The Limit and Promise of Augmentation

How to Cite

Caines, R., & Stewart, M. (2013). The Limit and Promise of Augmentation. M/C Journal, 16(6).
Vol. 16 No. 6 (2013): augment
Published 2013-12-11

Always desiring, we create, enhance, and augment: never satiated, we experiment, refine and repeat. Somatic and spatial practices collide on the promise of something more. …

In this issue of M/C Journal we called upon our colleagues to share their forays into multi-media landscapes as they considered augmentation through investigations/collaborations with humans, cyborgs, and nonhumans alike. From computer science to cultural theory, augmentation brings to the table a wide variety of researchers, artists, and practitioners—a wide range of practices and concepts. The pieces in this edition are a strong reflection of how the topic of “augment” can bring together a truly interdisciplinary group. Our goal was to facilitate a critical engagement, and we are thrilled that the call for papers resonated and generated this cluster of articles. Our call for papers was itself meant as a provocation to bring into discussion artists, practitioners, and critical theorists. We asked a series of generative questions to which the authors responded.

What Is at Stake When One Engages in Augmentation?

Although all the pieces are engaged in discussions about augmentation, some point directly to what is at stake in different fields. For example, Brandt presses together the science fiction novel Ender’s Game and current military practices of remote combatants that operate drone vessels. She argues that in this moment, and as we look to the future of this type of warfare and its associated trauma, that we might need to turn to post humanist stories and cyborg assemblages to better understand how agency is being distributed. Potts questions the hypocrisies of public perception and surveillance practices surrounding the augmented body. He traces the “copyrighting of digital augmentations (our data-flesh), their privatization and ownership by others from a vast distance,” and then examines the next step, the augmentation and rewriting of cellular bodies through hormonal and other supplements. Using recent cases, like athlete Lance Armstrong’s drug expose, and examples from the anti-aging industry, he shows how upgrading flesh is open to corporate hypocrisies, but also has the potential for “biopolitical rebellion.”

Kenner’s piece considers augmentation through a discussion of health as she illustrates the ways in which asthma and the asthmatic are being reshaped through an “imagined healthy norm.” The transformative capacity of technology is critically taken up in the piece to highlight the ways in which the “new healthy is augmented living.” We received pieces that contemplate the contemporary moment, but also those that forecast. The authors in this issue deliberate on necessary questions about promise and limitation. They also engage with ethical challenges, placing these technologies within broader contexts and histories. Kerasidou, for example, offers a history of the contemporary investigation, in which she takes her reader back to the 1980s and 1990s to the promise of ubiquitous computing. She reminds the reader about the romance of the technology, and the roots of these ideas, as she discusses an imagined world in which no one would notice the presence of a computer or computing object.

Who/What Pays the Price When It Falters, Miscarries, or Backfires?

The challenge of new technology can include discussions of productive failures and unexpected success. In the case of Gerhard’s piece we are given a short history of the accelerometer and the ways in which technology is taken up at different times in different fields, and yet its potential remains largely unrealized—as various individuals, from artists to computer programmers, do not use this device to its full potential when they seek to augment through the interpretation of body/object movement. As we might expect, when thinking about augmentation, the user can lack the capacity to develop the technology to its utmost potential. We were interested in the ways in which “lack” might be taken up in the pieces and how mistakes and confusion with technology can itself be productive and drive innovation. For every innovation there is the tension between the developer’s vision of the technological capacity, the user’s ability, and the space in between. Loess draws out these tensions when he describes a live performance played over a film that threatened to snap. In so doing, he examines how augmentation in digital and analogue image-making approaches is shaped by the improvisatory impulse. As the musicians continued to improvise until they found an ending, Loess delivers to the reader a story—in which everything teetered on the brink of failure—that seizes our attention. Whether as user, viewer, audience, or inventor—failure, possible or realized, inspires action.

Which Actors Are Engaged—or Enrolled—in the Practice?

Hands critically examines the augmentation of cognition in social media. He explores how people become enrolled as collective participants in micro-blogging through Twitter.  His work shows how the social media affordances of brevity, mobility, and speed affect how memory and culture operate, and interrogates the ongoing tensions in augmented media between agency and volition. Caines, Knowles, and Anderson take up the question of enrolment in their piece that focuses on the blending of traditional beading practices with augmenting technologies such as QR codes. In their work, the user/creator/participant is layered as the QR code is created through beading that is then use to hold stories or technological engagement. Beads, codes, storytelling, translation, success, and failure collide in the art installment. Artists Irwin and Morton examine the role of the public in the augmentation of symbolic objects. Through their technologically enhanced, site-specific piano installation, they engage participants in the process of building layers to the work, leaving behind remnants of audio and embodied practices to create rich collective histories and reimaginings of the piano as an historical object that is considered obsolete, yet draws in people to augmented play. Similarly, Jonathan Stewart traces the layers of augmentation in the history of enigmatic musician Robert Johnson; a figure that is continually enrolled in augmented myth-making.

For Hunter, the question of enrolment is reversed, as he suggests humans have in fact become interfaces for their devices, rather than the other way around. Using examples from science fiction in advertising, popular culture, and film, he traces the ways humans fantasize about the potential for augmentation, highlighting the irony where we “depict ourselves as the medium, and it is our digital devices that bear the message.” In Foith’s piece, the user of a videogame can effectively test-drive augmented body parts in a virtual world that presumes augmentation is a baseline human condition. Foith includes an analysis of how diegetic prototypes are delivered and levels of authenticity become themselves aesthetics in the game to mobilize desire(s) for that which does exist–or may exist in the future.

Which Subjects Are Left Vulnerable?

There are arguably many vulnerable subjects moving around in all these pieces, just as there are also deeply empowered subjects. That said, what some of the pieces offered was a reminder about the potential for augmentation to captivate the user, startle, and surprise:  Gibson’s robot answers a note from the audience, and in so doing asks us to think about robotic agency; Campbell’s machine bothers, and offers the opportunity to do the impossible—see one's self become stirred to consciousness. For both Gibson and Campbell we are left with the uneasy/fascinating question of machine consciousness. In these stories, in these projects of augmentation, objects are created in the world to coexist with humans and it is in the making of these technologies and these technological imaginaries that we find a critical space in which the subject and the object act upon each other.

Questions about Layered Information Space, Power, and Statecraft

In addition to these questions, we asked contributors to interrogate the layered information space of Augmented Reality (AR), as well as how augmented media intersects with power and statecraft. Michelle Stewart’s piece investigates the augmented map as a mechanism to examine statecraft. Focusing on a police-mapping project, she illustrates the work needed for augmented objects to come into being in the world. She interrogates the ways in which labour is erased in the process of producing the maps, and how this erasure can facilitate the production of expertise and authority.

Avram and Fedorova examine augmentation in media art. Avram explores AR practices, with a focus on AR art. He traces the imperfections and flaws between digital and real spaces in AR, highlighting the unique reflexive strategies and reference to material reality, and showing the play between illusion and its subversion that marks this emerging practice. For Fedorova, augmented media art practices allow the senses themselves to become augmented. She asks, “ how [these art practices] serve as mechanisms of enhancing the feeling of presence” and sense of proprioception. Through reference to artworks that stimulate, reorient, sense input, and respond to biofeedback, she suggests that “media art practices offer particularly valuable scenarios of activating such mechanisms, as the employment of digital technology allows them to operate on a more subtle level of perception.”

The feature article by Otuski delivers Japanese pop band Perfume, and explores the world of pop bands and their songs and images, to analyze the underlying contexts that inform prop selection and band promotion. Nothing is accidental in the creation of this pop brand as Otsuki describes their current incarnation of imagery that moves away from robotics towards information technologies and connectivity—the story of a nation is told through a band and its props. We thought Otsuki’s piece would be an excellent feature as it traces the ways in which power moves through popular culture through augmentation. His work also brings together many of the worlds our contributors are critically engaging, including new media art and science and technology.


We thank each of the contributors, all of our reviewers, and all those that assisted with the production of this issue, with special thanks to Anna Dipple and John Campbell.  — Rebecca Caines and Michelle Stewart.