The Ethos of Computing

Prepared for ACM 97

Copyright © 1997 by Brenda Laurel and the ACM


I want to begin with a story about my first computer.

It was Halloween and I was almost twelve. It was a year when extra-big everyday things were the most popular sort of costume - Andy Warhol's influence, I suppose. Perhaps because we lived in Indiana, my mother had the idea of dressing me as an ear of corn. In my grandmother's basement, she fitted me with a chicken-wire frame. She cut armholes with tin-snips and then carefully stapled puffs of yellow fabric to the frame for kernels. She made crisp green taffeta leaves to camouflage my arms, and topped the contraption with gold yarn tassels that tended to flop forward over the tiny eyeholes.

Every year, the little local shopping center sponsored a Halloween costume contest, and the year I was an ear of corn my mother was sure that I would win the grand prize. She had carefully clipped the announcement in the local paper. When we arrived at the shopping center on the evening of the contest, Mother lowered the Ear over my head and took my hand to lead me to the contest tent. The tiny eyeholes gave me tunnel vision. I couldn't bend in any direction, and I could take only small steps without grating my shins on the ends of the chicken wire. We made our way slowly to the tent, a tottering Ear of Corn and a small, purposeful woman.

We arrived at the tent only to find it empty. My mother dug the clipping from her purse. She consulted her watch. It was seven-thirty-we were in the right place at the right time. What had happened? She read that the contest organizer was the manager of the Ace Hardware store at the other end of the mall. She turned and marched me down the sidewalk as fast as I could waddle. When we got to the hardware store I was temporarily blinded by the florescent light pouring into my little eyeholes. My mother dragged me resolutely toward the counter in the back.

"What happened to the costume contest?" she demanded.

I could hear the manager's voice, although I couldn't see him. "Aaah, we actually finished early since everyone showed up at seven. We, uh, went ahead."

"How could you do that?" my Mother intoned, her voice rising. "Can't you see that my daughter would have won? And that we were on time? My daughter would have won the prize. What do I tell her now?" I could feel their gaze on me as they contemplated my glorious costume and the disappointment I must be feeling. All the little noises in the store had gone silent. I had the sense that others were watching. I felt that I had become an object of wonder and pity.

The manager hesitated, then proclaimed loudly, taking in the other customers, "I will give your daughter a prize. She is a wonderful Ear of Corn." He led the two of us down an aisle, my leaves sweeping little hardware-store things off the shelves as we passed, and stopped at the small toy section.

The manager picked up what looked like a grey plastic box with the word "Eniac" printed on it. "It's a computer," he explained. Holding the device directly in front of my eyeholes, he demonstrated its operation. He showed me a small card with a question printed on it - "what is the distance of the earth from the sun?" He inserted the card into the plastic box and turned a crank. A card was ejected from the other end of the device with the number 92,876,479.56 printed on it. "You see?" he said excitedly. "It can answer questions. All kinds of questions. Here are the questions, right here." He brandished a packet which presumably contained all of the important questions one might ever want to ask. "All you have to do is feed them into the computer."

I had an epiphany. For a moment I was transported out of my chicken-wire cage, out of the age of schoolbooks and typewriters, and into a glorious time when computers would answer all the really hard questions for us. Maybe it could even explain to me what I was doing in the hardware store dressed as an Ear of Corn.

"Thank you," said Mother, graciously. "It's very nice. Next year, please run your contest on time."

"I will, Ma'am." The manager shook one of my leaves. "I'm sorry, honey. You look great. Enjoy your computer."

I think a good way to go about looking forward is to begin by looking back. My story was set in 1962, thirty-four years ago, when America was in its Dick-and-Jane, duck-and-cover period, with the space program glimmering hopefully in the distance. Computers were doing lots of things that no one knew about, but the plastic Eniac and the hardware-store man's explanation perfectly captured the predominant view of computers in popular culture. This simple techno-optimism was consistent with the idea of progress that characterized the industrial age.

But techno-optimism also contained a poisonous seed of self-doubt: people ask questions and computers bestow answers; computers may be smarter than people. The promise was that we could let them do a whole lot of things for us, the fear was that if we gave them the power to make decisions, we would lose control of them, and by extension, of our own destiny. After all, computers were blooming as a cultural icon in America in the midst of the deeply anxious period of the Cold War.

Our fears burst out in cautionary tales like "Colossus: The Forbin Project," a 1970 film about the super defense computers of Russia and the United States. The computers are portrayed as über-beings with intrinsically amoral natures; they turn on their masters, both good and evil, force them into submission, and attempt to take over the world. This dark view, the shadow dual of techno-optimism, is continuously represented in films like "2001" in 1968, "Westworld" in 1973, "Demon Seed" in 1977, "Wargames" in 1983, and "The Terminator" in 1984.

By contrast, "Star Trek," born in 1966, tempered techno-optimism with humanism. Except in the case of the occasional and often comical malfunction, Captain Kirk was the master of his computers. In several episodes he actually caused computers or robots with computers for brains to explode by asking them paradoxical questions. Technology often saved the day - but only with wise, benevolent humans at the helm. This theme also predominates in "Star Wars," and it continues to thrive in all of the permutations of "Star Trek," as well as in contemporary films like "Jurassic Park" where a UNIX-literate girl can avert disaster with the help of a graphical interface, and "Independence Day," where a nerd with a Powerbook can bring down the scariest imaginable alien technology.

The computer serves as a projection surface for our own hopes and fears about what it means to be human in these times. It is an important new character in our cultural myth. Joseph Campbell said that we live in a mythological field, with a hard-wired need and capacity to respond deeply to the symbols that our culture provides. He also cautioned that culture fails us when our symbols are not vitally connected to our lives.

As a cultural symbol, does the computer provide that vital connection to our lives which keeps our culture well? Is the computer a good mythical character? What is the ethos of the computer - its distinct characteristics, its moral nature, its guiding principles? It shows up as an innocuous zippy little appliance and a world-dominating soulless megalomaniac, and we recognize it in both roles. It recites nursery rhymes without comprehension and locks us out of the pod bay, and we recognize it in both actions. An athlete hurls a javelin into its big-brother eye and it pops up again as a little box with a self-effacing smile on its own little screen, and we recognize it in both disguises.

Although it can speak with a human voice or display a human face, we know it is not human. It is a brain in a box, without body, soul, intuition, passion, or morality. It is the last stop on the road to mind-body dualism. It is a severed head-severed from the body of what it means to be human. It is also a mega-head, a hypertrophied brain that can grow dangerous if it becomes embodied or self-aware. Indeed, it is different from us, but it's also similar enough to us that we think of it, no longer as a machine or a tool, but as an Other in relation to the human Self. It functions in our cultural mythology to express dualities - mind and body, other and self, logic and compassion, reason and intuition, technology and nature. Yes, we made the computer, but in its role as a cultural symbol, the computer also defines us.

And so you gotta ask yourself, what kind of future has this character in it? And if you don't particularly like the answer, then you have to turn the question around - what kind of character can act out a future that we would like to live in?

Cultural narratives coax technologies into being, and vice versa. That's why the Apollo space program owes a considerable debt to H. G. Welles. It's also why Ronald Reagan's pet defense technology was nicknamed "Star Wars." It's why slick commercials of beautifully dressed housewives effortlessly operating gleaming chrome-trimmed home appliances lured women out of the post-World War II workplace. It's why that young pilot in the Gulf War compared his bombing mission to a videogame. It's why girls have had such a hard time catching up to boys in using computers, and also why computer software and technology invented for and by females will change both the technology and the ethos of computing.

Culture and technology exist in dynamic reciprocal relationship. Culture comprehends technology through the means of narratives or myths, and those narratives influence the future shape and purposes of technology. The culture-technology circuit is at the heart of cultural evolution. As we become more capable of radically altering the conditions affecting our biological survival through technological means, cultural evolution becomes the primary factor in our ability to survive. The stories that we tell quite literally influence our fate as a species.

In his book Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould observes that the two traits that distinguish human beings from their forebears are abstract reasoning and representational art. Tool use was not sufficient to lead to us - other tool - using humanoid species died out. Gould points out that:

[Humanity is] . . . an improbable and fragile entity, fortunately successful after precarious beginnings as a small population in Africa, not the predictable end result of a global tendency. [Gould, 1989]

We are unlikely, not a done deal; nor would evolution predict that we are to be the progenitors of an even more "intelligent" species than ourselves. The story of evolution is neither the unfolding of a divine plan nor the inevitable march of sentience toward more and more spectacular manifestations; rather, extinction is the rule. We are much more likely to die out than to transform into a self-aware, infinitely smart, infinitely wise collective being shrouded in white light, the Internet notwithstanding. As far as evolutionary history would predict, the same set of traits that got us into this mess are going to have to be the ones that get us out of it - namely, abstract reasoning and representational art. Computers, of course, are extremely good at augmenting both activities. Coincidence?

When I look into the future, I am afraid of what I see. I see a world where dominator politics prevail, where human rights abuses multiply in direct relation to increasing poverty and overpopulation. I see world religions in a state of rigor mortis, with a death grip on science, art, and the exchange of ideas. I the red rocks of Utah riddled with coal mines and the Amazon a scarred wasteland. Worst of all, I see a world where people can't talk to each other in any meaningful way. Global networking will be a tool of business communication, consumerism, propaganda, banal conversations, and mindless entertainment. We will have forgotten how to tell stories or to hear them. The majority of the world's population will be very young people without extended families or intact cultures, with fanatical allegiances to dead religions or live dictatorships. We have what Jonas Salk called a "wisdom deficit" - fewer elders and even fewer people who listen to them.

If we can manifest a different future, then we must. I think that the way this is accomplished is to activate the culture-technology circuit. I think that what is needed is an intervention at the level of popular culture. Many of you are making such conscious interventions - mindfully creating technologies that cause us to produce new myths, and mindfully making art that influences the shape of technology.

I want to spend the next few minutes describing some interventions. As all of you know, it's tricky stuff, inserting new material into the cultural organism without activating its immune system. Many artists are content to live on the margin and find their gratification in self-expression; it takes special courage and passion to become involved in popular culture.

The first example I want to explore is that aging whiz-kid, Virtual Reality.

From its strange childhood in military and government labs, VR emerged as a Major Concept in the pop-culture scene of the late '80s. It was hailed as the techno-wave of the future, with potential to transform everything from movies to medical imaging. It was also demonized as the latest in mind-control drugs and the world's baddest war machine. Philosophers adopted it as a platform for renewed debates about the nature of reality. Nearly everyone agreed that a head-mounted display would give you a look inside Pandora's black box. The mythos of VR reflected our sense of an uncertain future; it became a many-faceted icon for the coming weird times. Why?

One key to the power of VR as a symbol is that it was essentially unexpected. It was not a logical successor to the brain-in-a-box. In fact, VR turned computers inside out. The brain-in-a-box computer has no body; VR uses our bodies as its instrument. Rather than presenting framed pictures or pull-down menus, VR gives us a first-person, body-centric view. Computers - even today's frisky little portables - immobilize the body in front of a keyboard and screen; conversely, VR relies upon human movement and kinesthetic sensations to achieve its effect. VR qualifies as what Marshall McLuhan described as an "anti-environment" - an inversion that turns the existing environment into an object of attention, scrutiny, and criticism.

Turning things inside out is an extremely powerful technique. In fact, inversions have given us some of our greatest leaps in culture, technology, and consciousness. In his book, Myths to Live By, Joseph Campbell describes the change in consciousness that resulted from our first view of the earth from space. Seeing our blue planet alone in the starry blackness, Campbell says, we suddenly understood that rather than coming into this world, we come out of it, or as Alan Watts put it, "as a vine grapes, so the Earth peoples." This inversion had a lot to do with the success of the Gaia hypothesis, both as a new line of scientific thinking and a new popular mythology for our relationship to our planet.

Ethnobotanist and philosopher Terence McKenna muses that this fascination with turning things inside out is what made us manifest computers in the first place - to create an instrumentality that could, as he put it, "textualize the world and exteriorize the soul." VR textualizes the world in the sense that it simulates reality, but the tasks for which it was originally developed - like flight simulation training and remote operations in nuclear reactors - aren't exactly what I would call "exteriorizations of the soul." Even so, the inversion inherent in VR activated the culture-technology circuit; the public's fancy was engaged, and the time was ripe for some interventions.

I was fortunate enough to be involved in one of them. It was a VR project called "Placeholder," something my friend Rachel Strickland and I had been incubating for several years before the Banff Centre for the Arts and Interval Research actually gave us the opportunity to produce it. With our colleagues Michael Naimark, Rob Tow, John Harrison, and many other folks, we created three connected virtual environments, each of which was a representation of an actual place in the local Canadian landscape.

The cave was a dark, drippy space, represented primarily as a 3D acoustic environment that revealed its shapes and textures through sound. We represented a stand of hoodoos as a tiled globe of photographic images, and a high waterfall in the forest as a full-motion video relief projection. Two participants entered Placeholder together, beginning - for obvious Jungian reasons - in the cave. At first, participants could see one another only as the tiny points of light that defined their hands (not just the right one, by the way, as was customary in the days of the DataGlove).

Presently, you would notice large, luminous petroglyphs of animals on the cave walls - Snake, Fish, Spider, and Crow. When the animals were approached, they began to speak about themselves and to beckon you to "come closer." So, for example, Crow might say, "I am the eye of the world. I see all that shines and glitters." If you came all the way up to him and your head intersected with the petroglyph, you would become embodied as Crow - that is, the other participant would suddenly see the Crow body change color and begin to move around, and if you spoke your voice would now sound like Crow's voice, and - this is the best part - if you flapped your arms, you found that you could fly. Each animal had distinct sensory-motor characteristics. We called these animal suits "smart costumes." Spiral-shaped petroglyphs acted as "portals" between the worlds. In all the worlds, you could leave "voicemarks" - audio graffiti - in special rocks called "voiceholders." People left messages and stories, and constructed story lattices by arranging the voiceholders in different ways.

I call "Placeholder" an intervention because we created it with the conscious intention of being able to tell a different story about virtual reality in hopes of influencing the future of the medium via the culture-technology circuit. For example, at that time, most people were still describing VR as out-of-body experiences in artificial worlds. The point of asking humans beings to "put on" the bodies of animals was to bring people's attention to the fact that they have bodies in VR, more than the traditional floating hand in virtual space. The point of modeling natural worlds was to address the common fear that VR would "replace the real world" for people who became "addicted" to it. Our intent was to invert this idea - to use VR, as Ansel Adams used photography, to point to beauty; to say, "notice this;" to honor and celebrate the natural world and the ways that it articulates with our imaginations.

I am happy to say that this work, although nowhere near to being a complete realization of our vision, did inspire lots of talking and thinking and reworking of the idea of VR, and that it did influence the creation of more works that explored poetic and spiritual domains. The best example I know of is a piece called "Osmose" created by Char Davies of Softimage, and implemented by John Harrison, who also worked on "Placeholder." The piece has been touring for two years and in my opinion is the finest work of art in VR to date. In "Osmose" a person explores a multi-layered world of sound, light, organic forms, almost painfully gorgeous imagery and motion.

Char loves scuba diving, and for this VR piece she and her team invented an interface device that uses human breath to navigate in much the same way that a diver inhales to rise and exhales to descend underwater. It's amazing what happens to people when they breathe consciously. Everyone begins to look like they are doing Tai Chi. People who have never experienced the medium before they entered "Osmose" often report to Char that they have had a transcendental spiritual experience, or that they have felt profound peace and joy. One of the construction workers who helped install the piece in Montreal said after experiencing it that he no longer was afraid of death.

When she reports some of these remarkable responses to gatherings of new media artists and theorists, Char is routinely criticized for doing "visionary" work, which is, evidently by definition, "irrelevant." One critic complained, "It is too beautiful. Why is there not a leaf lying next to a dead body in Bosnia?" How tragic that artists have come to hold the self-marginalizing belief cynicism is superior to hope. To my mind, there is nothing healthier than rolling up one's sleeves and trying to give the world fresh visions of joy, fresh uses of technology that indeed "exteriorize the soul." Critics notwithstanding, for the thousands of people whose consciousness was transformed by "Osmose" Char Davies has made a breathtaking intervention.

The second sort of intervention that I want to talk about has to do with storytelling.

As Bran has pointed out, storytelling is a kind of holy grail in the interactivity business. But Storytelling is not simply the transmission of narrative material; it is a purposeful action that is intended to communicate, to teach, to heal. Stories are content; Storytelling is relationship. Throughout our history, cultures, families, and individual lives have been held together by webs of storytelling relationships.

We are all familiar with the sort of Grand Storytelling that happens at the level of a culture at large. The Homeric myths, the classical Greek theatre, the plays of Shakespeare are of such a scale. Whether in the form of myths, tales, plays, novels, or films, they serve as a means whereby a culture can behold itself as a whole. They also function as healings - illuminations that help us to see where we are, how we have gotten here, what is important, and where we should go. We have no shortage of Grand Storytellers in twentieth-century America - Charlie Chaplin, Lillian Helman, Arthur Miller, Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas. But Grand Storytelling fills only part of our species' need for narrative.

There are many other kinds of stories floating around in our culture today-soap operas, comic strips, romance novels, stories of lost children on milk cartons. Contemporary media - especially television - allow us to feel as if we are always in touch, always looking through our electronic window at the living heart of our culture. Through witnessing of what we suppose to be common experience, we have the illusion of relationship. A talk show host is not your grandmother, or your sister, or a friend who knows and cares about you. We are vitally interested in the news even though, as Neil Postman observes, the news generally consists of stories that happened somewhere else to other people and about which we can take no meaningful action. Grand Storytelling functions fairly well in mass media, but Personal Storytelling - the giving of a tale by an individual as a teaching or healing for a particular group or person - is an endangered human sensibility.

Over the last five years I've been involved in a large-scale research project focused on the relationships between age, gender, and play in American children. As we talked to children across the country, we learned some things about stories and storytelling. For example, very few of the children we talked to said that they ever asked an adult to tell them a story. "Do your parents tell you stories anyway?" "Yeah, I suppose - well, they read books to me when I was little." Grandma and Grandpa live in another state, or perhaps have passed away, their stories with them.

The art of storytelling still flourishes among certain ethnic groups, and the practice of live storytelling as concert-style entertainment has gained popularity in recent years. But for most American children storytelling exists, if at all, as a novelty encountered in a school assembly. Luckily, there are interventions afoot. For example, multimedia artist Abbe Don uses a computer to weave together the stories of four generations of Jewish women in her family. Derek Powazek's website, <>, is a gallery for personal stories and a starting place for storytelling relationships.

Here's another story from our research. Recently, we have been testing some software concepts geared toward girls. Predictably enough, one of the concepts has to do with personal storytelling. We were surprised that this raised a red flag with some parents. I remember one concerned father in Los Angeles saying, "this product seems to be a lot about values. But whose values are these? Why should I trust them? I'm not sure I want a computer teaching values to my daughter." A bit later in the session we asked that same father about how he felt about the values represented in games like "Mortal Combat" and "Killer Instinct." Unhesitatingly he replied, "Oh, those games don't have any values in them. They're not about values."

What a stunning revelation! The values embedded in mainstream videogames are so pervasive and so unquestioned that they were virtually invisible to this concerned parent. But of course, when a kid is engaged in imaginative play - with or without a computer - the whole person is involved in the construction. The 'values' category is hanging wide open, soaking things up, trying things out, and if we do not design what goes into it, we are nevertheless responsible for what falls in there by default. We humans are perpetually constructing ourselves, and this is the central project of the young. We construct our personal identities, our cultures, our possibilities. But with what materials?

Stories, movies, videogames, websites, and artworks don't have to be about values to have a profound influence on values. Values are everywhere, embedded in every aspect of our culture and lurking in the very natures of our media and our technologies. The question isn't whether they are there but who is taking responsibility for them, how they are being shaped, and how they are shaping us and our future.

The plastic Eniac in my story contained values. The computer, the questions, and the answers were a closed system - all a person got to do was turn the crank. It is time to change that story. The questions and the answers are human. The computer - well, the computer ought to be human, too. As human as language. As human as a thumb, a talisman, a fairy tale, a song.

I'll leave you with one more story about a computer - a story from the future.

There was a little girl walking in the woods. Her grandmother had been in those woods many times, and so had her mom and dad and older brother, and some other people, long ago, and special friends when she let them in. Some magical beings also lived in there, she thought, because she had seen glimpses of them from time to time and sometimes they would leave her strange, wonderful treasures. The girl went to the woods when she needed quiet, when she needed time to think. Sometimes she would take a friend with her, but there were some places in the woods - her woods - where she would only go alone. There was a certain path she would take when she was feeling sad, a clear little stream where she would go when she was worried, a waterfall when she was feeling excited about something. Sometimes she would fly with the owl at night and see the world through huge golden eyes; sometimes she would visit the wise old salmon in a deep purple pool. She would always find things in the woods - gentle-eyed wild creatures, beautiful stones with secrets inside of them, pictures and messages from her relatives and ancestors and secret friends, notes that she had left herself. She collected these things in the woods and took them to a special place where she arranged them in beautiful patterns. And she knew that there would always be more things to discover in the woods - her woods - and that someday her own children would walk there, too, and find her stories and her memories and the patterns of her dreams.

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Copyright © 1997 by Brenda Laurel and the Association for Computing Machinery, Inc. Permission to make digital or hard copies of part or all of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. Copyrights for components of this work owned by others than ACM must be honored. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers, or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee. Request permissions from Publications Dept, ACM Inc., fax +1 (212) 869-0481, or