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iApparatus or How the Culture of Personalised Media Creates Millions of iOperators

Andreas Ströhl

In the following paper I will use a very specific perspective, from the writings of the communications philosopher Vilém Flusser, to examine some the issues surrounding personalised media.

Vilém Flusser

Vilém Flusser (1920–1991) was born in Prague and emigrated to Brazil, where he taught philosophy and wrote a daily newspaper column in São Paulo. Later he moved to France. He wrote several books in Portuguese and German. His innovative writings theorise - and ultimately embrace - the epochal shift that humanity is undergoing from what he termed linear thinking (based on writing) toward a new form of multidimensional, visual thinking embodied by digital culture. For Flusser, these new modes and technologies of communication make possible a society (the telematic society) in which dialogue between people becomes the supreme value.

Existence is akin to being thrown into an abyss of absurd experience or bottomlessness. Becoming human requires the creation of meaning out of this painful event by consciously connecting with others. For these dialogical connections we need a code we share, and we may use various technologies.

The Self as a Media Node

Flusser juxtaposes the traditional notion of a world that contains hard objects and subjects to his own concept in which only the relations between subjects and other subjects are concrete. Man is an interpolation, a node in a network of interactions and possibilities. To Flusser, it is not subjects or objects that are real entities. Rather, what is real is fields of relations. The self is a node in a network of connections, an area of improbable density within an elsewhere even, probable, meaningless distribution. In this bottomless, immaterial universe dialogues spin the threads that constitute the I. But the Thou I am in a dialogue with is also an extrapolation from such relations.

There is neither myself nor a Thou as long as I do not speak with a Thou. I make out the other as a Thou in a dialogue: I recognise him or her. If I respond to him or her, I take over responsibility that goes beyond the dialogue itself. In that case, I and Thou build up a relationship of acknowledgment in mutual responsibility for each other. I myself exist only in so far as I take over appreciative responsibility for the other. According to Flusser, “the I turns out to be a movable node in an intersubjective fabric” (1994: 14). It is an abstraction of intersecting lines of relations with other Is.

A first hand experience of the It, of the world, of things, is both impossible and irrelevant. Information is produced in a dialogue. It is synthesised from already existing information. Then it is passed on with the help of discourses. Both dialogue and discourse are acts of communication between memories, usually an I and one or several Thous. That is the way information comes into being, and that is the way it is transmitted. To Flusser, dialogue is the only way to cognition: information is produced in a dialogue, and passed on in a discourse.

In light of Edmund Husserl’s notion of the life-world as a network of concrete intentionalities, Flusser foresaw the coming technological implementations of a telematic culture that would establish a relationship of mutual respect among individuals:

A telematised society will be exactly that network of pure relationships that Husserl defines as the concrete structure of the social phenomenon ... We can see, then, in what sense it may be said that Husserl has done away with humanism. Instead of the individual man being the supreme value, it is now the dialogue between men that becomes the supreme value, or what Martin Buber, whose thought was profoundly influenced by Husserl, called the ‘dialogical life’ (das dialogische Leben) (1987: 98).

Mass Media and Manipulation

According to Flusser, mass media do exist, and they do have a specific structure. Among the discursive patterns of communication like theatre discourses, pyramidal discourses, tree-shaped discourses and amphitheatrical discourses, it is the latter kind, the amphitheatrical discourse, which gives shape to modern technical mass media. In amphitheatrical discourses,

… the recipients (‘the mass’) become stored information: they can only receive. They are unable to return anything: they do not have any transmission channels at their disposal. This structure excludes any responsibility or ‘revolution’ ... This is why the amphitheatrical discourse is ... by far the best form of discourse ... In other contexts, this perfection of communication is called totalitarianism (1996: 28)

Television is a good example for amphitheatrical media, and especially for mass media, because it stresses what is characteristic of the circus: its massifying effect, the false freedom, the lack of responsibility, the impossibility of a dialogue, the passivity vis-a-vis the black box, the magical power of this box, the ontological alienation with all its aesthetic, epistemological and political consequences and the programmed behaviour (1996: 285).

Dialogue vs. Discourse

So, the Self is a product of - or rather, an abstraction from - dialogues, often mediated through the technical channels of media. The manipulative effect of mass media, however, is wrought upon its recipients by means of discourses.

“Communication is possible only when dialogue and discourse balance each other out. If, as we see today, a discursive form dominates, which prevents dialogues from taking place, then society is dangerously close to decomposing into an amorphous crowd” (1993: 232). Preventing dialogue more than fostering it, this contemporary imbalance is the result of the overbearing amphitheatrical (that is, fascist) structure of discursive mass media and of the equally discursive, pyramidal modern institutions in the public sphere, such as political parties, churches, and bureaucracies. In an amphitheatrical structure, one sender transmits the same message to many addressees.

Flusser believed that dialogue is the purpose of existence. The sense of responsibility inherent in the dialogic relationship between speaker and addressee offers the speaker an opportunity to give his or her own life meaning in the face of entropy and death. A society of individuals responsible for one another is fashioned out of a net dialogue.

According to Flusser, a meaningless historical rebellion against the supposed motivations of an intentionless machine cannot change the situation. It can only be changed by means of a complete transformation of the technical and material forms of discursive structures into dialogical forms.

The Apparatus-Operator Complex

Flusser used a phenomenological method to recognise a certain ‘apparatus-operator complex’ as the motivating force behind all contemporary social and technological change. This “complex devours texts, to spit them out again as techno-images” (1996: 151). Flusser asks how this complex changes our interaction with the world when it transforms texts, such as history, into techno-images, such as television programmes, and thus impedes our perception of texts: “If ... every historical action feeds the apparatus-operator complex, then history literally proceeds toward its end” (1996: 153).

The term ‘complex’ signifies that there is no substantial reason for differentiating between the apparatus and the operator of the apparatus:

One may disregard the wheels and screws that constitute the apparatus (the countless media’, ‘programmers’, and other human and quasi-human operators who compose it), and concentrate upon the images as they come out of the box left black … In other words, it is not necessary to analyse the whole hopelessly complex system that stands behind a TV program if one wants to understand the present crisis of rational thinking and acting (2002: 67).

The apparatus functions only in terms of the function of the operator, just as the operator functions only in terms of the function of the apparatus.

If the apparatus transforms linear texts into technical images, it also processes historical thinking into images that lack the vectoral, linear progression of verbal causality and finality:

Thus, the complex of apparatus-operator … becomes a dam of history ... It is the goal of history to become a television program. The apparatus-operator complex becomes a memory of history, preserved history. In movies, you can see Caesar or the landing on the moon over and over (1996: 152).

Images are now always at hand. They surround us in eternal circles, and they have been stripped of their historical meaning.

The reason that technical images function this way is that they work like dams; they are surfaces which arrest flux … Technical images ... suck all of history into their surfaces, and they come to constitute an eternally rotating memory of society. Nothing can withstand the centripetal attraction of technical images: no artistic, scientific or political act that does not aim at a technical image, no daily common action that does not wish to be photographed or filmed or videotaped. Everything desires to flow into this eternal memory, and to become eternally reproducible there. Every event aims at reaching the television or cinema screen or at becoming a photograph … The result is that every event or action loses its proper historical character (1984: 14).

According to Flusser: “Photographs originate in apparatuses and are distributed through apparatuses whose intention is to preserve themselves and multiply” (2002: 47). There is no way we can escape that incapacitating deprivation: “The addressee cannot interrupt his exposure to images simply by disconnecting the apparatus, to end objectification and become a subject; for he would thus give up his function and take himself out of society” (2002: 73).

The whirl of floating images circling around us eternally is caused by the dam erected by the apparatus, and it is impossible to recognise any historical development in the flood of images we are submerged in.

An approach to technical images - the output of the apparatus - with the same naivety as to pre-technical images is a disastrous misunderstanding, a sinful shortcut with devastating results. If we do not succeed in critiquing techno-imagination and the apparatuses that produce it, “History in the strict sense of that term will come to an end, and we may easily imagine what will follow: the eternal return of life in an apparatus that progresses by its own inertia” (2002: 69). The apparatus’s pictorial diarrhoea will then make sure we will drown in a messy flood of kitschy aesthetic pictorial shit.

Changes in Media Arts

How can Vilém Flusser’s theoretical approach to image apparatuses be put to use to at least hypothetically explain or perhaps even forecast changes in media arts?

If Flusser is right, if dialogical media technologies, texts and traditional images are very simply swallowed by the apparatus, and spit out as discursive technical images - there is no place for interactivity in the realm of the apparatus in the long run.

The apparatus’ capacity to devour images, texts, dialogue and poisonous art, to digest it and to transform it into aesthetic shit is more powerful than the concept of a deviant, progressive, non-conformist avant-garde (media) art.

Is the incompatibility of that process with the concept of interactivity the reason why the latter did not have a chance to catch on?

The idea of a deviant, ever-progressing art owes everything to modernity, to the belief in science, politics and progress, to a historical consciousness, to writing and linearity. But modernity has lost ground to an attitude that is no longer based on writing (but on technical images instead), not on linearity (but on more complex modes of imagination instead). In this new world, the violation of borders has in itself no artistic value any longer. Art is a strange concept in the realm of apparatus culture. The successors of art in the late 1980s and1990s were TV events like the staged execution of the Ceaucescus or Big Brother. We can only speculate what will be next. But we can be rather sure it will be another technical image. Like the video of Saddam Hussein’s execution, it will at first glance look as if it had a historical meaning, but it will be designed to program our behaviour, and it will be distributed in a one-way, discursive broadcast, top down.

Not just interactivity, most of media art itself has fallen prey to the apparatus it had originally started out to provoke and put into question. Ironically, it has thus provided even more and more interesting fodder to the Moloch, and it took its creators a long time to realise that. Many producers of media art are still not fully aware of the enormous, irresistible power of the apparatus and of the dams it can build.

Actions committed to history and against the apparatus, like monks burning themselves to death or students being killed in riots, are even better pretexts for TV programs than are deliberate scripts made by TV programmers. It may look as if the trend, in which writing is becoming subservient to image making, planning to irrationality, and reason to magic, is increasingly automatic and autonomous of individual decisions (2002: 69).

Once again, “nothing can withstand the centripetal attraction of technical images: no artistic, scientific or political act” (1984: 14).

Freedom in the Context of the Apparatus

Let us assume that interactive media art has been an attempt to play against the program of the apparatus. Let us also assume that this game could not be won, because it was played inside the apparatus, and along its rules.

If we accept these assumptions, we can categorise interactive media art as doomed to fail, as a brave attempt to break free from the clinging power of amphitheatrically discursive, programming media apparatuses. We can then consider it another - all in all - fruitless attempt to follow Flusser’s suggestion and turn discursive one-way-streets of communication into structures suitable for dialogue (Bertolt Brecht’s Radio Theory of 1925 is a famous attempt at laying the theoretical foundation for turning a one-way street into a dialogical channel. It did not come true for radio - nor for television).

How does the process of personalisation of the media, of their material possession, of the environments they create, and of their surface design affect our society and culture?

Our dialogues are handled today in such an archaic manner as before the Industrial Revolution. Actually, with the exception of the telephone, we dialogue with each other in the same way as those who lived during the Roman age. At the same time, the discourses raining down on us avail themselves of the most recent scientific advances. However, if there is hope in preventing the totalitarian danger of massification through programming discourses, it lies in the possibility of opening up the technological media to dialogue (1996: 286).

While MP3 players, iPods or portable film viewing gadgets are purely receptive and discursive, some others of the more recent personalised media or media environments, like e-mail accounts, mobile phones, Blackberries, MySpace, YouTube or Second Life seem to be or to provide exactly what Flusser was urgently hoping for when he wrote these lines in 1977, exactly 30 years ago.

Obviously, these media apparatuses lend themselves to the realisation of a responsible net dialogue through channels that allow reversible data flows in various directions. They are indeed the materialisation of net dialogue structures.

In the light of Flusser’s media theoretical work, however, there is also another diametrically opposing consequence.

It can be argued that a widespread access to the technology and media literacy will have an instructive, informative effect and will foster democratisation. Many people are learning how to deal with the media, how to handle and operate the apparatus. In other words, personalised media turn users into operators of the apparatus.

However, they produce operators, and these operators are not programmers. They have only limited, second-degree control of the apparatus they believe they own and control. They do not have any access at all to the programme behind the apparatus whose operators they have become, neither in a technological nor in a political, theoretical/reflective or economic sense. However, they enjoy what they have been programmed to believe they have gained: more mobility, more freedom, and more self-determination. Of course, these notions are dangerously misleading, because not even the big apparatus programmers are willing or able to change the situation. They are not—for the simple reason that they are programmers, operators of the apparatus. Therefore, they are part of the system. They exist only in function of the apparatus.

Personalised media turn users into operators. As a consequence, these people - even though they may consider themselves media-savvy or media literati - are changed into a function, an appendix of the user-friendly little apparatuses they use. iPods create iOperators. The more the apparatus allows for a personal design, personal settings of the software or the interface, the more they become involved and dependent on the function they are taking over in the black box apparatus-operator complex. If everybody is programmed to be such an operator, there will be only operators left, and everybody will have become part of the machine: robots.

The short history of interactive media art shows one thing very clearly: if you play against the apparatus along and within the rules established by its own programme, you will surely lose. However, if you prefer to remain a simple user instead, you voluntarily give up your self-determination and your sovereignty and put yourself in the hand of the apparatus and its programmers. Therefore, the goal of a real project for humanisation must be to become a programmer instead of an operator. However, even then will it prove to be very difficult to resist and withstand the programming power of the image apparatus.

Note: Citations from German texts are translated by the author.


Flusser, V. (1984) Towards a Philosophy of Photography, trans. N.N., Göttingen: European Photography

Flusser, V. (1987) “On Edmund Husserl” in Review of the Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews, vol. 1, pp. 98

Flusser, V. (1993) “Gespräch, Gerede, Kitsch” in Nachgeschichte. Eine korrigierte Geschichtsschreibung, eds. St. Bollmann & E. Flusser, Bensheim/Düsseldorf: Bollmann

Flusser, V. (1994) “Vom Subjekt zum Projekt” in Vom Subjekt zum Projekt Menschwerdung, eds. St. Bollmann & E. Flusser, Bensheim/Düsseldorf: Bollmann

Flusser, V. (1996) “Dialogische Medien” in Kommunikologie, eds. St. Bollmann & E. Flusser, Mannheim: Bollmann

Flusser, V. (1996) “Umbruch der menschlichen Beziehungen?” in Kommunikologie, eds. St. Bollmann & E. Flusser, Mannheim: Bollmann

Flusser, V. (2002) “The Future of Writing” in Writings, ed. Andreas Ströhl, Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press

Flusser, V. (2002) “Criteria-Crisis-Criticism” in Writings, ed. Andreas Ströhl, trans. Erik Eisel, Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press

Flusser, V. (2002) “Images in the New Media” in Writings, ed. Andreas Ströhl, trans. Erik Eisel, Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press