12Simulation and the Demise of Body Knowledge
Bill Buxton once remarked that if human society were destroyed apart from a computer shop, visiting martian archeologists would determine that humans were monocular and had one hand with 29 digits on it. All the remaining body senses and capabilities are irrelevant to the computer interface. These are the parts of sentience that the interface amputates. By defining intelligence in terms of the capabilities of the computer, the (bodily) intelligence, for instance, of the painter, is lost.
One of the least remarked aspects of the computer revolution is the way that the development of software simulation has reduced a great variety of various bodily activities into one. Although this process is in some ways 'enabling', (we can prepare a publication, from writing text to typography, image placement and page layout at the same desk), the down side of this process is that it destroys the complex ecology of body-knowledge, which we might call 'cognitive diversity'. It induces a 'bodily monoculture'.
I want to focus here on the increase in simulation of bodily activities which result in a depletion of the difficult to formalize 'intelligences of the body' which make up the traditional 'skill-base' (as opposed to knowledge base) of the visual arts. This is a problem, particularly in the arts. The traditional artistic skillbase is in danger of being 'disappeared' in the race to total simulation. One can easily imagine a time when some of these artistic skills suddenly are found to have value, but have been lost.
To elaborate: previously, one learnt a set of bodily behaviors in order to use a machine lathe, another set of activities to set type, another to paint a picture and another to write. All these activities are now achieved by tapping a keyboard while starring at a video screen at close range. Not simply is the range of body knowledge (body intelligence) being vastly limited (the body is being de-skilled), but the process which links conceptualization to physical realization is destroyed.
One may argue that some digital tools simulate analog procedures while others do not. I would counter that all digital techniques are based on pre-digital techniques, where else can they have come from? Manipulation of abstract, symbolic quantities is premised on bodily, physiological experience. Mark Johnson argues: "In considering abstract mathematical properties (such as 'equality of magnitudes') we sometimes forget the mundane bases in experience which are both necessary for comprehending those abstractions and from which the abstractions have developed. ...Balance, therefore, appears to be the bodily basis of the mathematical notion of equivalence". As Dreyfus' argued, we have a human mind by virtue of having a human body.
Among young children, continuous use of computers, video games and TV seems to impair the development of basic 'common sense' and motor skills. Certain (German) insurance companies now sponsor summer schools in which children are 'taught' that open flame and red-hot things can cause pain and burns, that you can fall off a bicycle and it hurts, etc. One assume that the motivation of the companies is not entirely philanthropic, that it saves money to help children avoid simple accidents. This erosion of 'common sense' by computer use is a curious mirror of the 'common-sense problem' which defined the limitations of Artificial Intelligence.