Monday, October 16, 2017

On Being and algorithmic clouds.






















BY MARK JARZOMBEK
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


BEFORE BUDDHA INVENTED RENUNCIATION; before Christians invented martyrdom; before Mohammed invented the jihad, before the Hebrews invented monotheism, before Plato invented the dreaded cave in which we supposedly live, blind to the presence of all that is Good, people talked to each other in freer ways. They talked to dead ancestors, to rocks, to trees, to animals, to spirits.

How does the new interblending of the organic and the inorganic, of living realities and anonymous algorithms, and of the human and the corporate shape the question of Being? If we exclude techno-optimists on the one hand and techno-despairers on the other hand, where then do we begin the conversation? My book Digital Stockholm Syndrome in the Post-Ontological Age argues that first we must challenge the lingering Enlightenment categories of biology, chemistry, and technology; we even have to move past the cyborgic, artificial intelligence imaginaries of the 1970s. The ultimate drift of the contemporary situation is to create not just a world of pixelated information, but a world that mobilizes information through a process akin to heat—the more heat the better. It is not data that is important in our world but data generation. Humans are the perfect data providers, they move and travel; they get sick, they commit crimes, they listen to music, they go to the gym, they eat, sleep, and walk, and drink and have friends and relatives; there are billions of them. It is the perfect algorithm-friendly environment, the world of Post-Ontology.

Its emergence was not simply the result of changes in technology, but as an unpredicted confluence of a series of historical trajectories: the civilianization of technologies like GPS, the legalization and corporatization of algorithmic know-how, the emergence of the data fabrication industry and finally the creation of a globally scaled, psycho-mediated, quasi-militarized, interdependency of human, corporations governments, and hackers in a grand multi-tiered exploitational system. This is not to say that the old ontology is dead and gone, but to argue that the old-fashioned sense of Being – as dependent on the integrity of the individual, itself a Modern construction – exists only in an ‘as if’ state. Being is now ‘produced’ only to enmesh us ever more deeply in a world of algorithmic clouds.

In the world of data excess, algorithms chop us into digestible/marketable/governable/hackable categories . . . The algorithm represents us, not as complete beings, but as slices through/across our Beings. These algorithmic slices operate on the individual to fulfill a sublimated desire for completion. They are created in our image, and thus the more, the better, as they, in their emerging cumulativeness, fulfill a range of needs from the narcissistic to the epistemological, from the masochistic to the liberational, and from the seductive to the performative.

If ontology and algorithms are no longer distinct, then the questions relating to The Human as well as to the Body and Technology all need a new foundation. Post-Ontology begins with the fusionism of today, rather than seeing some sort of future condition in the history of technology. It critiques the Onto-curmudgeons who try to hold on to the principle of an anthro-centric worldview.

The study of Being is now based on the study of a new type of science in which the human is being pushed to its corporeal / sensate / moral / physical / psychological / political / social / environmental / sexual / bacteriological / global limits. Instead of discussing capitalism as such we should see the data consuming entities to whom we are now beholden – i.e., the major corporations, governments and hackers – as all invested, along with each of us, globally, in the immanence of the new (in)human, a water-and-carbon-base surface that emits the life pulse of data. The glue that holds all this together is a finely constructed type of paranoia that is shared by humans, governments, and corporations. Unlike the modern distinction between health and paranoia, paranoia is the "new healthy."

The data security industry produces insecurity in just the right doses for its self-perpetuation. The system is calculated and legalized in the form of upgrades and contract renewals, patches and defaults, that continuously remind the (in)human—often when they least expect it—of his/her precarious standing in the social fabric. I call it onto-torture.

If there is no fixed ‘outside’ to understand where the individual is to located, how do we then understand the circulatory system that produces the sense of Self? Because the purpose of algorithms is not to produce data, but to mobilize data, we need to change the terms of our understanding from technology and mathematics to thermodynamics. I argue that life in the Post-Ontological Age is governed by three laws.


The First Law:
The physical system (of data) = natural system = human system.

The Second Law:
“Data” = Data Surplus > Data Processing.

The Third Law:
The more the data gods capitalize on order, the more disorder is purposefully/‘accidentally’ produced.


Computation—if one can even use that antiquated word—involves at its core an analytic secrecy for which no external or internal analysis can account. Computation only works if there is more computation. It is a science (to use another strange-sounding word) that revolves around the calculation of instability—the calculation of a calculated instability—leading to the incalculable (but predictably unpredictable), calculation of instability.

In the world of Post-Ontology, my “I” is irrevocably dependent on and complicit in these productive and counterproductive layers of algorithmic activities. This means that the world is now not just fallible, but designed to be fallible – to break down, to be ‘hacked,’ and to need so-called ‘upgrades’ and ever more advanced ‘security measures.’ In the Post-Ontological world, we might be more human than ever before, which makes the promise of Artificial Intelligence ever more comic. Ultimately, the new human is a data-derivative, packaged, formatted, and ‘protected’ for the global stock market of information. It is not the end-point of our speculation, but the beginning point.


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Mark Jarzombek is author of Digital Stockholm Syndrome in the Post-Ontological Age. He is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has been teaching since 1995. He specializes in the history and theory of architecture.

"A brief yet stylistically ironic and incisive interrogation into how recent iterations of post- or inhumanist theory have found a strange bedfellow in the rhetorical boosterism that accompanies the alleged affordances of digital technologies and big data." —Boundary 2

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Discovering Fairy-Tale Postcards: The Adventures of a Scholarly Scavenger




















BY JACK ZIPES
University of Minnesota



Once upon a time, when the famous scientist Albert Einstein was teaching at Princeton University, a tiny old woman approached him as he was walking home after a class he had just taught. She was schlepping a skinny young boy of about six who was dragging his feet.

"Mr. Einstein," she called out in a strong Central European accent. "Mr. Einstein, stop your tracks and help me!"

Einstein was taken aback. He didn't know what to do except stop.

"How can I help you?" he responded with a smile as he took out a pipe.

"You shouldn't smoke. It will kill you," the old woman said.

Again, Einstein was taken aback, and he put away his pipe.

"Is that better?"

"Much better," the old woman said as she drew her timid grandson toward Einstein. "Jaky, stop fiddling and listen to this great man."

Now she turned her attention back to Einstein.

"Mr. Einstein, I want you should tell me what my grandson must do to become educated like you. I want he should be a great scientist."

Einstein didn't hesitate with his reply, "Fairy tales. He should read fairy tales."

"All right," the woman replied. "But what then? What should he read after that?"

"More fairy tales," Einstein stated bluntly, took out his pipe, and continued walking toward his home.

The old woman was silent for a moment, but then she grabbed hold of Jaky's hand and began dragging him through the park again. Suddenly she stopped.

"You heard, Jaky!" she pointed her finger at the frightened boy. "You heard what the great man said! Read fairy tales! Do what the man said, or God help you!"

And she whisked her grandson away.

Needless to say, this is a true story, not a fairy tale. I must confess that the boy in this anecdote was me, and I have lived under Einstein's spell ever since my momentous encounter with the great man in 1943. Or perhaps one could call the spell "my grandmother's curse." Whether spell or curse, I can't recall not imbibing fairy tales. They are in my blood. Ever since my grandmother traumatized me, I have constantly collected fairy tales, read them, written them, studied them, and even lived them. Most of all, I have collected fairy-tale postcards for more than fifty years. My wife thinks I am like the golden boy of fairy tales, that is, she thinks that Lady Fortuna watches over me and changes everything I touch into gold.


"French encounter." From the author's collection.


She also thinks that I'm a fairy-tale postcard junky. For years I have spent a good deal of my research time at library sales, auctions, flea markets, postcard shows, garbage dumps, and garage sales and in second-hand bookstores, musty libraries, book stalls, movie theaters, cellars, attics, and museums. My daughter, who has tolerated my tale-telling and fairy-tale postcard obsession ever since she was born, has offered to ship me off and pay for a fairy-tale de-toxication program run by rational, stringent, down-to-earth social workers. Lately, however, she has concluded that I’m hopeless and helpless.

To tell the truth, I may be helpless, but I’m not hopeless. I think it is hope in fairy tales that has driven me throughout my life, and perhaps it was hope that drove Einstein. There is something peculiar about fairy tales, the best of fairy tales, that propels me and, I think, most human beings absorb them as if they were vital food and vital for survival. We simply can't do without them. It is as if we were pre-disposed to lead our lives according to the spells and curses of fairy tales.


"Frog King." From the author's collection.


In my own case, I have constantly learned about the complexities of life through fairy tales and especially through buried treasures. This brings me back to talk about the importance to fairy-tale postcards that have been produced in the millions and yet have been ignored to a large extent by collectors and scholars. I don’t mean to exaggerate the neglect, but quite clearly very few collectors and scholars have written about the history of fairy-tale postcards, and most people who buy the cards are not aware of why they are drawn to fairy-tale postcards.

As a narrative metaphor or metaphorical pattern, a fairy tale, in my opinion, like other short narratives -- anecdotes, jokes, legends, myths, warning tales, and so on -- stems from historically conditioned lived experience that fosters a reaction in our brains, and this experience is articulated through symbols that endow it with significance. Fairy tales are relevant because they pass on information vital for humans to adapt to changing environments. Sometimes they do this through the images on tiny postcards. I do not want to privilege the fairy tale or, more precisely, the oral wonder tale as the only type of narrative or the best means by which we communicate our experiences and learn from each other. But it does seem to me that we are predisposed to the fairy tale whether in a book or on a postcard because it tends to offer a metaphorical means through which we can gain distance from our experiences, sort them out, and articulate or enunciate their significance for us and for other people in our environment.


"Pinocchio." From the author's collection.


Nobody -- not even I -- lives their lives by fairy tales. Over hundreds of years they have come to form a linguistic type, a genre, a means by which we seek to understand and contend with our environment, to find our place in it. There are many types, genres, and means of narration. Our predilection for certain fairy tales reveals something about ourselves and our cultures. Every family and society in the world have developed types, genres, and communicative means that produce cultural patterns and enable people to identify themselves and grasp the world around them. Sometimes these communicative means or media have contributed to the formation of spectacles and illusions that prevent us from understanding our empirical experiences.

I prefer to think that fairy-tale postcards, as startling illustrated memes, have flown and continue to fly magically through the air to enlighten us and give us pleasure. Just one look at the unique images printed on the postcards in my book will give you an idea of how much we revere and continue to revere fairy tales.


"Hansel and Gretel." From the author's collection.



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Jack Zipes is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. He is author of more than forty books, including Tales of Wonder: Retelling Fairy Tales through Picture Postcards; The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World; and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry.