Time for reflection

This text is
excerpted from “Operational Media” by Jordan Crandall. Or you can go ahead and read the whole thing at ctheory.net.

These images are
stills from “Return 2 Burn”

As Ryan Bishop and John Phillips write, the integrative history of military technology — a history of prosthetic extension, especially that of sight — has been paralleled by the rise of mass media and its manipulation of vision to create illusions of simultaneity, movement, and depth. Each has produced instruments designed to collapse distance and time, aiming to close the gap between the perceiving subject and the visible world. The “problem” proposed by the gap of perception is solved by a return to a mythologized time of unproblematic perception. But the fundamental problem remains.
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These histories are intertwined with that of automation, but they connect to a still larger migration of cognition. By the 1960s, for example, television was already on its way to becoming, as it has today, a machine for the automation of thinking. Reflecting the viewer’s own thought process, it develops its own conventions of simulated deliberation, absolving the viewer of the labor of decision-making — as when a laugh track allows one to maintain a relaxed composure while the machine assumes the labor of chuckling. At the extreme end is the figure of the “couch potato”, whose body is hollowed out by the apparatus as the televisual “smart image” assumes control.
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Consider a recent news broadcast. A pilot is flying an aircraft during a combat situation in Iraq. It is flown jointly, by an operator in the cockpit as well as by operators on the ground. We are watching the scene as if through the cockpit window. Computer calculations are arrayed on the image-field. We see through the pilot’s eye, but we also see through the viewpoint of the larger command network in which the pilot is embedded. The pilot is one actor within a distributed agency that combines humans and machines. Our viewpoint is momentary converged with that of the piloting agency. The clip ends, and a zoom out frames the image within a newsroom stage. A news anchor appears. She meets our gaze and addresses us in terms of a collective “we.” We are placed in position, momentarily aligned with this combinatory operator, sharing its perspective, hailed as subjects within its operational world.
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For both the military and the civilian observer, there is no “time” for reflection. In the military realm, reflection adds time and space in which the target might slip away. It expands, not lessens, the gap between detecting and intervening, sensing and shooting. In the popular realm, slowness — the stuff of reflection and deliberation — is to be avoided, instantaneity prized. American media culture is one of impatience and immediacy. Reflection is distributed and automated — or as some would say, evacuated. We are however talking about a symbiotic relationship: both subject and object are mutually intertwined within the combinatory human-machinic realm.
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