Science fiction authors and philosophers have asked: Could a computer have a soul? I have a different question: Could a computer produce soul (if you dig what I mean)? The computer is an instrument, just like a piano and a human voice. So just as Nina Simone used those instruments in her song “Mississippi Goddam,” the computer can be used for social commentary and social change. The computer is also a medium, so it can be used to build imaginative worlds such as those of science fiction authors Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany. However, each medium, like books or movies, has its own characteristics, and each medium can produce powerful works in its own way.
Such digital-media scholars as Janet Murray have argued that the computer’s main characteristic as a medium is its precise execution of instructions (called algorithms). A second characteristic is the way it uses highly structured information (called data structures). My vision is that the computer, using algorithms and data structures, can help people imagine in new creative ways. Computing can be used to produce new forms of soulful expression and social change and can reach its potential as a medium through creating and revealing phantasms.
By “phantasm.” I don’t mean a ghost or poltergeist. As a technical term, the word “phantasm” means a mental image, but not just any mental picture. It means an image that could include sound, smell, taste, feeling and all the cultural, emotional and political aspects we associate with that image. For example: Imagine a slave. What comes to mind for you? Did the image have a particular race or gender, raggedy clothes? Was it from a textbook you read in school or from a movie you just saw: perhaps Django killing a black house slave in Quentin Tarantino’s filmDjango Unchained, or Solomon Northup singing a spiritual in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave?
Along with that mental image, you may have felt sadness or anger. Or maybe you thought of forced labor in India or forced prostitution in Western Europe and political efforts to combat those evils. Regardless, that image, based on your unique worldview, is a phantasm. The phantasm is a cognitive science concept I introduce in my recent book, Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression, which explores the potential of using computers for art and culture. Phantasms are not limited to concepts such as slavery but, rather, underlie much of human stories and art, even that made with new technologies.
Source: The Root | D. FOX HARRELL, PH.D.