Cybersluts and Technophobes: an Interview with Tiffany Funk on the Strange Intersection of Technology + Parenthood
Pietà (Memento Maury) is a video compilation of clips taken from 200 episodes of The Maury Povich Show, filtered through facial recognition software programmed to search for faces resembling the Madonna’s of Michaelangelo’s Pietà. Copyright: Tiffany Funk
What can I say, I’m a lucky blogger: this interview with artist, cultural critic, professor, and PhD candidate, Tiffany Funk brought up at least five aspects of parenting, technology, and the bizarre interfacing of the two I had never considered before. Tiffany and I got to know each other in the department where we both teach, and even more intimately as I’ve taken on parenting and really look to her for sage advice and a shared value system. This one is worth at least a few reads—you’ll walk away as fascinated and inspired as I am.
Tell us a bit about your blog, Fetal Circuit. You have a great manifesto that inquiring luddites like myself want to know more about. What is cybernetic reflexivity? What are technoutopias?
Fetal Circuit (fetalcircuit.com) is a funny animal - I started it on a lark, because I saw how Tumblr functioned as a cross between social media and blog entity. Originally Fetal Circuit was just a place for me to repost interesting tidbits so that I could come back to them later for research purposes, but I came to realize that it could be a vital part of my practice. The blog functions as a meta-commentary on what Tumblr is - a reflection and meditation on internet sharing and what procreation means in a cybernetic context, spiked with commentary here and there on technology and art. In the future, I want to beef up the commentary part of it and share more original artwork.
The manifesto for Fetal Circuit came organically, and I riffed on several sexy key terms central to my interests as an artist and historian of computational art practices. Cybernetic reflexivity sits at the very center of Fetal Circuit, and I’ve been heavily leaning on the concept in order to explain my thoughts on human/technological relationships; N. Katherine Hayles, the She-Ra of Cybernetics and Post-human history and theory, explains cybernetic reflexivity as a shibboleth amongst information theorists and cultural critics immersed in media theory; basically, if one believes that all things - all living organisms and their surroundings - are part of larger feedback systems that continually inform and recreate one another, she is part of the third wave of cybernetics; in fact, she goes on to claim that this line of inquiry not only unites disparate academic disciplines (which is at the core of what the founders of cybernetics intended), but has come to fundamentally alter the human sensorium.
In her text “Boundary Disputes,” she provocatively states, “Half a century beyond the watershed of the Macy conferences, feedback loops have become household words and cybernouns are breeding like flies, spawning cybernauts, cyberfutures, and cybersluts. People no longer find it strange to think of material objects as informational patterns.” In other words, we no longer think of ourselves as discrete beings, but part of larger self-organizing systems. You only have to turn on a television and watch a yogurt commercial filled with rhetoric about probiotics and bacterial flora to see these concepts at work.
But the main crux of arguing for an understanding of reflexivity is to explode so many concepts that seem mutually exclusive. My inclusion of “technoutopias” and “technodystopias” is an attempt to approximate the two, perhaps to urge readers to confuse and elide them. I often tell my students that one’s utopia is another’s dystopia, and that holds true for the various science-fiction futures we imagine for ourselves and our children. A technoutopia, where all our problems are solved by technology, is such a vague concept. I’d imagine that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner denizens, the ones who live in the awesome crash pads in the clouds, live in something that approximates that. Technodystopia is for all the underworld citizens, or the people in the various poor districts in The Hunger Games. But the reality is that children of the working poor on the South Side of Chicago don’t have access to computers, but the majority have smart phones and regular access to Twitter and Facebook. They can’t get fresh fruits or vegetables, but they can post everything they do to Youtube or Instagram. There’s hints of dystopia and utopia mixed up in all of that. In reality, the two can’t exist separately. You cross a street in Chicago, and you see Divvy Bikes… or an Apple Store… and these things are hints of that unachievable technoutopia.
We had a great conversation online about parenthood and technologies/conveniences that promise to streamline the process. Do these “improvements” inform culture, or are they a product of it? Do you think they have a role in evolved family units?
A: Both, and in a fascinating variety of ways! One of my pet projects, and one that I explore in-depth in my dissertation research, is the concept of “prosthetic relationships.” When I had originally read Sigmund Freud’s “Civilization and its Discontents,” I was absolutely struck by his claim that “Man has… become a kind of prosthetic God,” but hedging it with, “… they still give him much trouble at times.” He follows this with one of the saddest but truest passages I’ve ever read:
"If there were no railway to make light of distances, my child would never have left home, and I should not need the telephone to hear his voice. If there were no vessels crossing the ocean, my friend would never have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph to relieve my anxiety about him."
And that’s where we’re left; we continually solve problems that create yet more problems to be solved. As technological beings, we continually invent, and through our inventions, re-invent ourselves. And these inventions re-invent our relationships with each other! This is the essense of what I call the prosthetic relationship. My description of it is an attempt to reconcile media theorists Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler, both so influential but fundamentally at odds. Unlike McLuhan, I believe that media is much more than just an “extension” of ourselves. However, I wouldn’t go so far as Kittler, in which he describes technology as autonomous to humans. Media are neither simply attachments to the body, as we would imagine a kitchen appliance with multiple functions. But, to temper Kittler, it is important to focus on humans as the center of the argument, as technology has yet to demand a moralistic autonomy (contrary to whatever science-fiction entity claims otherwise). Regardless of whether we ascribe to cybernetic reflexivity as a foundation for reality, I believe that so many humans are treated in sub-human ways in the name of capital (and thus at the mercy of “things”) that it is absolutely crucial to argue first and foremost for human-centered theory and practice. It’s a moral imperative. I’m not ready to jettison humanism for some sort of trans-humanist or post-humanist philosophy because of this. Of course, I’m not the first theorist or artist to expound upon these ideas - there is a wonderful interview by Adam Zaretsky in which Shannon Bell explains these reservations more eloquently than I have here.
(Side note: This is my main problem with the growing interest in Object-Oriented Ontology as a mode of discourse. I’ll just leave that there without an explanation and let google and Wikipedia do the work for me.)
Portraits (Terminators, 2001) Single channel video, 3D tracking and postproduction software. Copyright: Tiffany Funk
You mentioned online breast milk sources in your response to The Feminism of Fast Food. It got me thinking about the fact that I really consider my biological involvement in parenting very, very little. How does biology play a role in our contemporary culture in ways that convenience culture and technology seek to answer? Can we evolve past our biology without going the Handmaid’s Tale route? What about outsourcing, and the role of race, class, and gender exploitations necessitated by it?
A: This is a tricky subject, and a lot of it is wrapped up in that nasty concept of the “natural,” and how it’s so co-opted by neo-liberal capitalism at this point that it’s absolutely impossible to get away from it, no matter your economic status and political leanings. There’s such an emphasis on what is conceived of as “natural” that any intervention seen as even hinting of “technology” (another co-opted and misconstrued term in this context) is demonized by a variety of groups. I remember when I was pregnant, my absolutely wonderful and feminist doctor told me to “stay away from the internet crazies,” and I soon found out what she was talking about. The moment you even bring up the idea that you might put disposable diapers on your child on parenting forums, you are worse than Hitler. You’re supplementing with formula? Hitler. You didn’t space out your vaccinations? Hitler. And don’t even dare bring up circumcision…
But to get back to the point, convenience culture seems to be something that we are conditioned to be ashamed of, and for complicated reasons. My gut tells me that it’s wrapped up in issues of history (the myth of the perfect 1950s housewife, for one example) and class and economic stability. All of this has that sheen of conservative, prudish “OMG WE ARE SO AFRAID OF WOMENS’ BODIES!” In short, if you have the economic means, you can still go “natural” with a ton of expensive work-arounds - like using diaper services that advertise 100% eco-friendly methods, online breast milk sources with same-day guaranteed shipping, or live-in surrogates that promise to keep to any crazy dietary restriction you demand. That way you can stay far away from actual biological involvement, but still be “natural”. In so many ways, we’re already living in a quasi Handmaid’s Tale, but without the dictatorial politics. The handmaids in this reality are invisible or ignored because their wares are internet-based, or we refuse to discuss the reasons they, for instance, sold their eggs or put their womb on craigslist.
That would be a terrifying and interesting project - tracking down and interviewing people who went through the process of donating eggs. From everything I’ve heard, it’s not at all pleasant. How’s that for a Handmaid’s Tale sequel? The Handmaid’s Tale II: Electric Boogaloo, or: Why I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Painful Hormone Injections for Cash and Profit?
You also mention some great stuff about technology and the younger generation. I don’t even know where to start, except that I haven’t had a phone conversation with a person under 30 in years. What is your take on technology in the contemporary American family, and in 21st Century communication? How does that relate to gender roles?
A: There’s a technophobic vibe I get from so much parenting material, as I alluded to above. These phobias seem to be directed at women more than men, which I find especially disturbing. But instead of making this a screed against anti-vaxxers and those internet memes that shame mothers for answering emails on their cell phones while their children play on the playground (“You’re missing their precious and magical childhoods, you self-absorbed monster!”), I’ll point out this wonderful article I read a year ago in the Atlantic about tablet usage and children, called “The Touch-Screen Generation,” written by Hanna Rosin.
Without all the sensationalism so rampant in parenting media, Rosin explores a lot of the research that had been done about how children use touchscreen technology, particularly iPads. She researched how various media was “engineered” to focus on educational content for specific age ranges, and interviewed various technologists and writers on their studies on the effects of technologies and childhood development. Most of the article paints the media as fairly benign, and at best actually serves to develop a sense of social norms and interest in educational materials in even the youngest children. When faced with the question of technology and childhood addiction, she concludes by conducting an experiment with her own son, in which she allows her toddler to play with her iPad whenever he wants instead of limiting his time with it. She recounts that, for ten days, he used the device heavily, sometimes for hours on end and past his bedtime. However, at the end of this binge, the iPad simply fell out of rotation. He dropped it under his bed with some of his less desirable toys and didn’t even look for it. Rosin, fully aware that one case such as this doesn’t hold true for all children, nevertheless correlates usage of iPads and gaming devices to books, explaining that she realized that all media can be used to avoid social interaction.
Also, these toddlers took to touch-screen swiping, pinching, and poking commands faster than adults. They are being tactilely and kinetically prepared for a future that we can’t even imagine yet, and I find that incredibly exciting. I often feel like I’m in the minority, however, especially amongst cultural critics.
If you could make the ideal scenario for any human wanting to explore career and family simultaneously, what would it look like?
A: Aside from monetary issues (because, if I start on that, I would say that it would make everything a ton easier if one were independently wealthy), I would urge anyone to tap into every avenue toward community-building that they can. Having a child, especially without an extended family very close, can be extremely isolating. I grew up in rural Wisconsin, but only just recently, upon re-watching The Shining, did I see the close connection between what we can crudely call “cabin fever” and the sort of depression and mania that can befall a primary caregiver. I was watching Wendy doing laundry and organizing canned goods, and I remembered my aunt saying something about how she felt her brain was warping because all she used was kid-speak all day with my young cousins, and the only adult conversation she was privy to was daytime soaps. Suddenly I was so disinterested in Jack and his stupid privileged alpha male writer’s block psychosis and fascinated by what I presumed was Wendy’s uncomplaining, stoic adherence to a caregiver’s routine; I started to invent scenarios in which her horror was not at a haunted hotel but the overpowering awareness of her mistreatment and subjugation flooding into her consciousness all at once. (Now I’m thinking of menstrual blood and that elevator opening scene, and even though that’s certainly a ham-handed interpretation of that image, it gives me a chuckle.)
I connected with that feeling of isolation because at that time I was sharing caregiving responsibilities with my partner - my son was born in July of 2013 - and using the rest of my time to teach graduate seminars at Columbia and research and write my dissertation. That’s almost all we did for nearly a year, and it took its toll. I saw my partner very little, and rarely spent any time with him alone. And being a teacher and lecturing isn’t the same thing as having a conversation with peers. I was always in the role of the caregiver or educator, and I found myself absolutely starving for a conversation outside of those contexts. It caused a considerable amount of emotional trauma, some of it I’m still trying to figure out now.
Tell us about your PhD project, and what it’s been like at UIC.
A: There have been a ton of changes - mostly positive - at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the development of the newly minted School of Art and Art History. For one thing, there’s more communication between those studying art history and theory and the practitioners. That wasn’t the case when I started at UIC, and around the time I finished my MFA in New Media Arts there, I saw the beginnings of that positive transformation. I’m also very pleased that UIC, as a public institution, is getting such recognition on the strength of its graduates. I’m not going to name drop, but I think so many of the strongest and most interesting artists around these days are UIC MFA graduates.
My own research has really benefitted from being involved in a public institution - particularly one with such an amazing history of computing. The University of Illinois system has long been at the center of computational research, especially research into the computer in the arts. (UIUC had one of the first and only Departments of Computer Music, and the University of Illinois at Chicago still has the Electronic Visualization Lab.)
Currently I’m writing about John Cage’s involvement at the University of Illinois in the late 1960s, specifically his partnership with the computer scientist and musician Lejaren Hiller, Jr. They worked on an immense computer-assisted event called HPSCHD (pronounced “harpsichord”), involving both live and recorded musical elements generated by the university’s revolutionary super-computer, the ILLIAC II. It took nearly two years to develop, but there exists very little scholarship about the process. The crux of my thesis is that the programming aspects of such a large computational construct need to be considered part of the performance, not only because it explains computer art in such a way as to contextualize it within the larger art historical movements of the 60s and 70s - primarily conceptual practice and performance art - but also serve to expound upon how software is programmed, executable behavior and not a literal, tangible object, regardless of how neo-liberal capitalism has cast it.
Also, by opening up the history of computing to art history, I will eventually be able to further explore so many important female figures that were key to the eventual development of art and technological practices, such as Laeticia Snow and Jasia Reichardt. I see much of my future practice continuing to explore gender roles in media, both in the procreation of humans and technology.