the el niño effect

by robbin murphy

"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
The Second Coming
William Butler Yeats

The warm waters of "El Niño" flow ominously across the surface of the Pacific Ocean to the coast of Peru approximately every five years, causing abnormalities in the weather patterns and often wreaking havoc in places as far away as Indonesia, India and Australia. "El Niño" slouches, not towards Yeats' Bethlehem, but Southern California and from there leaps into the American media and imagination as "The El Niño Effect."

On the one hand, it is an oddity of nature--a condition in one part of the world causing both geophysical and economic repercussions thousands of miles away. On the other hand, it gives some people a sense of anxiety, it is a phenomenon that influences their lives but eludes comprehension.

Peruvian fishermen gave this meteorological phenomenon the Spanish name for the Christ Child, "El Niño," because it inevitably arrives at Christmas time. Sometimes it brings good tidings in the form of warm weather and increased crops but most often it means the loss of fishing hauls coupled with torrential downpours and flooding. Americans who don't understand Spanish--and even some of their neighbors to the south who do speak it--miss the irony of the nickname. We don't name our disasters after the Son of God--although insurance companies like to call them acts of God to avoid paying for the damage--but we do personify them with proper names as we do with sailing ships or computer software. It would be unimaginable to hear a local newscaster report that "The Christ Child" is responsible for leveling the local shopping mall--though we think nothing of naming a catastrophe after our next-door-neighbor.

The Peruvian fishermen would seem to have a more personal relationship with their religion when in fact they have a different understanding of religion as an interface with nature, a translator and navigational device for the world outside themselves.

Americans are often said to view the rest of the world with paranoia although they have very little reason for it. As that most American of writers, William Burroughs, once noted, "paranoia is having all the facts." What better source for that paranoia and its attendant anxiety than nature? As the saying goes, we talk about the weather but nobody has done anything about it (yet); the best we can do now is check in with our modern-day oracle, the weather forecasters, heed their advice and run for cover if need be. If we must have a common enemy to bind us together--both Satan and the Soviet Union have lost stature in that role lately--why not nature?

Of course, the Enlightenment was supposed to have put an end to this nonsense. Science structured the world so that it made sense but only if that sense, in turn, verified science. What science couldn't explain simply didn't exist or was cast back into a realm of orthodoxy just as unyielding as the religious dogma (and the accompanying power) science sought to overthrow, with methods resembling the way the Church had tamed unwieldy paganism.

As Hakim Bey points out in his text "The Obelisk," this scientific orthodoxy is partly losing ground because of the increasing globalization made possible by what Gregory Ulmer calls "pre-smashed" networks like the Internet, networks that work precisely because there are no definite borders or structures to comprehend.

In his excellent new book Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (HarperEdge), Steven Johnson proposes that what could take the place of scientific orthodoxy may be new forms of interface design--now most commonly thought of as the software that makes it possible for humans to interact productively with computers. What the interface does is serve as a translator between two parties, making each sensible to the other. "In other words," he writes, "the relationship governed by the interface is a semantic one, characterized by meaning and expression rather than physical force."

Johnson's suggestion isn't exactly new. Earlier in this century, William James sensed that it is our religious experiences that are important (rather than the religions themselves) because they provide an interface, a way to view the world. Cut out the dogma and orthodoxy and what you have is the software. James' solution was his philosophy of Pragmatism, which some have seen as no philosophy at all because it proposes no strict ideology to follow. It is, like the Internet, a "pre-smashed" philosophical system--one that works because it's broken.

It is commonly assumed that the goal of interface design is some kind of intuitive usability so that both parties will draw on previous knowledge in order to interact. This assumption brought us the breakthrough of the Apple Macintosh Desktop metaphors that enabled millions to use a computer. The success of these metaphors has been so great that we now face another rigid orthodoxy about what constitutes good interface design: deviation is seen as foolish if not heretical.

Johnson thinks that, rather than limiting ourselves to yet another rigid structure, we would be better off to encourage bad interface design--or at least a functional interface subculture geared more towards innovation than commercial acceptance. Cheap access to the Web makes it possible for many more people outside the official techno/design loop to create solutions and test them on each other; a whole generation of kids raised on video games has developed the aptitude to navigate unfamiliar spaces without the comfort of a simulated office.

Unintended uses for existing interfaces should also be encouraged. Johnson uses the example of Thomas Edison and his belief that people would only use the phonograph to record telephone conversations; he couldn't imagine they would use it to listen to prerecorded music. Darwin used the term "exaptation" to describe these unexpected variations in evolution that turned the reptile's web foot into the bird's wing.

A seemingly endless amount of bandwidth on the Net is used by design newsgroups and mailing lists--such as the World Wide Web Artists Consortium (WWWAC)--discussing the best way to adapt existing design and marketing strategies to the limits of HTML. Software companies constantly devise new products that simulate the one-to-many broadcast strategies of print and television. A few individuals do manage to teach the old dogs new tricks--gif animations are a good, if limited, example.

There was a ray of hope when Apple, along with IBM and other companies, introduced OpenDoc technology with its 3-D file management interface, HotSauce, and the CyberDog web client--all offering possibilities for more individualized software configuration. But the prospects of these and other innovations seeing development and mass distribution from the top down seem less and less likely.

There are, however, examples of bottom-up development being carried out. I/O/D has "unleashed" The Web Stalker, promising that it will "reshape the Internet" by offering "fast and dirty," "high-protein access" to online media. Such hyperbole can be excused because, for one, it's free, and it also offers the user possibilities for taking advantage of the Net in ways that are more complex than current accepted modes of "surfing" demanded by the dominant browsers. Web Stalker feels more like an intervention than a browse or click-through application and repositions the passive "viewer" as an active "user" who is able to revisualize and manipulate the newly released and recombinant data-space.

In his essay "Visceral FaŤades," co-developer Matthew Fuller traces some of The Web Stalker's many roots: it is not surprising (but certainly unusual for a computer program) that one of them is the artist Gordon Matta-Clark. Best known for splitting a building down the middle and structurally re-adjusting the result, Matta-Clark should rightfully be considered at least a proto-hacker (he died in 1978 before the PC became popular) and most definitely a guiding spirit for anyone attempting to make art of and on the Internet.

The noisy trajectory of browser development set in motion by Mosaic has almost overwhelmed other possibilities. But not quite.

And so we tune in the weather report to see what El Niño is up to today and perhaps witness a replay of the spectacle of destruction that has been termed "weather porno": cows and tractors flying through the air, dogs trapped helplessly on the roofs of houses floating down engorged rivers, brave heroes and tragic victims--all of it generated by some unseen force moving slowly up the Pacific coast. The El Niño Effect slouches on.

Robbin Murphy is an artist and co-founder of artnetweb. His e-mail address is


William Butler Yeats
"The Second Coming"

El Niño

William Burroughs

Hakim Bey
The Obelisk

Gregory Ulmer

Steven Johnson
Interface Culture

William James

Thomas Edison

Charles Darwin

World Wide Web Artists Consortium (WWWAC)


The Web Stalker

Matthew Fuller
"Visceral Facades: Taking Matta-Clark's Crowbar to Software"

Ocean Images courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association

© Hyperactive Co. 1998