Dan O'Hara on Skeuomorphs, JG Ballard, Transhumanism, and the "eradication of individual identity" Through Technology

A skeumorph is "a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original." Dan O'Hara, lecturer in English and American Literature at the University of Cologne, and editor of the forthcoming book Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J. G. Ballard, 1967–2008, (co-edited with Simon Sellars, London: Fourth Estate, 2012), studies skeumorphism. Transcript from a Knowledge Centre livechat conversation with Dr. O'Hara:
How does skeumorphism relate to the ideas of post- and trans-humanism? Do you think our bodies will once become skeumorphs?

Certainly Stelarc does! And Orlan, the French performance artist who has plastic surgery under local anaesthetic, suggests that we're already skeuomorphic.

Is the human appendix a skeuomorph?

Already so many parts of our bodies aren't biologically necessary. Yes. Though the appendix isn't ornamental... But hair, nails, pierced nipples, all get used to express a style. In the same way as, in evolution, we have exaption: the repurposing of an obsolete function.

Dan, would you mind telling us how your work with JG Ballard intersects with that of skeuomorphs?

Sure. I see Ballard as the key author, philosopher even, of the age of technology. He's always managed to live five minutes into everyone else's futures, and has focused on the way our natural world has increasingly become a technologized domain we don't fully understand. So skeuomorphs, as a kind of 'memory' capacity of artefacts, can show us the processes that guide the evolution of the forms of technology. And I feel that Ballard affirms the moral necessity of this kind of understanding.

Does that suggest to you that we are already skeuomorphs? All, mind and body?

No, we're not. There are many linguistic skeuomorphs: take for example on line 'newspapers'. Which is more skeuomorphic, 'news' or 'paper'? I'm not sure. But language itself is not yet skeuomorphic, though if we became telepathic, we might presumably retain language, spoken and written, as ornament.

Dan – you say "if we became telepathic"? Do you think in the future we will have capacity to be telepathic?

Clearly some serious experimental scientists such as Kevin Warwick are working towards a kind of cybernetic communication which might make the distinction between telepathy and technology redundant.

Perhaps the telepathic illusions fostered by technologies like Facebook/ Twitter... You think you know what people are thinking from their updates...

That's right; to some extent we're using technology (and it is using us) to move towards the eradication of individual identity; the 'disappearance' of privacy debate is perhaps a sign of the awareness of this shift.

I still don't quite see how you link skeuomorphism will Ballard, could you elaborate on that a little more?

I'm thinking, as you ask, of what Martin Amis said of Ballard, that he ‘seems to address a different – a disused – part of the reader's brain’. Ballard often writes of tapping into the 'archaeopsychic zero': the primordial self, our common corporeal memory as a species.

I wonder if there's a relationship to be drawn between skeuomorphism and Ballard's often very singular use of metaphor?

Not the kind of memory you have as an individual, but that which we all possess, insofar as our bodies and minds are records of our species' evolution. To that extent, Ballard was overtly interested in skeuomorphic processes long before I'd heard of the concept.

What Jung would call "collective unconscious" then?

That's the model Ballard used for understanding the skeuomorphic; he took the idea directly from Jung. But it wasn't really adequate to explain the material world; sufficient for the human mind, but not for the made environment of technology.