(FOAM Blog repost #8) Images and Emergence by Ken Schles
A broadly adopted technology will produce unanticipated effects and outcomes outside its primary function. A car may get us from one place to another, but this simple task of transportation brings with it many unintended consequences. Roads, necessitated by cars and trucks, transformed the very structure and organization of our cities and towns, metamorphosing the economic and social life within. Transportation (following on the heels of mass mechanization) helped alter agriculture and all forms of production. Byproducts of transportation, its support systems and infrastructure have had unforeseen downsides. As roads crisscrossed the land, they diminished and dissected biologically robust and diverse ecosystems into frail, isolated island habitats. Transportation became a driving force behind the fossil fuel industry, now threatening all ecosystems on the planet.
Cars have shifted our sense of time, of space and of locality. Increased mobility simultaneously empowers and alienates us. In cars we carry our “personal space” in a bubble through the world—removed from direct interaction or involvement. “We’re just passing through here,” is a syllogism synonymous with the culture of the car no less than how many people now treat aspects of their personal and political lives.
Advances in transportation changed our physical environment and allowed for “ways of being,” unimagined by its inventors, who, more than likely, saw the car simply as a means of getting from point A to point B. The car is far from unique in offering unheralded promises and unforeseen pitfalls—many technologies deliver that. Unintended consequences are endemic of emergent properties, unforeseen properties that only become apparent in the course of use, action and interaction.
Biological systems exhibit emergent capabilities in extraordinary ways as well. Individually ants exhibit no innate intelligence. They operate in biologically predetermined—and extremely limited autonomous ways, using chemical markers and receptors to find their way and to operate in the world. And yet, with no directives to guide them, they exhibit complex systems of group behavior and create complex and specialized physical structures as well. Individually ants couldn’t tell you about farming, or engineering, or architecture or of collective defense and yet all of these properties manifests themselves through the group and can be readily seen in the colonies the ants naturally, collectively and mindlessly form.
Images are the invention that transformed the beings that first conceived them. Images allowed for a conception of the infinite by finite living organisms within the confines of time and space. Our images created meta-worlds within the world, reference points that conjured personal meanings and connected them to all things—seen, known or imagined. But however we classify image making or describe it, the power of imagery is, arguably, one of our most potent tools. Imaging/imagining also constitutes a formative and transformative emergent technology.
Our world and our interactions within it are infinitely more complex than what we casually apprehend them to be or intend them to be. Our images, their creation, dispersion and use have allowed us to negotiate and organize an increasingly dynamic and complex social and economic order—a social and economic order that would never exist without images to support it. And as we move forward, deeper into a world predicated on images (with a concomitant distribution of power that is effected through images), we should take note that we have, again, entered into a shifted paradigm as we all now create and distribute images with increased fervor and felicity. While we have historically been making and sharing images for some millennia now, humanity has entered a point of transition unheralded in its scale, its means and its manner.
We can speculate what new order will manifest as our world is increasingly replicated and replaced by visual images exteriorized, traded and metabolized with an almost universal zeal, but we would likely be off the mark. For our technologically driven torrent of instantly created, accessible, communicated and consumed visual images are merely the tip of a newly emergent iceberg—an obvious manifestation of a phenomenon that will further transform society in unforeseen ways: Image by image and terabyte by terabyte through machines and interfaces that are extensions of our physical selves. And each image traded and consumed is a simple statement: an expression and extension of being that moves us a little further, collectively and blindly into the future.