Sunday 4 May 2008

Remanufacturing Intelligence

Should we artists – designers and manufacturers of digital art – know more about brain science? Maybe we should. The recent discovery of neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity for rapidly rewiring itself through interactive processes – offers new and powerful perspectives on the way in which the digitally enabled and technology dense environment affects our brains and our cognitive abilities.
If you want to see an intelligence that has been formed by digital technology, you have only to look in a mirror. The digital revolution has changed the nature of our perceptual processes, and this in turn has changed our conscious experience of the physical world, inducing changes in our cognition and intelligence on a scale that is still unknown.
As inhabitants of the modern city we are in constant interaction, both active and passive, with digital technology. Even at home, we are surrounded by screens and digital displays: DVD player, computer, television, cell phone, cooker, clock. But the majority of scientists investigating cognition still refer to the ‘real world’ as a constant, an axiom, unchanged through time, ignoring the fact that the present-day real world, saturated by the latest technologies, differs fundamentally from that of even a decade ago.
The new science of neuroplasticity is teaching us that the brain can no longer be regarded as a fixed, closed, passive receiver of information from the senses – a mere processor for the information that is controlling our body through a kind of one-way communication. We are now seeing the recognition of growing scientific evidence that the brain is in fact almost nakedly open to external influences, and is capable of rapid and radical change by remodelling itself through learning and interaction with the environment. What should concern us is the peculiar vulnerability of our brain to the influence of electronic media. As Doidge (2007) notes: “It is the form of the television medium – cuts, edits, zooms, pans and sudden noises – that alters the brain, by activating what Pavlov called the ‘orienting response’, which occurs whenever we sense a sudden change in the world around us, especially a sudden movement. […] The response is physiological..."
The truth is that our intelligence is being constantly remanufactured by our exposure to, and interaction with, commercially motivated artefacts. Our consent to this process was never sought, because it did not have to be sought; mostly, we were unaware of the existence of the process.
So how does this affect the artist? This new understanding of cognitive processes is warning us that experiencing art, and especially electronic art, or technology-enabled art, is far from being an innocently entertaining or aesthetically pleasing experience extending for a limited period of time. The disturbing evidence of neuroplasticity raises the possibility that experiencing particular forms of art may itself affect and mark our cognition – perhaps with irreversible and unknown changes? But the news is not all bad; the dramatic shift in neuroscience also brings with it a fascinating opportunity to explore and analyse the effects of electronic media through scientifically informed art, which could give rise to an entirely new art form: neuroplastic art. It may be possible to structure art works according to this new scientific evidence, to fuse scientific knowledge with imagination to exploit the nature of electronic media to create platforms for experiences that have never existed before – and to knowingly remanufacture our own intelligence in benign and desirable ways in the process.

(The SHARE Festival, Torino, 2008 )

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