The Prosthetic Imagination

This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term.

“We tend to equate virtual with disembodied, even though it would be more accurate to use it as an equivalent for prosthetic.”

- Steven Shaviro, 2003, Connected, or What it Means to Live in the Network Society, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Videogames are the reason I could be considered a cyborg. Not in the sense that I have had parts of my physical body taken over by electronic or mechanical systems, but in the sense that I often have had my imagination taken over by electronic and mechanical systems. Gaming, particularly electronic gaming, often imbues me with some of the most essential properties of a cyborg.

The reasoning behind this idea unfolds as follows. Technology, each and every technology, is “an extension of ourselves”. Marshal McLuhan makes good that claim in his writings, and it is an idea that stands up to significant scrutiny. The poking stick that increases our reach, the car that increases our range and speed, the giant radio telescopes that extend our gaze into the heavens and through the electromagnetic spectrum: all are extension. They extend, or even replace (for the cyborg), our natural faculties. Technology is extension. Extension, then, is a core principle of the cyborg, too. The point at which extension and biological limits cross over.

Games are high technology, and so what do games extend? As items for sensory and intellectual interrogation, it seems to that they must extend our minds. More specifically, perhaps, our imaginations. This will be true of all games. Initially that extension might have been rather rudimentary – extensions of logic and chance with card games, extensions of the fantasies of childhood with wooden props and cardboard castles – but now, with the gaming Guttenberg press of the persona computer (those “personal idea amplifiers”), games are sophisticated systems that model incredible complex processes in splendid pixellated parody of both real and unreal worlds.

Listening to Alan Moore’s spoken word performance Snakes & Ladders, where he muses on how creative people are “importers” and “explorers” from the realm of imagination, I began to think about how games are, in a sense, shared imaginative structures that have been exported from a group exploration of that realm. The combined intellectual alloy of the design teams that produce them are fashioned, sold, and then experienced by gamers like me. Something similar is true of novels and movies, of course, but the game has an even more direct influence on the imagination. By enabling the brain to manipulate with virtual systems, to engage with simulation, it creates systems than span the mental and the virtual, the biological and the electrical. Also, even more significantly to my point, our imagination is not a description as a book is a textual description, or a film is a visual description. It is, instead, a model.

However incomplete a model the imagination may be, it shares this primary attribute with games. They too are models. The game designer Will Wright, of SimCity and The Sims, has spoken a number of times about how the “real” model of the videogame is in the player’s mind, with the models presented by the game itself simply acting as a kind of mental compiler. Ours is a capacity to internally simulate things, to model them in consciousness, and then to predict how the world might be different. It’s a faculty that came about through a natural selection of efficient systems of perception. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins argues that complex animals’ ability to imagine has evolved out of necessity because they were required to be able to simulate their world, mentally, in order to survive it:

“Natural selection built in the capacity to simulate the world as it is because this was necessary in order to perceive the world. You cannot see that two-dimensional patterns of lines on two retinas amount to a single solid cube unless you simulate, in your brain, a model of the cube. Having built in the capacity to simulate models of things as they are, natural selection found that it was but a short step to simulate things as they are not quite yet—to simulate the future. This turned out to have valuable consequences, for it enabled animals to benefit from “experience,” not trial-and-error experience in their own past or in the life and death experience of their ancestors, but vicarious experience in the safe interior of the skull. And once natural selection had built brains capable of simulating slight departures from reality into the imagined future, a further capacity automatically flowered. Now it was but another short step to the wilder reaches of imagination revealed in dreams and in art, an escape from mundane reality that has no obvious limits.”

This offers a strange kind of realisation: that we are probably at our most human when engaged in acts of simulation.

Returning to that earlier notion of extension and replacement – the classic cyborg tropes – it’s interesting to swing by the work of Steven Shaviro, and particularly his book Connected. In that masterful musing on network society he talks about the notion of being a cyborg, and writes this:

“I extend the power of my hand or my mouth or my brain only at the price of excising the original organ-whether literally or figuratively-to make room for its replacement. Each time we extend ourselves technologically, some part of the real gives way to the virtual. This is why every cultural innovation is attended by an ambivalent sense of loss. And this is also why we tend to equate virtual with disembodied, even though it would be more accurate to use it as an equivalent for prosthetic.”

What would the implications be for our culture, Shaviro wonders, if prosthetic had been the dominant metaphor during the information revolution, rather than virtual? For games the ramifications are pretty obvious: prosthetic reality, prosthetic worlds. Not empty placebo realities, but useful extensions of this one. That also seems more apt when you look at the experience of gaming. You are not simply waving at passing spectres in the night, you are right in there, wrestling with the invented physics, unravelling the stories, ripping open alien monstrosities. The imagination is extended into this space, it spills back and forth from technology to mind. You can see this happening when you watch players at work. Their thinking is right there on the screen. As with the Clark/Chalmers model of “extended” cognition, players are thinking on the screen with the Tetris blocks, working out the peculiar physics of each game world in a loop that encompasses the electronic state of the computer and the brain in one recursive process.

There’s something else here too: the way in which games appeal to the pattern-completing instincts that are fundamental to our behaviour. The way they entrance, compel, and mesmerise. Electronic games colonise and inhabit the imagination in a way that’s analogous to the traditional image of electro-mechanical devices colonising/extending the human body in cyborg physicality. Taking over systems while they are engaged. Parts of my brain are tracking imagined, simulated spaces that are also tracked and mapped in the game. And do I remove an arm of my imagination to replace it with MMO processes when I can think of nothing else? Games are more than the tune you can’t stop humming because you heard it on an insurance commercial, and they are more than singing along to that tune on the radio. Games are, rather, like a system of scaffolding for the imagination, allowing to make its work more concrete, and for it to climb higher than it has even done before.

Of course most games are terrible, limited, unimaginative things, which seems to cast a gloom on all this speculative excitement. But that might not matter. The faked, regimented gardening of the Farmville player is just as much an instance of the kind of cyborg I am talking about, as the most poignant flow of light from Shadow Of The Colossus. What is important here is to recognise how the cyborg, and the nature of the cyborg in our world of information, is not the nature of Robocop and other such crude caricatures collisions of humanity and technology. The cyborg is mental, psychic. The new human which is emerging from the flows and processes that our technologies are surrounding us in is projecting itself into inner space, via physical space. Any and all games can do this.

Shaviro again, completing that passage that takes its cues from Haraway’s account of the cyborg.

“The cyborg is the very figure of this permeability. It is fully physical, but light and cool: a “subtle, fluid and tenuous” form of materiality. In their indifference to binary categorizations, their easy trafficking between real and virtual, Haraway writes, “cyborgs are ether, quintessence”.”

Ether, quintessence: the same words that writers end up using to discuss the immaterial boulevards of our imaginings. What videogames are is something fully physical, but it is also an instance of that easy trafficking between the real and virtual. It is, perhaps, as a playful technology, the easiest extension of them all. The prosthetic imagination.

11 Responses to “The Prosthetic Imagination”

  • Magiced Says:

    This reminds me of an interview on radio 4′s material world science program(9th september, its probably still on the website if you’re interested), where an evolutionary biologist suggested that humans live in symbiosis with technology. As we evolved to walk upright, the shapes of our pelvises changed, which meant that we had to give birth earlier, or the babies’ head wouldnt fit through the pelvis hole. this meant that we had to give birth much earlier, which meant that the baby was undeveloped and defenceless. If you had to carry your baby around in your arms it takes a lot of energy, which is a problem for hunter-gatherers, so they used the sling to carry the babies in. This can be thought of as a prosthetic womb, and may have occurred fairly early on in our evolution, to allow further changes in the pelvis shape so we could walk more upright. without the sling, we wouldnt have evolved into homo sapiens.
    Looking at humans as symbiotes with technology make a lot of sense to me. It’s certainly benefited both us and technology!

  • colinmarc Says:

    Neal Stephenson’s Anathem introduced me to an interesting theory of consciousness (that’s been around for a while, I think). It is based on the multiple worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    I probably won’t do it justice, but in short the idea is that simulation is so computationally absurd that there is no way our brain can do it with neurons. Instead, our brains developed a way to send signals to copies of our brain in parallel universes. When we are worrying that some event might happen, or simulating some event happening, we’re actually just perceiving it in some parallel dimension.

  • JP Says:

    I had a similar notion in mind when I riffed on Steve Jobs in saying games could be “a bicycle for the imagination”.

    However, I think some games do a much better job of this than others, and somewhat paradoxically the higher audiovisual fidelity gets beyond a certain point, the less a player’s imagination is being engaged. If a designer wants to explore this facet of games, they need to understand what to omit or obscure from their simulation-representations, just as much as what to include.

    So in a sense I think the idea of games as “total reality prosthesis”, eg the Holodeck, is very much not a final apotheosis of game design, but a terminal condition for one of the most unique qualities of our art. A game that does not pursue this grail has the potential to be much greater than the sum of its creators’ creativity. Games that strongly engage the imagination help us to imagine things beyond the explicit intent of their creators – a beautiful destiny.

  • Matthew Says:

    Heh, the parallel worlds thing is an interesting notion, but not very likely I think…

    Related to your describing imagination as a modeling, predicting thing, a *very* pertinent link: here’s Jeff Hawkins’ TED speech where he postulates that the brain itself, down to the neurons, is not actually a processor but a predictive memory system, and that even our most basic behaviors are shaped by predictive modeling. He already has software simulations running, and presents a very good case. In this light one might argue that imagination is the very definition of intelligence.

    Also that bit where you mention a prosthetic paradigm for gaming; what we’re talking about is augmented reality gaming, and with things like Layar and Foursquare already out there I predict (heh) that AR games are going to explode within three years. (And if someone doesn’t do it by then, by God I’m going to do it myself.)

  • Alan Ottom Says:

    I like this concept, but it’s hard for me to easily pass by its nightmarish implications, as you touch upon here: “Of course most games are terrible, limited, unimaginative things, which seems to cast a gloom on all this speculative excitement.”

    The use of a prosthetic is, in the current scope at least, something that’s done willingly. Following on from Shaviro’s point that in choosing to use a prosthetic you are accepting the displacement of the extended object’s natural/given capacity, you do it anyway because it is presumably empowering and beneficial. But I can’t think of a single game that has this positive effect on the player’s mental/psychic capacity. Even if, as an extension, the video game leaves the player’s innate power of imagination intact and merely builds on top of it (or through it), the resultant experience could only amount to swapping out for a crippling prosthetic. Or like dunking your head into a fish bowl. And as bad as most video games are, they’re not that bad.

    I guess where I get lost here is in trying to understand how the imagination model is actually replaced by a video game model. I can see how the latter makes full use of the former, but why is it necessary (or accurate) to make the video game a prosthetic? Isn’t the imagination, as a tool for simulating “what if?” scenarios, in and of itself a prosthetic with or without the game?

    It seems to me the game world is still suited to the plain old sense: a simulated (and still potentially less bounded, more abstract) physicality being re-simulated by the imagination, which, in turn, is a prosthetic for actual experience.

    Or maybe a better question would be: what’s the difference between prosthetic imagination and prosthetic experience?

  • Matthew Says:

    Or maybe a better question would be: what’s the difference between prosthetic imagination and prosthetic experience?

    The difference is that your imagination is a prosthetic based on your own experience, while a video game is a prosthetic created from other people’s experience. Just because a prosthetic is your own does not mean it’s the only good, or even the best one.

  • Alan Ottom Says:

    Well I think the imagination being “in and of itself a prosthetic” was a misstep on my part. If the imagination were a prosthetic then everything you use to respond to the actual world would be a prosthetic: arms and legs, and all the senses. And that’s wrong. I forgot that a prosthetic as Jim supposed it (and by definition really) must replace something that occurs naturally. Imagination is, of course, an innate part of the mental process and so can’t be termed a prosthetic by itself.

    Still, what I was getting at had more to do with the imagination having a large role in the way a person processes experience. It’s hard for me to see how giving someone a set of stimuli, even if it’s been trumped up by someone else, will extend her/his imagination, or alter it in any way. Doesn’t it simply stimulate what’s already there?

    Matthew, I don’t follow the distinction your laying out and maybe we just disagree. Your own imagination is really the only one you have access to, as I see it. If someone shares a video game with you that’s brimming with all sorts of imaginary things you still take it in as you would any other physical stimulus. Your imagination goes to work on it in the same way it would any other experience. Hence, would it be more accurate to call a video game a prosthetic experience rather than a prosthetic imagination?

  • manveruppd Says:

    Brilliant piece, thanks! I’ve often felt my physical body recede into the background of my consciousness when getting too immersed in a game, feeling as if I only existed through the connection of my eyes to the screen, but you expressed it much better than I could! :)

  • Matthew Says:

    @Alan Ottom
    You’re not wrong, calling it prosthetic imagination is a bit hyperbolic, just like calling imagination itself a prosthesis ;-)

    But the point was that games are shaped like predictive models, same as the human mind. They are prosthetic experiences, but so are books and films. Games come closer to the mind, and so can act like scaffolding, supporting the imagination in duplicating internally the very specific model of the game. Maybe like… braces on teeth. The teeth are your own, but braces shape their growth in a very specific way. As opposed to a movie prosthetic experience, which might be like punching you in the teeth and hoping they grow out right (to stretch a metaphor).

  • RagingLion Says:

    I’ve just read this for the second time. I think I’m going to come back here to read this a few times yet since I think I can only digest the ideas present here and their implications slowly because so many of them are new to me and also huge in their scope. I got more out this time than the last read.

    This is a great piece.

  • Mike Taylor Says:

    Jim. I read this blog post september 25th of last year. I am doing my architectural masters thesis presently. My thesis is on how single player role playing computer games expand our perceptions of architecture and space beyond the real-world. Your work has heavily influenced my own and I thank you for your inspiration and ideas. I hope you don’t mind that I have appropriated “the prosthetic imagination” as my thesis title. I had been using “the imagination scaffold” but prosthetic is just so much more brilliant. You have been fully acknowledged and credited within the thesis work. (As hard as it is to use blogs as references, my supervisor is also enthralled by your work.) We need more people who see these games as valuable art forms.