"Bringing the Machinic Unconscious to Life" by Eric Hobijn and Andreas Broeckmann.

Lecture at the 5th Cyberconf., Madrid 1996.

Parasites live and feed on other plants and animals. Techno-Parasites use whatever technical systems or apparatuses they can find as hosts, drawing on their output, their energy supplies and cycles to procreate and grow. A Techno-Parasite can be a simple or a complex system which is attentive and adapts to its host's structure. Its inventive struggle for survival has to cause technical disruptions. Techno-Parasites suck other machines empty, disrupt their circuits, effect power cuts, disable them, destroy them.

The effective Techno-Parasite irritates humans for two main reasons. It is a machine which, once constructed and liberated, acts at whim and is out of human control. As far as the machines are concerned, it is alive. Secondly, the Techno-Parasite feeds on vital and symbollically charged resources of our modern existence: light sources, electrical currents, data flows, communication lines. In so far as these networks are already deeply inscribed in our unconscious, the Techno-Parasite attacks the very symbolical infrastructure of contemporary culture.

The Techno-Parasite is no more than a principle for which there is no copyright or ideological certificate. Moreover, the sketches presented here are not finished works but suggestions for possible developments which should inspire others to contribute further designs that can also be shown on this site. They were initially designed in the late 1980s when they were part of the machine art developments of the time, and have recently drawn attention again because of the pertinence of the concept in relation to the electronic networks.

The Techno-Parasite may also be seen as a commentary to the way in which we deal with artifices, especially in the media art context. The public handling for instance of the phenomenon of technical failure shows that a lot has to happen regarding the understanding of the objecthood of apparatuses. The destruction of things is an inherent part of them. Imagine you were telepathic and you were able to see where car accidents are going to happen. As for me, I would not prevent them but build a podium and sell tickets. The accident is part of driving a car. The accident makes driving tangible, graspable. The drama turns the event into something that is human, it makes it real. Similarly, the computer virus is a drama that shows what the power of software can be.

The apparent irrelevance of small parts in our environment, like nuts and bolts, has to be exploited. The notion of what is 'unimportant' has to do with attentiveness and alertness. In this case, the little objects are present so frequently that they disappear into the background, they lose our attention, our concentration and our respect. At the same time, nuts and bolts are essential parts of our of our culture. What would the world look like if these little parts didn't exist? Suddenly, everybody would fall off their chairs, cars would fall apart and the computer would become a loose collection of objects, ships fragment until only the welded rump remains. The structure, the different frameworks around us would become painfully obvious because everything would disintegrate like loose sand. Realising this kind of loss returns a certain attention to the lost object. A continuous and latent consciousness is formed, a kind of slumbering sixth sense.

Similar to nuts and bolts, networks and sensitive systems of soft- and hardware are opaque and invisible, just as the car has become an unobtrusive piece of furniture. This is the perfect moment to become parasitic. In the confusion of the technical systems the Techno-Parasites can do their utmost to survive at the cost of the unquestioned, the unobtrusive. Imagine that there are parasites that can live on old, unused data files, on the scrapyards of old apparatuses, where they use parts of the old TCP protocols for moving themselves around, for communicating with the ultimate aim to make themselves beautiful, large and visible.

TP No. EH00020004La

This Techno-Parasite lives off light, acid rain and street lamps. It works as follows: the parasite consists of a cup which collects water. This evaporates so that an acid concentrate is left which is collected around the pole of the street lantern. By creating a difference in potential the acid first eats through the zink layer and then through the Fe 360 metal of the pole, which eventually breaks and falls down. The process is based on the reverse of galvanisation.

TP No. EH00020005Lc

This Techno-Parasite also lives on street lanterns. It has two cutters (like a pipe cutter) which are driven by a motor that gets its energy from solar cells that, at night, catch the light from the street lamp, and sunlight during the day. As the parasite very slowly rotates round the pole it climbs upwards where it remains until the pole is cut through.

TP No. EH00020006Lh

Another lantern parasite, also climbs up the lantern's pole in a spiral movement with a light-driven motor. Having arrived at the lamp it destroys the glas with a hammer, killing its own source of life, and falls to the ground.

Playing out the machinic dialectics of function and disfunction, the Techno-Parasites are carefully engineered to use the very energy source which they are eventually seeking to destroy. Parasitic behaviour might be the theoretical mechanism that revives the alertness for the systems which surround us and are absent from our consciousness. A computer virus is a good example: without the virus the awareness of a notion like 'software' would have become vague long ago, domesticated like the grass under our feet.

We believe that also Cyberspace and the electronic networks will only begin to form complete and viable ecological systems when they are also inhabited by parasites. Just like there can be no car traffic without crashes, and just as there can be no machines without failure, it is only Techno-Parasites which give ecological unity to the Net.

1. Out of control

Our relations with machines are strongly informed by a desiring economy of dominance and control. We demand them to be efficient and reliable, they should work smoothly and quietly - just like any good slave. Even where we use them for the new, telematic experiences we want them to enhance our lives and experiences in a controllable and meaningful way, whenever we deal with machines we want to mark and map the territory on which they operate, and we want to still be able to determine how natural artificial life forms can get.

The Techno-Parasites, however, show that we are not only out of control because we are, when dealing with complex technologies, unable to contain the whole potential of this complexity. Rather, they imply also that there are other forces in such complex systems, that there is a desiring Other, which will always disrupt the smooth interfaces and which will force us into continuous deterritorialisations. Any order implies forces of disruption that will create disorder and a transformation towards a new order on a different level.

As the scientist and philosopher, Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, have argued, bifurcation, change, amplification only happens when an 'individual, idea, or behavior,[...] are "dangerous" - that is, those that can exploit to their advantage the nonlinear relations guaranteeing the stability of the preceding regime. Thus we are led to conclude that the same nonlinearities may produce an order out of chaos of elementary processes and still, under different circumstances, be responsible for the destruction of this same order, eventually producing a new coherence beyond another bifurcation.' (Prigogine/Stengers 1984:190)

Exaggerating an old tradition from machine art, the Techno-Parasites are machines that are not only useless or self-destructive and that perform somehow intelligent or semi-autonomous behaviour. The Techno-Parasites are machines that actively seek to waste energy, to destroy systems, to defy human rationality. They might help us to reach those far-from-equilibrium experiential states which, according to thinkers from Nietzsche to Prigogine, are a precondition for the creation of something new. At a time when the channelling and controlling of interactive possibilities in the political as well as in the telematic field are widespread, we need forces of displacement, we need gestures that cause sections and cuts, and the radical redirection of energetic flows from those dominant trends of territorialisation. At times like these we have to encourage the creation of insecurity.

This is a question of enhancing technological development and artistic creativity, as well as of maintaining a fluid and heterogeneous sense of self. Therefore: Defy the insurance brokers of Cyberspace! Facilitate the moments of transgression across the boundary of technical rationality. Not the fantastic but the obnoxious, not the surprising but the shocking will be the sources of new forms of subjectivity. The confrontation with that imaginary space of the machinic unconscious which the Techno-Parasites offer promises a venture into the zones of pleasure and pain where the boundary, that source of the emergent self, can be explored.

2. Attacks on the modern human unconscious

Another aspect of the desire connected to machines is the fantasy that they will work for us forever, or that better ones will replace them, which will eventually make it possible for us to be universal and immortal. The dream of flying and of teletransportation, of transgressing the limitations of space and time, is related to this. Any machine or programme that is destructive or self-destructive, that has an impossible interface or an uncontrollable mechanism, potentially undermines this promise of timelessness, of eternal life, and returns us to what we are - not in the negativity of virtuality and promise, but in the black hole of our subjective positivity.

The psychological crisis that the Techno-Parasites point to runs deep - the hysteria around computer viruses, power cuts and logical bombs which are represented as actually life-threatening are a case in point. The Techno-Parasites highlight this mechanism in a more differentiated way, they materialise the invisible in both a metaphorical and performative way. The Techno-Parasites are precision weapons for the attack on the modern human unconscious.

TP No. EH0000002003R.C

This Techno-Parasite reacts to anything that emits or reflects light. The light sources are attacked and shot at with black material, soot for instance. In this case light is understood as a form of fire, and soot is chosen as its opposite. Everything in a room that is reflecting is made black, the parasite continues until nothing is left that reflects. The parasite is equipped with light sensors and an apparatus for the automatic steering of the soot-canon. It also registers its actions and prints this graphic report - from white to black.

The lantern parasites mentioned earlier target precisely the fear of dark spaces that we sought to expel from modern cities. Our life has, it seems, come to depend on artificial light more than on sunlight. In this context, the soot canon is an even more painful device: it not only cuts the lamp pole or breaks the bulb by mechanical default, but intentionally seeks out and eliminates all light sources, making the room, the world, eventually ourselves disappear in a dark hole of nothingness.

TP No. EH0001001.201A

This Techno-Parasite is a a self-driven automobile, in other words an auto-automobile. It is equipped with an optical sensor and a metal detector which yields sufficient information for the auto-auto to find an object the size of a car and position itself underneath it. By means of a 'neuro-system' the auto-auto can determine where the car's wheel is and locate the centre as well as a flat surface. It attaches itself to this surface with two flexible magnets and a rigid one and waits... until the driver of the car starts driving. The wheels of the auto-auto parasite load a battery using two ventilator belts and a dynamo. When the charge is high enough this potential is converted into a high frequency pulse which erases or damages the electronic control chip in the luxury car. This causes the steering system to fail and the car halts, dead. The parasite uses the current left in its battery to go on to the next car, or...

The auto-auto takes its energy from movement which is the charateristic of the car and copies it by logging onto the car as a part of the system. It transforms this energy and uses it to immobilise the vehicle, making that which is desired impossible by realising it. Function and disfunction, construction and destruction, desire and frustration are necessary aspects of the same dynamic.

For the participants of this conference, though, the parasites that begin to populate the electronic networks will probably be the greatest cause of anxieties. Disabled or mutilated TCP/IP connections, monstrously inflated attachment files, flame throwers and other attack parasites are hugely disconcerting. Yet, even more irritation is caused by the passivity of the new weblock or 'taboo' parasites that temporarily or permanently sends back error messages when certain addresses are requested or contacted, whether on the Web or on other network protocols. More than anything we depend on communication, on access, and on availability for our livelihood and sensibility, which is why being disconnected or unreachable can cause traumas about which psychiatrists will soon hold their first congresses.

The Techno-Parasites keep us on the edge between the physical world and the imaginary environments, they force us to think the materiality of the media and technical infrastructure with which we live, and they open the carefully kept Pandora's Box of desires which, with a vicious grin, seek the disruption and insecurity which the Parasites engineer. They force us into that superior attitude of intelligent systems, whether human or non-human: hesitation. Yet, we should not look at the Techno-Parasites too critically. As an analogy, think about beavers that build dams and block rivers out of a mixture of self-interest and ecological rationality and care. They acted as free agents on the network of waterways until this network was, as they say, cultivated or channelled, which is when a great beaver hunt was initiated and the species eliminated. The beavers' subversiveness was not directed against the network, but at using it in a creative way, following a rationality different from that of the cultivating humans. Similarly, there is a lot to learn from the Techno-Parasites and from the way in which they make use of the technological environment.

3. An aesthetics of heterogeneity

The Techno-Parasites point us in the direction of a new and creative approach towards engaging with the electronic networks. Here are some of the features of such an approach.

The future aesthetic of media art will not be one of apparitions or of virtuality. Art in Cyberspace will only emerge where Cyberspace or, more generally speaking, the digital territories, are interfaced with the human body, with the field of our sensory experience. Any 'aesthetic' qualities that go beyond this field of human experience, however extensively defined, will not have any relevance for us. (The question whether the machines will be able to experience the pleasures of order, beauty or cruelty will have to be put off for yet a while, I guess.)

The new aesthetic of media art will be an aesthetic of heterogeneity. The commercial and semi-commercial R&D people like to speak of intuitive interfaces between human and machine, between physical and virtual realities. We are told continuously that the virtual is becoming more real than the natural, physical and technological environment which enwraps our old bodies. Our true selves, we are made to believe, will only come into their own when they are constituted as parts of a telematically engineered, universal consciousness. This notion, ultimately grounded in the religious belief in the objectivity of the binary code, is flawed, and transgressive little objects like the Techno-Parasites remind us of something we tend to ignore when confronted with apparently 'unintentional' technical failures: the degrees of freedom in complex systems allow for a type of irrationality which will recurrently force us to acknowledge the existential primacy of our deterritorialised and desiring bodies.

Instead of intuitive interfaces we will see the development of counter-intuitive interfaces which make it impossible to ignore the specificities of the systems that are being connected. The slogan will not be: don't feel the pace-maker, but: feel the pace-maker. Against the smooth integration of surfaces, we will see a practice which highlights the cracks and breaks, which allows for the unbounded unfolding of multiplicities, a practice which works towards what Guattari has called 'Heterogenesis', a becoming which produces ever new differences, which works against the Large Molar Units and against digital homogenisation. This, by the way, is not a new aesthetic paradigm but goes back to, for instance, Nietzsche, Artaud, Bataille, or Burroughs, who represented an attitude and creative gesture that went against the modernist affirmation of nihilist functionality.

We should also remind ourselves that the problematic relationship between art and technology is not something that is unique to the computer age. Remember for instance the discussions about the aesthetic potential - or impotence - of photography and film in the late 19th and all through the 20th century. In 1977, Michel Foucault pointed to the strategic necessity of the attitude described here: 'Today's morals of knowledge is perhaps: to make the real sharp, piercing, edgy, unacceptable. To make it irrational? Yes, if making it rational means to make it peaceful, quiet and safe, to feed it into a great theoretical machine for the production of the ruling rationalities. Yes, if making [the real] irrational means that it stops being necessary, that it becomes available for appropriations, fights, conflicts. Understandable and attackable to the degree to which it has been "derationalised".' (Foucault, p.217-8)

TP No. EH00230030.201S

This Techno-Parasite is a socket finder which, once it is plugged in, charges itself like a big battery and subsequently discharges with such a polluting high-frequency impulse into the electricity network that it circumvents the filters of all devices and subsequently fries the fuses, the filters and and the machines in a 100 yard radius. Blammo, computer gone or, at the very least, chip wiped or damaged.

4. Net-war

There is another, political rather than aesthetic dimension to the phenomenon of Techno-Parasites. They herald a development within the electronic networks which leads us from the open, peacefully anarchic and friendly atmosphere among the 'second generation' net community that we have seen in the last two to five years, to a much rougher, much more aggressive climate with many, often opposed communities in which the marginal character of this culture re-emerges, after it has stood in the lime-light for a brief moment.

Some of you may be familiar with the work of the FBI- Cyberwars theoreticians John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt of the RAND International Policy Department who have predicted that "CYBERWAR IS COMING!" Here are some quotes from their study:

'... Netwar applies to societal struggles most often associated with low intensity conflict by non-state actors ... Information is becoming a strategic resource that may prove as valuable and influential in the post-industrial era as capital and labor have been in the industrial age ... The information revolution, in both its technological and non- technological aspects, sets in motion forces that challenge the design of many institutions. It disrupts and erodes the hierarchies around which institutions are normally designed ... Netwar and cyberwar revolve around information and communications matters, at a deeper level they are forms of war about "knowledge," about who knows what, when, where, and why, and about how secure a society or a military is regarding its knowledge of itself and its adversaries ... Netwar refers to information-related conflict at a grand level between nations or societies. It means trying to disrupt, damage, or modify what a target population knows or thinks it knows about itself and the world around it. A netwar may focus on public or elite opinion, or both.'

Computer viruses and Trojan Horses like the recently discovered 'PKZ300B', which destroys all the data on the hard drive if you download and run it, show that the Techno-Parasites are in no way unique or particularly vicious - in fact, quite the opposite, the lantern eaters appear rather cute and harmless in comparison to these aggressive tools.

Also in the independent and media art scene, projects and sites are currently being created which are beginning to provide the tools for these conflicts. In the case of the DigitAll server in Vienna , the starting point was a critique of the rules and conventions that were beginning to clogg up the communication on the Net, and of the way in which the politically correct variant of netiquette has turned into a tool of censors rather than of freely communicating individuals. The people at DigitALL, as well as others, have started creating telematic weapons, censor programmes, word blasters, mail death and mail blaster tools which are intended initially as a critical and playful commentary, which however could turn into the prototypes of rather painful technological developments.

Under such circumstances, Cyberspace might increasingly turn into a space where you don't want to be, and it wouldn't come as a surprise if the year 1996 was going to mark a watershed when, alongside the continuing trend of more and more people going online, there will be the emerging counter-trend of people going offline. Some will still want to be around, but others will decide to move away, just like you may decide to move away from a city that gets too expensive, too polluted, or too dangerous.

The Techno-Parasites have no such political, military or ideological agenda. They are, as any well-bred natural being, completely selfish and don't care much about power and influence beyond their immediate environment. The Techno-Parasites are vicious little artificial animals that disrupt our supposedly smooth, technological environment by highlighting the 'thingness' of the machines we use, and by forcing us to pay attention to the marginal, the invisible, and the details which we tend to ignore. They fill the machines with a life of their own and act out of a beautiful and perverse independence. They are joyfully dangerous and generally amoral. There are many more hosts and resources for similar designs. As concerned environmental techno-activists we should support the evolution, the diversification and the procreation of these creatures. You can also be sure that we will soon see new prototypes evolve which choose the weapons systems of netwar as their hosts, maintaining a healthy ecological system also in this field, happy parasites who know to turn any energy resource into a surplus which can feed them.

The Techno-Parasites ecologise the networks. They make these networks more realistic by introducing a self-destructive element which VR technology didn't have so far. The Parasites have an important cultural function, and the virus police should not criminalise them, but acknowledge their conclusive role for the networks. Their subversiveness is as much part of the creation of the Net as is hacking. The Techno-Parasites are the Sunday of the Internet! The seventh day of Creation.



Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari: Anti-Ödipus. (1972) Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1977

Umberto Eco: Opera aperta. (1967) Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1977

Michel Foucault: "Die große Wut über die Tatsachen." In: idem: Dispositive der Macht. Berlin: Merve, 1978, p.217-24

Manuel DeLanda: War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone, 1991

Ilya Prigogine, Isabelle Stengers: Order Out of Chaos. New York: Bantam, 1984

Walter Seitter: "Zur Ökologie der Destruktion." (1979) In: K Barck e.a. (eds): Aisthesis. Leipzig: Reclam, 1990, p.411-28

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