Avatar and Golem, Inc.
(Part 1)


A paper presented at futureScreen 99,
AvAtars | Phantom Agents: Identities and role play in web worlds
,
For dLux Media Arts, 6th November 1999, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney,
Jeffrey J Cook, 6.11.99.

This paper, Avatar and Golem Inc., is not so much an archaeology of telepresence and virtual spaces, but more an abstracted epistemology of the long history of ideas of self-representation leading up to contemporary and future fictional imaginings of this representation. It is a brief overview of some of the issues and ideas generated by the use of the avatar and the non-physical representation of the self in cyberspace and on the web.

Today's conception of the avatar, as the title of this forum suggests, can be associated with many of the ideas permeating and shaping the "society" of the interconnected communication of the web: those of agency, identity, control, representation, responsibility, community, creation, creativity, drama, expression and (game) play. And importantly, it is also about power; the powers of putative gods, the powers that technological augmentation, amplification, telepresence, replication and multiplicity afford us. As Joseph Campbell said in his book The Masks of God, "A god can be simultaneously in two or more places - like a melody", (Campbell, p 21). This mirrors the "polyphony" of being suggested by theorists from Levi-Strauss in the 60's to Guattari in the 80's and 90's.

Many will explore these ideas through the currently arcane, and increasingly infectious, practices of those participating in web-based virtuality
in what sometimes seems to be a completely new and open field. However, the purpose of this paper is to look back into the history and legacies of self-representation.

While there is much that is genuinely new and potentially transformative in the realm of the technology and re-presentation of the self, there is also much philosophical legacy and learning that potentially presents problems for a naive and uniformed position. An awareness of potential problems drawn from history will aid a stronger and improving vision for the self-image in the age of digital self-representation.

Avatar and Golem Inc. looks at some of those issues and both borrows and paraphrases its central theme of "technological ethics" from an odd little book written in 1964 by computer pioneer and cybernetic theorist, Norbert Wiener, called, God and Golem, Inc.

Wiener's book struggles with ethical questions evoked by the power of an increasingly sophisticated technology, one that at the time of writing of his book was seemingly on the brink of producing machines that could learn (and hence potentially "think") and that could reproduce (and hence potentially succeed or supersede us); a future machinic evolution running parallel to, and potentially faster than, Darwin's organic one. This new organo-machinic conception of evolution was originally satirised by the Reverend Samuel Butler in his 1872 proto-science fictional book, Erewhon, a fictional inverse place, actually "nowhere" backwards, through the looking glass, if you will. Such subtleties are entirely lost on writers such as Kevin Kelly in his 1994 paean to the hyper future, Out of Control: The Rise of the Neo-Biological Civilization.

Wiener's time - the early 60's - is a time similar to our own, with similar themes and awareness, heightened perhaps by the approaching "end" of our own time, the 20th century.

The interesting thing about Wiener's book, which he said he wrote "to detail the social consequences of cybernetics" (cybernetics being the then new science of "command and control" over systems by the new technologies), is that it sees the dangers of the products of science as equivalent to the Golem - an old creation myth first related in ancient Gnostic texts through the Adamite story of the breathing of life into an inanimate and rough mud sculpture.

The Golem had many other incarnations throughout the intervening history, and later and more famously in the 16th Century Jewish myth of a Rabbi Loew, who in order to protect his people from anti-Semitic persecution, braved the wrath of his god and created a living automaton, the Golem, invoking the god-like creative powers of the the magical Words - the Tetragrammaton - by scrawling onto the non-l
iving human-shaped mud sculpture the four mystic phrases that invoke life (perhaps drawing on a part of the larger "body" of life of the god) in a monstrous and of course blasphemous use of the "Master's" powers (like a "Sorcerer's Apprentice" or Faustian tale).

Sadly, as a mere mortal, Rabbi Loew suffered the earthly flaw of hubris, and so could only create a proto-being, imperfect, "unfinished" or "incomplete" and eventually destined to get out of the Rabbi's control, finally to be "turned off" and de-animated by the writing of the magic words backwards, returning to the earth from whence it came. It was this unfinished or semi-formed nature of the powerful Golem - as an image and perhaps avatar of science and technology itself - that concerned Wiener.

For him, technology and science could not be assumed to necessarily hold the key to a safe and secure and constantly improving future, and he desired that those delving into these new realms be aware of the dangers and take precautions against the unforeseen consequences of unrestrained technological development and dependence.

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