDAs are forced to turn their script into that of pre-schoolers in order to make use of their machines, (writing recognition programs training the user to write in a way it can recognise); or just as some live their lives to avoid producing data that might arouse the suspicions of credit agencies; and - conversely - just as insurance ratings are made on the basis of data-mined assessments of residential area, sex, age, trade, and other details; the existence of a person in data-space, their data-body, has often become more important than their flesh. This organic residue of citizenship, gathered into the fold of insurance, banking, medical services and produce preferences, is gradually reduced to a device for the registration of punishment for transgression of, or reward for compliance to these structures.

At the same time as software packages such as Textract are developed to cross-reference and search every possible kind of database, (including video and audio surveillance footage; supposedly safe data-sources such as medical, employment and school records; as well as more obviously open sources such as credit ratings, tax and criminal records) for the purposes of centralised agencies such as the police and the military, network technologies are impacting on vertical control. The Los Angeles Police Department caused a sensation amongst officers when it introduced a career tracking system that included the use of neural networks to spot patterns of types of disciplinary infractions that might lead to dangerous, unauthorised behaviour<8>. Whilst data-mining has been used by astronomers to map new galaxies it is also being used to bring a flat, scrutinising light to every kind of darkness. That these pattern-finding technologies are of a kindred technical nature to agents and the databases that they negotiate illustrates that pattern-enforcing and pattern-producing are also not exactly distantly related.

That this personalised inquisition may well have the bludgeoning sophistication and accuracy of customer profile questionnaires is perhaps a relief, for the moment. However, it also provides an opportunity for some commentators to suggest that this software needs to use some kind of personality as its interface to increase the user's fun and productivity quotients. As promoted by boom gurus the anthropomorphisation and personalisation of agents is developed to encourage an engagement with 'intuitive' narratives and the suspension of disbelief through projection onto and through the agent. Personalities are intended to communicate the agent's predispositions to users, thereby enabling them to understand, predict the results of, and successfully deploy the associated behaviours. Librarians, butlers and well-trained and faithful dogs as well as the familiar noir image of the detective as a maverick thought - a stray neural impulse in some great night-time brain - have all been suggested as models.

Whilst experts from industries such as theatre and animation have offered themselves as authorities in the humanities, the study of what humans can be reduced to, in order to fine tune the minimal amount of remorselessly cheerful or focus-grouped cantankerous but cute emotional coating necessary to make this technology a real hit, we are perhaps first more likely to see the more widespread introduction of branded personalities for knowbots. After all who wants to know what they themselves might be interested in when they can delve into the media subconscious of a star selling diagrammatics of their personal or projected tastes - along with the inevitable myriad of nested brand endorsements and links? Who can wait till Martha Stewart becomes a fully automated choice machine?

Before Artificial Life labs start ratcheting up the volume control and churning out a dazzlingly hi-spec array of customisable taste modes from the Epicurean to the anorexic, it might be worth considering that while many interface designers believe that users are constantly plunged into disorientation, or get lost while attempting to find their way through a myriad connecting documents and links, the truth is often rather that users are sucked into overorienting loops that are impossible to escape from. Having this trap facilitated by a clip-art personality might make it a great interpersonal experience. As you and your agent share the growing sense of imprisonment, watch its vocabulary of boredom gradually run to panic and then mysteriously dry up.

On the nets, supply exceeds demand by several orders of magnitude: spew. This has effectively meant for instance the demise of many but the most exclusive or well-niched subscription and pay-per-view services. Perhaps agents as devices for the production of remote and expanded demand are useful to capital because they can be seen to artificially inflate demand to match supply through the proliferation of automated hits - thus allowing the realistic possibility of widespread tariffs. If it occurs however, this option is rather likely to fail again after a time - at the key choke point to the flow - the entry to the user: the distinctly serial port of the human eye socket. In the longer term, in order to maximise the potential for profit then there needs to be a tightening up on supply - political and economic censorship. This, for the truly modern user, coupled with the invention of new orifices and the diversification of on-line time. These are not considerations specifically inherent to agents, but they do form part of the grimly crumby fitness landscapes that they may well be run through.

Perhaps as, "Information is everywhere supposed to produce an accelerated circulation of meaning, which appreciates in value as a result of accelerated turnover"<9> we will see the development of a new kind of internal marketplace. A competition between different agents in supplying the greatest amount of information to the same user, thus increasing their importance and hold in terms of influence and attention time.

backzoom: from self-absorbed, to self dissolved

Hitting the floor gut-clutched by food poisoning or glue. Your brain is getting cored by the gathering knowledge that you inhabit a room of five copies. Each performing a separate task: whispering hawser thick algorithms out of her mouth into a corner; studying the ceiling; beatboxing the aggression signalling noises of the haddock (steady and low increasing in speed with the intensity of the situation); the other, flatly observing the rest to offer a caustic running commentary on what she can see them doing.

...from an eternal backwards compatibility as obliteration; through interaction as disciplinary body-counting; to the aggregate of agent/user subjectivity as network. Personalisation as airport transit lounge. With control configured as cost-control, the agent as preternaturally happy accomplice to automated nit-picking carried out by an immense army of minuscule pedants concerned with the functioning of virtues and vices of a perfectly healthy everyday sort, the agent as vendor of fly-specks of detail perkily brought to your attention by focus-groupings of bits, gets sliced by the rationale of the surgery of plasticity:

"Capital only retains anthropological characteristics as a symptom of underdevelopment; reformatting primate behaviour as inertia to be dissipated in self-reinforcing artificiality. Man is something for it to overcome: a problem, drag."<10>From the point of view of capital's rictal year zero the agent is a device for strip-mining consciousness. As models of subjectivity are increasingly produced locating it as a certain level of consistency within a network of networks, the production of devices for the integration or navigation of these networks becomes paramount. The optimum personality profile is a compressed curve towards a blanked out transcendence mirrored in those abattoirs of communication - internet sites that contain nothing but links. Within this terrain of interstitial blight, surfing is depth. Behind the alluring promise of cascades of deleted idle time being efficiently suffused with a sense of meaning and significance, intelligence as technique becomes a factory of fact. Programming is here not something that merely occurs to a material substrate, (either the chip or the human) but that recomposes it in an obliteration that aims for the sublime, but that ends up as permanent fascist spasm. Bite down on this. Here come the electrons.

At the other end of the continuum from narcissistic disappearance. At the widest point of the backzoom. With the megamachine integrated to sub-atomic level. The user becomes the motor output for the laughter of control.

Stepping aside from this well prepared transition from lock-down to vaporisation <11> we can move into something else: the composition within conflict of intelligence. Writing about the different, mainly English, writings that emerged from experiences of prisoner of war and concentration camps during and after the Second World War Ken Worpole notes: "Étwo class definitions of 'freedom' that are in complete opposition: in one it is a quality associated with splendid isolation, in another it is associated with the communality of things and the mutual aid of interlocking relationships".<12>These constructions of freedom, the first that of the officer class, the second developed in the ranks bears uncanny resemblance to the direction of much of the debate around the political and cultural meaning of the nets. In another novel, bearing directly on the war but suggesting the consequences of an alternative outcome Philip K. Dick has one character, Frank Frink ponder his use of the Confucian interface to the future, the I Ching. An oracle whose counsel could be, "brought forth by the passive chance workings of the vegetable stalks. Random, and yet rooted in the moment in which he lived, in which his life was bound up with all the other lives and particles in the universe".<13>Without wishing to engage in considerations of the actual use of this device, (which has corollaries in the Tarot, tea-leaves or coin tossing as a way of informing or computing, of making judgements or of throwing another view into a situation and thus blocking, channelling or producing energy) it is to the politically charged thick connnectionism apparent from these two quotes that we can look for material and perhaps unexpected development in the construction and usage of agents.

A first clue to this might come from a look at one of the technologies offering potential in the development of agents.

A neural net acts as an associative memory that stores links between inputs and outputs, stimuli and responses. Believed to offer a topological parallel to models of some aspects of human brain function such as associative pairing and generalisation through similarity, for sheer size the most advanced neural nets still lag behind the complexity of this three pound lump of muscle - the most advanced nets have 10.000 nodes, human brains over 100 billion neurons. If enough nodes were used they could in theory be used, with varying degrees of success, to patch together a model of any system. Although, as there is no noticeable shortage of human beings, the replication of them or their behaviour seems somewhat unnecessary - the uses are elsewhere.

Neural networks can be used to learn the patterns resulting from the aptitudes and interests of the user. Because this learning constitutes the development of rules which are stored, the network can also be equipped to represent to the user what it is doing as it learns. As they work through association, perhaps nets could even be used for bringing, along with the daily harvest of information, the attention of the user to some of the user's interests or behaviour they might not have noticed. All this makes them a particularly suitable base technology for use in the construction of agents.

Alongside neural networks as a source for the development of agents, there is also the area of programs that launched a thousand security jobs: viruses. (A virus is a program that can infect other programs by modifying them to include an identical or slightly altered version of itself and that may or may not deliver some kind of payload).

Before the advent of viruses it was possible to suppose that, "outside the computer there is only chaos, dust and various contaminants from which this fragile universe of order and logic must be guarded if it is to continue to function"<14> For the logician, "Éthe digital computer has this virtue: its design is perfectly logical down to the scale of electrons; it has conquered the disorder of the natural world by the hierarchical principles of symbolic logic"<15> For virus writers, the fascination that other worlds could be built up from the scale of the electron to function under the aegis of other forms of rationality has a slightly more powerful pull. The computer virus, self-replicating, moving within and between computers and files, exists in the seemingly untenable mix of ratiocination and contamination that it can make at once both fruitful and poisonous.

How do these technologies provide us with a sense of what a useful approach to agents might be? One that enriches rather than diminishes? A completely harmless virus is an impossibility. All viruses by their mere presence on a computer can cause collateral damage, accidentally overwriting data or causing a system crash by using up memory. Their existence in obscurity; promulgation by evasiveness, and intimacy with their environment; their common combination of high technical intricacy with dumb, bravado-heavy goofy humour reveals them to be deeply connected to both intelligence as technique and as war.

Neural nets find boundaries not by the tracing of a line, but by developing a sense of what is on either side. They are more suited to producing multiple drafts of a situation than by analysing it to a summit of correctness. Whereas the virus has an infection strategy, the neural net is explicitly constructed as open to new inputs. It is in the combination of minute, pestilential intimacy and openness that suggests how agents might be developed to at once engage in the communality of things and the mutual aid of interlocking relationships and provide, through the addition of new kinds of agency, an extra degree of tangledness to it.

In this thick mess of connection permanently on, around and within the user, where the isolation of 'the self' is insufficient, we also need to find a way of disturbing the often repressive conviviality which is typified by Worpole's ideal of working class connectivity. Here, Nick Land's suggestion of "functional connectivity from anti-productive static,"<16> the development of units of cultural mutation, confrontation and sensory transference - allying itself with the gawky functionality sensed in the notion that desiring machines only work when they break down - provides a way to also connect with other dynamics of composition.

This is not a call for the sensibility of infinity to enter computers (which are necessarily finite structures operating within their technical constraints in a finite time), but rather a way of dealing with their finitude through connection to their pestilential quirks.

As a quasi-autonomous element composed through the structuring, application and exploratory function of intelligence, agents have an automatic connection with the function of the intellectual. Two models which complement each other; the mix of logic and contamination of the virus; and the open, messy functionality of the neural net are that of the 'specific intellectual' and the 'dissident'. The first, proposed by Michel Foucault suggests that the intelligent agent can be used as a conduit for, and attentive, mobile and open translator of, information flows that can be utilised in "concrete, precise, definite terms, within a determinate situation."<17> The second, offered by Julia Kristeva suggests that allied to this stripped down version is a kind of awkwardness:

"It was perhaps inevitable... ...that the dissident function of the intellectual should have been asserted by the unemployed of the future, those intellectuals without a job or students with no prospect of being taken on by any restrictive and bankrupt social 'formations'."<18>.

If you have used an Internet search engine to look for files concerning a particular topic you will know the madness that is the result of the loss of everything but reason.<19> Everything that might possibly be connected by the use of that key word is connected, if only momentarily for the period of that search. This is an incompetence that encompasses, as a matter of accident, judicious competence; a totally logical correctness that is nothing if it is not also wrong. Here, where a fastidious indecisiveness forces the production of novel typologies and patterns of identification, the intelligent agent as an apparition of pure reason - a creature of code words, sets, and rigid syntax, of the assembly line along which packets of data are sorted, labelled and processed - located in the specific context of information flows learns to perform its dissident function.What is proposed then in the development of intelligent agents is the application of shitness; stupidity; surprise; the inherent, congenitally unadapted funkiness of bad code. That memory storage as deliberate anachronism - eternal backwards compatibility, even in its end state of ultra-conservative stasis - can be interrogated and even used for its own ends, if not won over by gawkiness. That the cumulative oddness of very small sensory experiences produces a functionality of its own. And - for either user or agent - that, "...It's better to have ten consecutive failures or insignificant results than a besotted passivity before the mechanisms of retrieval".<20>

Matthew Fuller <matt AT>

<1> Doug Glenn, President of Mattel Media, in "Gender Blender", by Michel Meloan, Wired, November 1996, p.52<2> "Maybe some of them fancy educated fellers can out-talk poor folks like us, but if you just pull that little trigger and make some noise - why, it's as good as a college diploma!" Kate 'Ma' Barker, cited in: Brad Steiger, Bizarre Crime, true crime tales with a twist! Pan, London, 1993, p.133<3> Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age, Roc, London, 1996, p.475<4> James DerDerian, Antidiplomacy, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, p.21<5> Lawrence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Penguin, London, 1985, p.64<6> Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979, p.111<7> Jaron Lanier, "My Problem With Agents", Wired, November 1996, p.43<8> The only pattern-recognition needed to deal with the police is a sense of history: "My grandfather had to deal with the cops/ my great-grandfather dealt with the cops/ my great-great-grandfather had to deal with the cops/ and then my great-great-great-great... ...When's it gonna stop?"KRS One, Sound of the Police, on Return of the Boom Bap, Jive Records HIP 142<9> Jean Baudrillard, "The Implosion of Meaning in the Media and the Implosion of the Social in the Masses", in Questioning Technology eds. John Zerzan and Alice Carnes, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, 1991, p.159<10> Nick Land, "Meltdown", Abstract Culture No. 1, Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, Coventry, 1997, p.6<11> This simultaneous transition from lock-down to vaporisation, from atomising universality to minuscule particularity perhaps also has its parallels in McLuhan's thesis that globalisation increases tribalisation.<12> Ken Worpole, Dockers and Detectives, Verso, London 1983, p.54<13> Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle, Penguin, London 1988, p.19<14> J. David Bolter, Turing's Man, Western Culture in the Age of the Computer, Pelican, London, 1986, p.74<15> Ibid<16> Nick Land, p.2<17> Michel Foucault, Remarks on Marx, interviews by Ducio Trumbadori, Semiotext(e), New York 1991, p.139<18> Julia Kristeva, "A New Type of Intellectual: The Dissident", in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi, Blackwell, Oxford, 1986, p. 294. She continues: "If it had not been for this situation, the Western intellectual would still have too many 'reception facilities' that allow him to feel at home, including and perhaps above all when he is 'in opposition'"<19> Louis Aragon, citing G.K. Chesterton, "the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. the madman is the man who has lost everything but his reason." Paris Peasant, trans. Simon Watson Taylor, Picador, London 1987, p.215<20> Felix Guattari, Chaosophy, ed. Sylvere Lotringer, Semiotext(e), New York, 1995, p.224