Friday, January 20, 2012

Crank up the Mood Organ

This week I have been starting upon two books for my New Media Theory and Practice class:  Phillip K.Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Nicohlas Gane and David Beer's New Media: The Key Concepts.

One of the most fascinating bits of new media present in the opening chapters of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep has been the mood organ. Using this tool, one is able to elect his or her mood at various times each day by setting a dial on his or her personal mood organ. Alternately, another person can set the organ on your behalf, as is demonstrated by the means in which a central figure, Rick, sets the mood organ for both himself and his wife in the opening chapter. He sets hers to "pleased acknowledgment of husband's superior wisdom in all matters" (my husband swears he wouldn't want such ability...) and his own to "creative and fresh attitude toward his job" (7).

Screenshot of the Sims game picturing a Sim House in the evening along with the mood level bar showing Hunger, Hygiene, Energy, Social, Comfort, Bladder, Fun and Room levels for a male Sim
Image source: GameFaqs
 The first image that came to my mind when I read about the mood organ was that of the mood meters on the video game The Sims. I spent a fair amount of time playing The Sims during my undergraduate experience, to the point where I sometimes referred to my own experiences in Sims terms. I would, for example, tell my husband (then boyfriend) that my comfort meter was down.
This way of characterizing my feelings made emotions seem mechanical, in a laughable way--as though all I had to do was switch the setting on my mood switchboard and all would be better. However, that mechanical interaction with emotion is reality for the characters of Phillip K. Dick's novel. Yet they use an organ, rather than a switchboard.

This characterization as an organ was of great interest to me. Organs can be defined in more than one way. On the one hand it's something natural and, obviously, organic. They are our kidneys and livers. However, organs are also musical devices. I toyed for some time with whether or not Phillip K. Dick wanted us to view the mood organ as organic or technical/musical.  More importantly, however, I was interested in whether it should be considered new media or not.

I began this post by casually calling this mechanical emotion controller a new media tool without justifying it. Now I'd like to unpack that choice. The term "new media," however, like all my favorite terms, is mushy. Thus, I would like to take a few minutes to puzzle over whether the mood organ is a new media tool by considering it through the lens of Gane and Beer's text, with emphasis on their introduction and the concepts presented in their first four chapters.

Gane and Beer open their text with an introduction that, like all good introductions, sets the stage for the text at large.  It addresses why it is organized around key concepts and provides an overview of those concepts, but also wrestles with the definition of new media.  The authors outline a set of features that might distinguish new media from other forms of media by pulling from Tony Feldman's Introduction to Digital Media.  They summarize his text by presenting a set of traits he connects to being characteristic of digital media.  These traits include the ability to make "information increasingly manipulable, networkable, dense, compressible and impartial" (7).  Given the chapters of the book that I have read and considered this week, I'm most interested in Feldman's first two traits at the moment:

  • "First, digital media make possible the manipulation of data to an unprecedented degree" (7).
  • "A second main feature of digital media is that, assuming a suitable protocol can be established, they can be interfaced with one another, and be connected through networks that span vast geographical spaces with relative ease" (7).

I'm hesitant to think of natural organs as new media, in and of themselves, but I do admit they interface and network with other entities within the body.  It still sits oddly with me. However, there are natural proprieties of the body that can be replaced or altered by mechanical versions of themselves or their parts (I'm looking at you, titanium knees and pacemakers).  Are these things new media?

During the fall semester, I had the pleasure of attending Tedx MidAtlantic 2011  and listening to Avi Rubin of John Hopkins speak about Computer Security.  Rubin's talk that day was captivating in part because it was terrifying.  He spoke to us about the simple was in which devices like pacemakers could be hacked using networking functionalities.  I've embedded the video below.  He speaks about medical devices in the first few minutes, but I really recommend the whole video.

Does the network-ablity of a medical device make it a new media tool?  Not only does this device has the ability to work within a network, this network allows for the manipulation of data.  Hackers can break into the medical device and alter information, such as patient names or treatment plans.  These properties fit with Feldman's traits of digital media.  However, I'd never considered medical devices in a new medial light until I considered Rubin's talk in connection with  Phillip K.Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Nicohlas Gane and David Beer's New Media: The Key Concepts.

Truth be told:  thinking of medical devices as new media creeps me out. I much prefer the idea that the mood organ is a musical tool. In this way, I like to think of it not as a switchboard as I referred to with the Sims mood levels before, but instead a mixing board (probably the result of having a musician as a father). This tool is certainly underneath the new media canopy.  One uses the device to manipulate information, the way in which sound is presented.  Through the cables from instruments, sound boards and other musical devices, a network is established.  The mixing board is the place where discrete instruments interface with one another.

It seems the introductory concepts of new media can be applied to the mood organ, regardless of whether we fancy it a medical or musical device.

Gane, Nicholas and David Beer. New Media: The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg, 2008. Print.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Del Rey, 1975. Print.

Bonus Round: Mood Organ is also the name of a musician named Timm Mason's solo enterprise, that is described on his Myspace page as ambient and experimental.  It's not my style (I respect what he's doing but wouldn't elect to listen to in a non-performance setting), but it is interesting to consider in light of the technology he uses and the likely source of his project's name.

1 comment:

  1. I know you got a chunk of comments from me via Diigo. :-)