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The Labor of Perception


For Benjamin, the modern regime of perceptual labor, where the eye is constantly asked to process stimuli, equally manifests itself in work and leisure. The eye is trained to keep pace with the rhythm of industrial production at the factory and to navigate through the complex visual semiosphere beyond the factory gates.

What would be the equivalents of film and conveyer belt for the perceptual experience of post-modernity? The most direct equivalents are an arcade type computer game and a military training simulator. But now, not only the two experiences provide the same stimuli but they also share the same technology.

In fact, since the early 1990s, many companies which before supplied very expensive simulators to the military are busy converting them into entertainment arcade-based systems. One of the first such systems already commercially operating in a number of major cities, including Chicago and Tokyo - Battletech Center from Virtual World Entertainment, Inc. - is directly modeled on SIMNET (Simulation Network)developed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). SIMNET can be thought of as the first model of cyberspace, the very first collaborative VR environment. SIMNET consists of a number of individual simulators, networked together, each containing a copy of the world database and the virtual representation of all other participants in the conflict such as the Kuwaiti theater of operations. Similarly, a Battletech Center comprises a networked collection of futuristic cockpit models with VR gear. For seven dollars each, seven players can fight each other in a simulated environment. In another example, in 1992 Lucas Arts has teamed up with Hughes Aircraft, combining the expertise in computer games of the former with the expertise in building actual flight simulators of the latter, in a joint venture aimed at theme-park type rides.

A computer game and a flight simulator (or an actual cockpit) are only the most obvious examples of how contemporary visual culture is increasingly permeated by interactive computer graphic information displays. Their presence points to an essential feature of the post-industrial society in which the human, both at work and at play, functions as a part of human-machine systems where vision acts is a main interface between the human and the machine. This article will consider some historical aspects of this phenomenon.

Human-machine system is defined as "an equipment system, in which at least one of the components is a human being who interacts with or intervenes in the operation of the machine components of the system from time to time." In contrast to a manual worker of the industrial age, an operator in a human-machine system is primarily engaged in the observation of displays which present information in real time about the changing status of a system or an environment, real or virtual: a radar screen tracking a surrounding space; a computer screen updating the prices of stocks; a video screen of a computer game presenting an imaginary battlefield; a control panel of an automobile showing its speed, etc.

From time to time, some information causes an operator to make a decision and to intervene in the system's operation: tell the computer to track an enemy bomber noticed on the radar screen; buy or sell a stock; press a joystick; change gears. In some situations these interventions may be required every second (a pilot engaged with an enemy, a computer game player, a financial analysis monitoring stock prices), while in others they are needed very rarely (a technician monitoring an automated plant, power station, a nuclear reactor; a radar operator monitoring a radar screen, waiting for potential enemy planes).

Article  1995