Haunting the designer: ghosts in the machine

The ghost in the machine is defined as the consciousness in a physical entity. The term was coined by Gilbert Ryle in his book The Concept of Mind. The book was a criticism of Descartes’ belief in dualism, the idea that the mind exists independently of the brain.1 Ryle described this as the ghost in the machine. According to him human consciousness and mind are very much intertwined with the physical brain. The body is not just a tool controlled by the mind, it is not exchangeable when faulty. The physical properties of the body are essential to the soul.

In this essay I will explore both the literal and the metaphorical ghost in the machine. I will look at dualism in science fiction and whether machines will take over our cool designer jobs. Lastly I will inquire into the process of glitch art generation, and how this is useful for designers.

Ghost in the machine in science fiction

Although the ghost in the machine is most commonly used as a metaphor, the literal interpretation of the concept has proven to be a great source of inspiration for the narrative arts. Many books, comics, films and series have explored what an actual consciousness in a machine might look like. Possible outcomes include cybernetic bodies controlled by a human mind, like Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, or an artificial intelligence as operator of a body or system, like VIKI in I, Robot, and Samantha in Her. As much as I would love to write full essays on these films (and many more), I have to keep it short, so right now I will only discuss Ghost in the Shell.

Moving image of Major breaking free from the grip of another ghost and ripping her body apart in the process

Set in a future where computers can connect to cerebral matter, main character Major has a body that is completely cybernetic except for her human brain. Her body can be replaced in its entirety, or fixed like a broken machine. She can even separate from her body and travel through the internet,2 similar to how cyberspace is accessed in William Gibson's science fiction novel Neuromancer. She is also capable of breaking into the ghost of another cyborg.

In Neuromancer, cyberspace is called the matrix. The matrix is accessed by the mind through a console connected to the body with dermatrodes (a form of electrodes).3 Here, the human mind can wander around without a body in a virtual world, with a machine as middleman. If the matrix sounds familiar but you don’t know Neuromancer: the Matrix franchise has adopted and popularized the idea. Neuromancer is widely recognized as one of the most influential works of science fiction, and the godfather of cyberpunk.4

In both Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell, Descartes’ dualism is prevalent: the body is just a vessel for the superior mind. For the mind to be able to travel something like the internet, the dependence of the mind on the body has to be shattered. In the Ghost in the Shell, Major’s reasoning sounds a lot like ‘I think therefore I am’, another proposition by Descartes.5 What this implicates is thoroughly explored in the manga and anime.

In these instances, the ghost in the machine is about a human or artificial consciousness inhabiting a machine. Science fiction has the ability to philosophize and dream about what might be possible in the future in terms of machines with a will of their own, things that could go wrong and the implications for humanity. At the moment, however, we are still somewhat limited in the practical possibilities. This does not mean that the ghost in the machine does not show itself in other, more whimsical and spontaneous ways. This is the definition in the context of computer programmers, hackers and artists.

Ghost in the machine in software and hardware

In a computer program, machine or device, the ghost manifests itself as something like free will, an apparent consciousness. Operating contrary to the human operator's expectations, the machine seemingly wants to break away from its algorithms. In this sense, the ghost in the machine is back to being a metaphor. Ghosts in machines come disguised as malfunctions,6 glitches, things that were not supposed to happen but happened anyway, and you don’t really understand why. It can be a line of code interpreted differently by the computer. It can be an accidental or intentional case of circuit bending. It is as if the machine is trying to tell you something; as if the machine has a mind of its own, and is trying to bypass its programming. Although unintended, something like this can turn into something really interesting for an artist or designer. Glitch art is an example of this.

Glitch art

Glitch art is the result of accidental or intentional data corruption. Artist Curt Cloninger, quoted by Michael Betancourt, Professor of Motion Media Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, describes the term glitch art as “all domesticated glitches and all wild glitches that have been 'captured' and recontextualized as art.”7 Note that the glitched image is not the error itself, but the visual representation of it.

“Houses throwing up trees, Barcelona” and ”Hungry plane wants to eat terminal” by Peder Norrby

This recontextualization of mistakes is what makes glitch art relevant in a design process. When we think of a glitch, some colourful, abstract images and videos may come to mind. Although they can be quite appealing, they are also very common on the internet and I do not think it is necessary to go into the depths of critical analysis of glitch art for this essay, because a lot has been written on this subject already. What I do find important is the process of glitch art generation. The process is often more important than the end result, because of the uncertainty of what the outcome will be. It is about “improvisationally reacting to what’s going on”.8 This open attitude towards machines can be very valuable to artists and designers.

We can distinguish roughly two types of glitch art, the first being accidentally found glitches, often collected in series to highlight their alienating but fascinating qualities. Stumbling upon these hiccups, then documenting and presenting them as art gives them a new dimension. The mistake becomes something new, something never intended as art. A good example of a series like this is mapglitch by developer Peder Norrby, which consists of snapshots of glitches in iOS Maps in 3D mode. The images all have an architectural basis as they come from the same app, but their real connection is the architectural alienation taking place: something is very obviously not quite right. The found images are further enhanced by Norrby’s witty descriptions such as ”Hungry plane wants to eat terminal” and “Houses throwing up trees, Barcelona”.9

Images from the datamoshed moulages series

Ghost in the machine in a design process

The other type of glitch art is the intentional generation of errors in software and hardware. Techniques used for this purpose can be found with a quick Google search, and I will not elaborate on every possible technique out there (there are plenty), but I can give a few examples. Datamoshing is the intentional distortion of video achieved by data loss during file compression.10 For this technique I would like to use my own design process as an example: as part of my graduation collection process, I created a series of datamoshed silhouettes as a method of designing new silhouettes. I filmed myself as I placed several pieces of fabric and moving objects on myself as a way of designing clothing. Then I datamoshed the video file using Avidemux and screenshotted parts of the video in VLC media player. My intention for the images was for them to become design ideas for my collection, but they did not turn out the way I thought they would and I could not use them for this. Instead they have found a new purpose as a series of semi-intended glitched silhouettes, exhibited on this very website. The datamoshing experiment was both part of my full design process and a process on its own.

Specter 1, 2 and 3 by Cristi Rinklin

Taking the ghost in the design process a step further, we find artists developing their own advanced methods of image creation. A painter that has developed such a process is Cristi Rinklin. She uses digital technology both as subject and as tool in complex processes of documenting, organizing, and manipulating visual information.11 Rinklin’s creative process involves sourcing images from paintings and wallpapers to Google Image search to build digital collages, which she then paints in oil and acrylic using a multitude of techniques.12 Her work is influenced by digital technologies while also drawing from the rich history of illusion in painting. An example is the triptych Specter 1, 2 and 3. The paintings are somewhat abstract, somewhat recognizable as misty segments of an ever continuing landscape, comparable with the world generation in some first-person video games13 where the world is built around you while you explore further and further, like in Minecraft. The world is calculated as you move based on a random seed.14 To some extent it can be predicted by the player, but an uncertain factor remains.

This play between predictability and uncertainty in advanced image creation is exactly what the designer or artist should be looking for. In cases like this the machine becomes not just a tool, but a co-designer, a partner in creation coming up with unexpected suggestions to take you further in the design process. To reassure the people among us nervous about robots stealing our designer jobs in the near future: I honestly do not think we will have to worry about that for a long time. People have something essential that machines do not possess: a free will. Eliezer Yudkowsky, an American writer on rationality, describes this best:

“Go ahead, try telling a computer chip "Do whatever you want!" See what happens? Nothing. Because you haven't constrained it to understand freedom.”15

It is important to note that these ghosts in machines manifest themselves directly or indirectly because of human errors or inattention. On a superficial level, a glitch arises from conscious or unconscious exploitation of a bug in a program. There is an accidental collaboration between the person who discovers and exposes the error or the loophole and the machine that causes it. On a deeper level, these software bugs are human errors as well; the code is written by human programmers. In this sense there is a chain reaction of human to program to human. The ghosts in machines are the traces left by the writers of the 'soul' of the machines, the glitches are imperfections that give them a ‘personality’ and make them human.

Shalom Harlow in Alexander McQueen’s SS99 show No. 13

Machines can also convey human emotion in the way they act. In Alexander McQueen’s SS99 show No. 13, two industrial machines appears to move on their own, investigating the human opposite of them.16 The model, Shalom Harlow, is standing on a rotating disk and wearing a voluminous white dress. Although controlled by a human operator from a distance, the man-machine dance building up to the moment when the robots start spray painting Harlow feels like the ultimate duel of man and machine, a symbiosis of metal and flesh, a collaboration between artist and robot. Harlow's emotional facial expressions and movements while the robots observe her curiously but carefully, then finally approach her, are very evocative.

The ghost in the machine serves as both a deeply philosophical theme especially recurring in film and literature, and as a metaphor for the mistakes made by machines that make them appear more human. In the metaphorical sense of the idiom it is the sensation of recognition that we get from these inanimate objects; we think we see something alive, something that reminds us of ourselves in the way they behave. The ghost in the machine are the emotions we assign to devices that cannot feel. But although they do not feel emotions, they are very much capable of invoking them in humans.

Whether opposing it or embracing it, the concept of the literal ghost in the machine is closely linked to the notion of dualism. This manifests itself in films and literature that investigate the implications of cybernetic bodies with human brains, and what happens when you don’t need a body at all to function. The question remains what it means to be human. Science fiction provides the opportunity to philosophize about such questions, and to present possible future scenarios.

There is no need to fear losing your designer job to a robot, since machines are still very much dependent on humans. I am however strongly in favour of more collaboration between artists and machines. A machine is not just a tool, it can be a partner in the process, coming up with accidental suggestions. As a designer you can then decide whether that suggestion is total shit or absolutely amazing.

Research, reflection and references
1. www.grammarist.com 2. [mogsam], 2015, www.thevaultpublication.com 3. Gibson, 1984, Neuromancer, passim 4. Cumming, 2014, www.theguardian.com 5. [mogsam], 2015, www.thevaultpublication.com 6. Vanhanen, 2001, www.ctheory.net 7. Betancourt, 2013, www.hz-journal.org 8. Stearns, 2012, www.youtube.com 9. Norrby, www.flickr.com 10. Roy, 2014, www.theperipherymag.com 11. Bucci McCoy, 2005, Art New England 12. Buermann, 2016, www.hifructose.com 13. Cook, 2015, www.wbur.org 14. A number used to initialize a pseudorandom number generator 15. Yudkowsky, 2008, www.lesswrong.com 16. Frankel, 2016, www.anothermag.com