[ISEA94] Paper: Gregory Ulmer – The X Tables: Dialogues with the Prosthetic Unconscious


Table: An arrangement of numbers, words, or items of any kind, in a definite and compact form, so as to exhibit some set of facts or relations in a distinctive and comprehensive way, for convenience of study, reference, or calculation.

Richard Bolt (Senior Research Scientist in the Perceptual Computing Group at the Media Laboratory of MIT and author of The Human Interface) gave a presentation at Ohio State University, in a series on Technology and Postmodern Culture (fall, 1993), in which he argued that ‘dealing with computers will become less like operating a device and more like conversing with another person.’ Bolt demonstrated his point, as Susan Roth described it, by means of a computer program that responded to voice command, gesture (through feedback from a digital glove), and gaze (through feedback from an eye- tracking device). The display contained a chair and a table on which were placed a glass and a pitcher, on a floor covered with black and white tile.

The virtual table brings to mind Plato’s three beds (or tables), listed in order of reality
from most to least real—the pure form (the idea of the table); the carpenter’s table; the
picture of a table made by an artist. Where does the virtual table come in this list? How
should we understand the table Bolt displayed? The very insistence on the table—moving it,
raising, rotating and lowering it before the fascinated gaze of the audience — evokes an allegorical effect. Our starting point is the meaning of this table — a hermeneutic question. We
will not stop there, however, but move on into a heuretic relationship with the table, to
learn not what it means, but what we can make of it. Bolt’s interface metaphor may be considered in the context of the history of dialogue, and this metaphor (communicating with a computer is like having a conversation with a person) is the key to our project. Let us accept as the terms of our design project the idea that the future of education in an electronic era depends upon our ability to extend and adapt the dialogue to computing. The first thing that a quick review of the tradition reveals, however, is the fact that the meanings of the terms are unstable and shift from epoch to epoch. Thus for example ‘to converse with a person’ means quite different things in an oral civilization and in a literate one. We have to assume that when the technology is electronic rather than print or speech (the different media imply different institutions contextualizing their employment) both the practice of conversing and the nature of personhood will be undergoing a transformation. Our task as interface designers, then, is to invent the prototype of an electronic dialogue.

  • Gregory Ulmer is a professor of English and Media Studies at the Universityof Florida. He is the author of APPLIED GRAMMATOLOGY (1985); TELETHEORY (1989) and HEURETICS: THE LOGIC OF INVENTION (1994). Ulmer has co-authored atextbook (TEXT BOOK), served as academic adviser and on-camera critic for a telecourse on literature (LITERARY VISIONS), made video tapes with Paper Tiger Television and the Critical Art Ensemble (distributed by Drift). He is Coordinator of the Florida Research Ensemble (a group developing a new approach to the practice of consulting) and an officer in the Florida Media Arts Center, involved with the project for Creating an Electronic Community. His work-inprogress
    is the design of a series of electronic monuments; also the production of a handbook for
    people who would Iike to take up theory as a hobby. Ulmer’s courses at the University of Florida are designed as experimental tests of the theory of electronic rhetoric proposed in HEURETICS

Full text (p.185-193)