MachineMachine /stream - tagged with serres en-us LifePress <![CDATA[We live in a "more-than-human" universe]]>

The new political ecology is thus emerging from a call for greater humility toward the world and all the life forms it may hold, both literally and figuratively. Rather than contrasting mankind to nature and the rest of the world, this perspective consistently perceives humans as relays in a dynamic mélange of relations that can be more or less open, inclusive, and stable over time, but without any preordained knowledge about how these relations may develop or change.

Mon, 13 Feb 2012 02:09:31 -0800
<![CDATA["What is an enemy, who is he to us, and how must we deal with him? Another way to put it, for..."]]>

“What is an enemy, who is he to us, and how must we deal with him? Another way to put it, for example, is: What is cancer? - a growing collection of malignant cells that we must at all costs expel, excise, reject? Or something like a parasite, with which we must negotiate a contract of symbiosis? I lean toward the second solution, as life itself does. l’m even willing to bet that in the future the best treatment for cancer will switch from eliminating it to a method that will profit from its dynamism.

Why? Because, objectively, we have to continue living with cancers, with germs, with evil and even violence. It’s better to find a symbiotic equilibrium, even fairly primitive, than to reopen a war that is always lost because we and the enemy find renewed force in the relationship. If we were to implacably dean up ail the germs, as Puritanism would have us do, they would soon become resistant to our techniques of elimination and require new armaments. Instead, why not culture them in curdled milk, which sometimes results in delicious cheeses?” - Quote source: Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time Inspiration for posting: Re-engineering human cells to attack cancer

Wed, 14 Sep 2011 05:01:00 -0700
<![CDATA[Michel Serres, The Natural Contract]]>

“Suppose two speakers, determined to contradict each other. As violent as their confrontation may be, as long as they are willing to continue the discussion they must speak a common language in order for the dialogue to take place. There can’t be an argument between two people if one speaks a language the other can’t understand. […] Can an individual actor, lost in these gigantic masses, still say ‘I’ when the old collectivities, themselves so lightweight, have already been reduced to uttering a paltry and outmoded ‘we’?” - Michel Serres, The Natural Contract

Tue, 09 Aug 2011 05:36:00 -0700
<![CDATA[Kipple and Things: How to Hoard and Why Not To Mean]]>

This is paper (more of an essay, really) was originally delivered at the Birkbeck/London Consortium ‘Rubbish Symposium‘, 30th July 2011 Living at the very limit of his means, Philip K. Dick, a two-bit, pulp sci-fi author, was having a hard time maintaining his livelihood. It was the 1950s and Dick was living with his second wife, Kleo, in a run-down apartment in Berkley, California, surrounded by library books Dick later claimed, “They could not afford to pay the fines on.” In 1956, Dick had a short story published in a brand new pulp magazine: Satellite Science Fiction. Entitled, Pay for the Printer, the story contained a whole host of themes that would come to dominate his work On an Earth gripped by nuclear winter, humankind has all but forgotten the skills of invention and craft. An alien, blob-like, species known as the Biltong co-habit Earth with the humans. They have an innate ability to ‘print’ things, popping out copies of any object they are shown from their formless bellies. The humans are enslaved not simply because everything is replicated for them, but, in a twist Dick was to use again and again in his later works, as the Biltong grow old and tired, each copied object resembles the original less and less. Eventually everything emerges as an indistinct, black mush. The short story ends with the Biltong themselves decaying, leaving humankind on a planet full of collapsed houses, cars with no doors, and bottles of whiskey that taste like anti-freeze. In his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick gave a name to this crumbling, ceaseless, disorder of objects: Kipple. A vision of a pudding-like universe, in which obsolescent objects merge, featureless and identical, flooding every apartment complex from here to the pock-marked surface of Mars. “No one can win against kipple,” Dick wrote: “It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.” In kipple, Dick captured the process of entropy, and put it to work to describe the contradictions of mass-production and utility. Saved from the wreckage of the nuclear apocalypse, a host of original items – lawn mowers, woollen sweaters, cups of coffee – are in short supply. Nothing ‘new’ has been made for centuries. The Biltong must produce copies from copies made of copies – each replica seeded with errors will eventually resemble kipple. Objects; things, are mortal; transient. The wrist-watch functions to mark the passing of time, until it finally runs down and becomes a memory of a wrist-watch: a skeleton, an icon, a piece of kipple. The butterfly emerges from its pupae in order to pass on its genes to another generation of caterpillar. Its demise – its kipple-isation – is programmed into its genetic code. An inevitable consequence of the cosmic lottery of biological inheritance. Both the wrist-watch and the butterfly have fulfilled their functions: I utilised the wrist-watch to mark time: the ‘genetic lottery’ utilised the butterfly to extend its lineage. Entropy is absolutely certain, and pure utility will always produce it. In his book Genesis, Michel Serres, argues that objects are specific to the human lineage. Specific, not because of their utility, but because they indicate our drive to classify, categorise and order: “The object, for us, makes history slow.” Before things become kipple, they stand distinct from one another. Nature seems to us defined in a similar way, between a tiger and a zebra there appears a broad gap, indicated in the creatures’ inability to mate with one another; indicated by the claws of the tiger and the hooves of the zebra. But this gap is an illusion, as Michel Foucault neatly points out in The Order of Things: “…all nature forms one great fabric in which beings resemble one another from one to the next…” The dividing lines indicating categories of difference are always unreal, removed as they are from the ‘great fabric’ of nature, and understood through human categories isolated in language. Humans themselves are constituted by this great fabric: our culture and language lie on the same fabric. Our apparent mastery over creation comes from one simple quirk of our being: the tendency we exhibit to categorise, to cleave through the fabric of creation. For Philip K. Dick, this act is what separates us from the alien Biltong. They can merely copy, a repeated play of resemblance that will always degrade to kipple. Humans, on the other hand, can do more than copy. They can take kipple and distinguish it from itself, endlessly, through categorisation and classification. Far from using things until they run down, humans build new relations, new meanings, carefully and slowly from the mush. New categories produce new things, produce newness. At least, that’s what Dick – a Platonic idealist – believed. At the end of Pay for the Printer, a disparate group camp in the kipple-ised, sagging pudding of a formless city. One of the settlers has with him a crude wooden cup he has apparently cleaved himself with an even cruder, hand-made knife: “You made this knife?” Fergesson asked, dazed. “I can’t believe it. Where do you start? You have to have tools to make this. It’s a paradox!” In his essay, The System of Collecting, Jean Baudrillard makes a case for the profound subjectivity produced in this apparent production of newness. Once things are divested of their function and placed into a collection, they: “…constitute themselves as a system, on the basis of which the subject seeks to piece together [their] world, [their] personal microcosm.” The use-value of objects gives way to the passion of systematization, of order, sequence and the projected perfection of the complete set. In the collection, function is replaced by exemplification. The limits of the collection dictate a paradigm of finality; of perfection. Each object – whether wrist-watch or butterfly – exists to define new orders. Once the blue butterfly is added to the collection it stands, alone, as an example of the class of blue butterflies to which the collection dictates it belongs. Placed alongside the yellow and green butterflies, the blue butterfly exists to constitute all three as a series. The entire series itself then becomes the example of all butterflies. A complete collection: a perfect catalogue. Perhaps, like Borges’ Library of Babel, or Plato’s ideal realm of forms, there exists a room somewhere with a catalogue of everything. An ocean of examples. Cosmic disorder re-constituted and classified as a finite catalogue, arranged for the grand cosmic collector’s singular pleasure. The problem with catalogues is that absolutely anything can be collected and arranged. The zebra and the tiger may sit side-by-side if the collector is particularly interested in collecting mammals, striped quadrupeds or – a particularly broad collection – things that smell funny. Too much classification, too many cleaves in the fabric of creation, and order once again dissolves into kipple. Disorder arises when too many conditions of order have been imposed. William H. Gass reminds us of the linguistic conjunction ‘AND’ an absolute necessity in the cleaving of kipple into things: “[W]e must think of chaos not as a helter-skelter of worn-out and broken or halfheartedly realised things, like a junkyard or potter’s midden, but as a fluid mishmash of thinglessness in every lack of direction as if a blender had run amok. ‘AND’ is that sunderer. It stands between. It divides light from darkness.” Collectors gather things about them in order to excerpt a mastery over the apparent disorder of creation. The collector attains true mastery over their microcosm. The narcissism of the individual extends to the precise limits of the catalogue he or she has arranged about them. Without AND language would function as nothing but pudding, each clause, condition or acting verb leaking into its partner, in an endless series. But the problem with AND, with classes, categories and order is that they can be cleaved anywhere. Jorge Luis Borges exemplified this perfectly in a series of fictional lists he produced throughout his career. The most infamous list, Michel Foucault claimed influenced him to write The Order of Things, refers to a “certain Chinese encyclopaedia” in which: Animals are divided into

belonging to the Emporer, embalmed, tame, sucking pigs, sirens, fabulous, stray dogs, included in the present classification, frenzied, innumerable, drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, et cetera, having just broken the water pitcher, that from a long way off look like flies…

In writing about his short story The Aleph, Borges also remarked: “My chief problem in writing the story lay in… setting down of a limited catalog of endless things. The task, as is evident, is impossible, for such a chaotic enumeration can only be simulated, and every apparently haphazard element has to be linked to its neighbour either by secret association or by contrast.” No class of things, no collection, no cleaving of kipple into nonkipple can escape the functions of either “association OR contrast…” The lists Borges compiled are worthy of note because they remind us of the binary contradiction classification always comes back to:

Firstly, that all collections are arbitrary and Secondly, that a perfect collection of things is impossible, because, in the final instance there is only pudding “…in every lack of direction…”

Human narcissism – our apparent mastery over kipple – is an illusion. Collect too many things together, and you re-produce the conditions of chaos you tried so hard to avoid. When the act of collecting comes to take precedence over the microcosm of the collection, when the differentiation of things begins to break down: collectors cease being collectors and become hoarders. The hoard exemplifies chaos: the very thing the collector builds their catalogues in opposition to. To tease apart what distinguishes the hoarder, from the collector, I’d like to introduce two new characters into this arbitrary list I have arranged about myself. Some of you may have heard of them, indeed, they are the brothers whom the syndrome of compulsive hoarding is named after.

Brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer lived in a mansion at 2078, Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. Sons of wealthy parents – their father was a respected gynaecologist, their mother a renowned opera singer – the brothers both attended Columbia University, where Homer studied law and Langley engineering. In 1933 Homer suffered a stroke which left him blind and unable to work at his law firm. As Langley began to devote his time entirely to looking after his helpless brother, both men became locked inside the mansion their family’s wealth and prestige had delivered. Over the following decade or so Langley would leave the house only at night. Wandering the streets of Manhattan, collecting water and provisions to sustain his needy brother, Langley’s routines became obsessive, giving his life a meaning above and beyond the streets of Harlem that were fast becoming run-down and decrepid. But the clutter only went one way: into the house, and, as the interest from the New York newspaper media shows, the Collyer brothers and their crumbling mansion became something of a legend in a fast changing city. On March 21st 1947 the New York Police Department received an anonymous tip-off that there was a dead body in the Collyer mansion. Attempting to gain entry, police smashed down the front-door, only to be confronted with a solid wall of newspapers (which, Langley had claimed to reporter’s years earlier his brother “would read once his eyesight was restored”.) Finally, after climbing in through an upstairs window, a patrolman found the body of Homer – now 65 years old – slumped dead in his kippleised armchair. In the weeks that followed, police removed one hundred and thirty tons of rubbish from the house. Langley’s body was eventually discovered crushed and decomposing under an enormous mound of junk, lying only a few feet from where Homer had starved to death. Crawling through the detritus to reach his ailing brother, Langley had triggered one of his own booby traps, set in place to catch any robbers who attempted to steal the brother’s clutter. The list of objects pulled from the brother’s house reads like a Borges original. From Wikipedia: Items removed from the house included baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer’s hope chests, rusty bed springs, a kerosene stove, a child’s chair, more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, the chassis of an old Model T Ford, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, 14 pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines. Finally: There was also a great deal of rubbish. A Time Magazine obituary from April 1947 said of the Collyer brothers: “They were shy men, and showed little inclination to brave the noisy world.” In a final ironic twist of kippleisation, the brothers themselves became mere examples within the system of clutter they had amassed. Langley especially had hoarded himself to death. His body, gnawed by rats, was hardly distinguishable from the kipple that fell on top of it. The noisy world had been replaced by the noise of the hoard: a collection so impossible to conceive, to cleave, to order, that it had dissolved once more to pure, featureless kipple. Many hoarders achieve a similar fate to the Collyer brothers: their clutter eventually wiping them out in one final collapse of systemic disorder. To finish, I want to return briefly to Philip K. Dick. In the 1960s, fuelled by amphetamines and a debilitating paranoia, Dick wrote 24 novels, and hundreds of short stories, the duds and the classics mashed together into an indistinguishable hoard. UBIK, published in 1966, tells of a world which is itself degrading. Objects regress to previous forms, 3D televisions turn into black and white tube-sets, then stuttering reel-to-reel projections; credit cards slowly change into handfuls of rusted coins, impressed with the faces of Presidents long since deceased. Turning his back for a few minutes a character’s hover vehicle has degraded to become a bi-propeller airplane. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a stand-out novel from 1965, begins with this memo, “dictated by Leo Bulero immediately on his return from Mars”: “I mean, after all; you have to consider we’re only made out of dust. That’s admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn’t forget that. But even considering, I mean it’s a sort of bad beginning, we’re not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we’re faced with we can make it. You get me?”

Sun, 31 Jul 2011 10:28:32 -0700
<![CDATA[The Neolithic Age is over!]]>

Michel Serres: We are in the middle of an extraordinary human and environmental transformation, without really being aware of it, one that can only perhaps be compared with the Renaissance, the fifth century BC, and even the Neolithic age. For example, if there are no more peasants today, when did peasantry ­begin? In the Neolithic age. We can now say that in the year 2000, the Neolithic age is over. But who announced this in the news­papers? We didn’t read in any paper that “the Neolithic age is over”!

And we are equipped in our thinking for this change?

No. What we see are many turning points – physical, environmental, agricul­tural, medical, demographic, etc. All these events are profoundly significant; they touch human life and human behavior, the space around us. In 1800, eight per cent of the population lived in cities, meaning that prior to that, the number was even smaller. Today, 50 to 70 percent of the population is urban. 

Tue, 12 Jul 2011 01:36:11 -0700
<![CDATA[System of Enthalpy]]>

Rooted in our language is a bias. It’s a bias that we can hardly be blamed for, based as it is in our conception of ourselves as distinct entities whose existence can be felt, from one moment to the next, through time. Nature appears to move ‘forwards’, the ice-cube melts if left unattended, the scream in the night dissipates into silence. For very similar reasons we see society as a progressive entity. The 19th Century, Positivist appeal to a human reality that moves towards an ultimate goal still lingers in our rational arguments, in our science, in our humanist rhetoric. Again, we see technology as endlessly progressive. The tractor is fundamentally better than the plough, the internet trounces the telephone; the mailed envelope; the scream in the dark night. But forwards is not the only way that things can move. Most days I head to the British Library and pick up my pile of books from the counter. At the moment half of them are about ‘play’, about the systems of rules that mediate human games and what the order of games can tell us about human social activity. The other half of my book pile is made up of works of philosophy written in the last 30 years. Works by Deleuze, Serres, Agamben and Foucault. Their work speaks to me in a non-progressive way. Deleuze and Serres especially expound systems of thinking that grow like a supernovae or a colony of slime mould. From one perspective the supernovae is a system destined to implode, its central core rebounding the slew of material manufactured in the star’s long lifetime, out and into the wider cosmos. A slime mould, similarly, appears to be a system destined to grow, procreate and expand its genetic impact on the world. Both of these systems though can be better understood if we take them out of their human perceived, progressive contexts. To really grasp the supernovae one must understand the laws that govern its cycle of energy ebb and bloom. The same laws that govern the life cycle of the slime-mould. Thermo dynamics and the transitional principles that underlie physical systems – as seeming chaos bifurcates into autopoietic order. How these principles underlie the philosophy of Deleuze and Serres is difficult to summarise here, and also dangerous. I am still a novice when it comes to their theoretical paradigms. What can be said though is that their principles are non-progressive, non-positivistic. The order they see in social systems, in cultural artefacts and metaphysical constructions is better understood as order determined by thresholds rather than historical movements, by the flow of information between systems, rather than the inevitable consequences of scientific and social orders. At present I am working through the vague notion that our systems of symbolic communication would be better understood through their non-linear logics. That sacrifice and sacrament, scribe and inscription, digital code and malleable media are each a series of complexity thresholds in a grand order of semiotics that has been growing and blooming, shrinking and decaying in time with the ebb and flow of human culture and technology. I write this here as an annotation on things to come (on my website). It is not a delineated path of enquiry. It is merely a structure I intend to topographically identify, map and encourage. Here’s to Gilles Deleuze and Michel Serres, as well as some other names I will label their accomplices, such as Giorgio Agamben, Manuel de Landa, Lev Manovich and a whole heap more.

Fri, 26 Mar 2010 09:46:47 -0700
<![CDATA[De-constructing 'code' (picking apart its assumptions)]]>

De-constructing 'code': I am looking for philosophical (from W. Benjamin through to post-structuralism and beyond) examinations of 'code'. That both includes the assumptions contained in the word 'code' and any actual objects or subjects that code is connected to - including, but not limited to: computer programming, cyphers, linguistics, genetics etc. I am looking to question the assumptions of 'code'. Perhaps a specific example of a theorist de-constructing the term.

I am currently knee deep in an examination of certain practices and assumptions that have arisen from digital media/medium and digital practice (art and making in the era of data packets and compression-artefacts for example). Through my analysis I wish to investigate the paradigms of text and writing practice (the making of textual arts).

A simple analogy to this process would be looking at dialectic cultures (speech based) from the perspective/hindsight of a grapholectic culture (writing/print based). In a similar way, I want to examine writing, film and their making with the hindsight of digital paradigms.

I am aware of the works of Deleuze, Derrida, Barthes, Genette, Ong, Serres, Agamben etc. but any of their works that deal specifically with 'code' would be very very useful.

I look forward to any pointers you can give me

Tue, 02 Feb 2010 06:35:00 -0800
<![CDATA[The Next Great Discontinuity: The Data Deluge]]>

Speed is the elegance of thought, which mocks stupidity, heavy and slow. Intelligence thinks and says the unexpected; it moves with the fly, with its flight. A fool is defined by predictability… But if life is brief, luckily, thought travels as fast as the speed of light. In earlier times philosophers used the metaphor of light to express the clarity of thought; I would like to use it to express not only brilliance and purity but also speed. In this sense we are inventing right now a new Age of Enlightenment… A lot of… incomprehension… comes simply from this speed. I am fairly glad to be living in the information age, since in it speed becomes once again a fundamental category of intelligence. Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time

(Originally published at 3quarksdaily · Link to Part One) Human beings are often described as the great imitators: We perceive the ant and the termite as part of nature. Their nests and mounds grow out of the Earth. Their actions are indicative of a hidden pattern being woven by natural forces from which we are separated. The termite mound is natural, and we, the eternal outsiders, sitting in our cottages, our apartments and our skyscrapers, are somehow not. Through religion, poetry, or the swift skill of the craftsman smearing pigment onto canvas, humans aim to encapsulate that quality of existence that defies simple description. The best art, or so it is said, brings us closer to attaining a higher truth about the world that remains elusive from language, that perhaps the termite itself embodies as part of its nature. Termite mounds are beautiful, but were built without a concept of beauty. Termite mounds are mathematically precise, yet crawling through their intricate catacombs cannot be found one termite in comprehension of even the simplest mathematical constituent. In short, humans imitate and termites merely are. This extraordinary idea is partly responsible for what I referred to in Part One of this article as The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. It leads us to consider not only the human organism as distinct from its surroundings, but it also forces us to separate human nature from its material artefacts. We understand the termite mound as integral to termite nature, but are quick to distinguish the axe, the wheel, the book, the skyscraper and the computer network from the human nature that bore them. When we act, through art, religion or with the rational structures of science, to interface with the world our imitative (mimetic) capacity has both subjective and objective consequence. Our revelations, our ideas, stories and models have life only insofar as they have a material to become invested through. The religion of the dance, the stone circle and the summer solstice is mimetically different to the religion of the sermon and the scripture because the way it interfaces with the world is different. Likewise, it is only with the consistency of written and printed language that the technical arts could become science, and through which our ‘modern’ era could be built. Dances and stone circles relayed mythic thinking structures, singular, imminent and ethereal in their explanatory capacities. The truth revealed by the stone circle was present at the interface between participant, ceremony and summer solstice: a synchronic truth of absolute presence in the moment. Anyone reading this will find truth and meaning through grapholectic interface. Our thinking is linear, reductive and bound to the page. It is reliant on a diachronic temporality that the pen, the page and the book hold in stasis for us. Imitation alters the material world, which in turn affects the texture of further imitation. If we remove the process from its material interface we lose our objectivity. In doing so we isolate the single termite from its mound and, after much careful study, announce that we have reduced termite nature to its simplest constituent. The reason for the tantalizing involutions here is obviously that intelligence is relentlessly reflexive, so that even the external tools that it uses to implement its workings become ‘internalized’, that is, part of its own reflexive process… To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it. Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realisation of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy

Anyone reading this article cannot fail but be aware of the changing interface between eye and text that has taken place over the past two decades or so. New Media – everything from the internet database to the Blackberry – has fundamentally changed the way we connect with each other, but it has also altered the way we connect with information itself. The linear, diachronic substance of the page and the book have given way to a dynamic textuality blurring the divide between authorship and readership, expert testament and the simple accumulation of experience. The main difference between traditional text-based systems and newer, data-driven ones is quite simple: it is the interface. Eyes and fingers manipulate the book, turning over pages in a linear sequence in order to access the information stored in its printed figures. For New Media, for the digital archive and the computer storage network, the same information is stored sequentially in databases which are themselves hidden to the eye. To access them one must commit a search or otherwise run an algorithm that mediates the stored data for us. The most important distinction should be made at the level of the interface, because, although the database as a form has changed little over the past 50 years of computing, the Human Control Interfaces (HCI) we access and manipulate that data through are always passing from one iteration to another. Stone circles interfacing the seasons stayed the same, perhaps being used in similar rituals over the course of a thousand years of human cultural accumulation. Books, interfacing text, language and thought, stay the same in themselves from one print edition to the next, but as a format, books have changed very little in the few hundred years since the printing press. The computer HCI is most different from the book in that change is integral to it structure. To touch a database through a computer terminal, through a Blackberry or iPhone, is to play with data at incredible speed: Sixty years ago, digital computers made information readable. Twenty years ago, the Internet made it reachable. Ten years ago, the first search engine crawlers made it a single database. Now Google and like-minded companies are sifting through the most measured age in history, treating this massive corpus as a laboratory of the human condition… Kilobytes were stored on floppy disks. Megabytes were stored on hard disks. Terabytes were stored in disk arrays. Petabytes are stored in the cloud. As we moved along that progression, we went from the folder analogy to the file cabinet analogy to the library analogy to — well, at petabytes we ran out of organizational analogies. At the petabyte scale, information is not a matter of simple three- and four-dimensional taxonomy and order but of dimensionally agnostic statistics… This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves. Wired Magazine, The End of Theory, June 2008

And as the amount of data has expanded exponentially, so have the interfaces we use to access that data and the models we build to understand that data. On the day that Senator John McCain announced his Vice Presidential Candidate the best place to go for an accurate profile of Sarah Palin was not the traditional media: it was Wikipedia. In an age of instant, global news, no newspaper could keep up with the knowledge of the cloud. The Wikipedia interface allowed knowledge about Sarah Palin from all levels of society to be filtered quickly and efficiently in real-time. Wikipedia acted as if it was encyclopaedia, as newspaper as discussion group and expert all at the same time and it did so completely democratically and at the absence of a traditional management pyramid. The interface itself became the thinking mechanism of the day, as if the notes every reader scribbled in the margins had been instantly cross-checked and added to the content. In only a handful of years the human has gone from merely dipping into the database to becoming an active component in a human-cloud of data. The interface has begun to reflect back upon us, turning each of us into a node in a vast database bigger than any previous material object. Gone are the days when clusters of galaxies had to a catalogued by an expert and entered into a linear taxonomy. Now, the same job is done by the crowd and the interface, allowing a million galaxies to be catalogued by amateurs in the same time it would have taken a team of experts to classify a tiny percentage of the same amount. This method of data mining is called ‘crowdsourcing’ and it represents one of the dominant ways in which raw data will be turned into information (and then knowledge) over the coming decades. Here the cloud serves as more than a metaphor for the group-driven interface, becoming a telling analogy for the trans-grapholectic culture we now find ourselves in. To grasp the topological shift in our thought patterns it pays to move beyond the interface and look at a few of the linear, grapholectic models that have undergone change as a consequence of the information age. One of these models is evolution, a biological theory the significance of which we are still in the process of discerning:

If anyone now thinks that biology is sorted, they are going to be proved wrong too. The more that genomics, bioinformatics and many other newer disciplines reveal about life, the more obvious it becomes that our present understanding is not up to the job. We now gaze on a biological world of mind-boggling complexity that exposes the shortcomings of familiar, tidy concepts such as species, gene and organism. A particularly pertinent example [was recently provided in New Scientist] - the uprooting of the tree of life which Darwin used as an organising principle and which has been a central tenet of biology ever since. Most biologists now accept that the tree is not a fact of nature - it is something we impose on nature in an attempt to make the task of understanding it more tractable. Other important bits of biology - notably development, ageing and sex - are similarly turning out to be much more involved than we ever imagined. As evolutionary biologist Michael Rose at the University of California, Irvine, told us: “The complexity of biology is comparable to quantum mechanics.” New Scientist, Editorial, January 2009

As our technologies became capable of gathering more data than we were capable of comprehending, a new topology of thought, reminiscent of the computer network, began to emerge. For the mindset of the page and the book science could afford to be linear and diachronic. In the era of The Data Deluge science has become more cloud-like, as theories for everything from genetics to neuroscience, particle physics to cosmology have shed their linear constraints. Instead of seeing life as a branching tree, biologists are now speaking of webs of life, where lineages can intersect and interact, where entire species are ecological systems in themselves. As well as seeing the mind as an emergent property of the material brain, neuroscience and philosophy have started to consider the mind as manifest in our extended, material environment. Science has exploded, and picking up the pieces will do no good. Through the topology of the network we have begun to perceive what Michel Serres calls ‘The World Object’, an ecology of interconnections and interactions that transcends and subsumes the causal links propounded by grapholectic culture. At the limits of science a new methodology is emerging at the level of the interface, where masses of data are mined and modelled by systems and/or crowds which themselves require no individual understanding to function efficiently. Where once we studied events and ideas in isolation we now devise ever more complex, multi-dimensional ways for those events and ideas to interconnect; for data sources to swap inputs and output; for outsiders to become insiders. Our interfaces are in constant motion, on trajectories that curve around to meet themselves, diverge and cross-pollinate. Thought has finally been freed from temporal constraint, allowing us to see the physical world, life, language and culture as multi-dimensional, fractal patterns, winding the great yarn of (human) reality: The advantage that results from it is a new organisation of knowledge; the whole landscape is changed. In philosophy, in which elements are even more distanced from one another, this method at first appears strange, for it brings together the most disparate things. People quickly crit[cize] me for this… But these critics and I no longer have the same landscape in view, the same overview of proximities and distances. With each profound transformation of knowledge come these upheavals in perception. Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time

Tue, 05 May 2009 07:35:00 -0700
<![CDATA[The Next Great Discontinuity: Part One]]>

Grapholectic Thought and The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness (Originally published at 3quarksdaily · Link to Part Two) “There are things,” Christoph Martin Wieland… contended, “which by their very nature are so dependent upon human caprice that they either exist or do not exist as soon as we desire that they should or should not exist.”…We are, at the very least, reminded that seeing is a talent that needs to be cultivated, as John Berger saliently argued in his popular Ways of Seeing (1972) “…perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.” John A. Mccarthy, Remapping Reality

From the Greco-Roman period onwards humans have perceived themselves at the centre of a grand circle:

The circle is physical: a heliocentric vision of the cosmos, where the Earth travels around the sun. The circle is biological: an order of nature, perhaps orchestrated by a benign creator, where the animals and plants exist to satisfy the needs of mankind. And according to Sigmund Freud, in his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, the circle is psychological: where a central engine of reason rules over the chaos of passion and emotion.

The history of science maintains that progress – should one be comfortable in using such a term – contracted these perceptual loops. Indeed it was Freud himself, (the modest pivot of his own solar-system) who suggested that through the Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian “revolutions” mankind had transcended these “three great discontinuities” of thought and, “[uttered a] call to introspection”. If one were to speculate on the “great discontinuities” that followed, one might consider Albert Einstein’s relativistic model of space-time, or perhaps the work carried out by many “introspective” minds on quantum theory. Our position at the centre of the cosmos was offset by Copernicus; our position as a special kind of creature was demolished by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. From Freud we inherited the capacity to see beneath the freedom of the individual; from Einstein and quantum theory we learnt to mistrust the mechanistic clock of space and time. From all we learnt, as John Berger so succinctly put it, that “…perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.” Of course my mini-history of scientific revolution should not be taken itself as a “truth”. I draw it as a parable of progress, as one silken thread leading back through time’s circular labyrinth to my very own Ariadne. What I do maintain though, is that all great moves in human thought have come at the expense of a perceptual circle. That, if science, sociology, economics - or any modern system of knowledge - is to move beyond the constraints of its circle it must first decentre the “single eye”.

Scientific rational inquiry has revelled in the overturning of these “great discontinuities”, positioning each of them as a plotted point on the graph we understand as “progress”. We maintain, without any hint of irony, that we exist at the pinnacle of this irreversible line of diachronic time, that the further up the line we climb, the closer to “truth” we ascend. “…Reason is statistically distributed everywhere; no one can claim exclusive rights to it. [A] division… is [thus] echoed in the image, in the imaginary picture that one makes of time. Instead of condemning or excluding, one consigns a certain thing to antiquity, to archaism. One no longer says “false” but, rather, “out of date,” or “obsolete.” In earlier times people dreamed; now we think. Once people sang poetry; today we experiment efficiently. History is thus the projection of this very real exclusion into an imaginary, even imperialistic time. The temporal rupture is the equivalent of a dogmatic expulsion.” Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time

According to Michel Serres “time” is the common misconception that pollutes all our models. In the scientific tradition knowledge is located at the present: a summation of all inquiry that has lead up to this point. This notion is extraordinarily powerful in its reasoning power, bringing all previous data together in one great cataclysm of meaning. It has spawned its own species of cliché, the type where science ‘landed us on the moon’ or ‘was responsible for the extinction of smallpox’ or ‘increased the life expectancy of the third world’. These types of truths are necessary – you will not find me arguing against that – but they are also only one notion of what “truth” amounts to. And it is here perhaps where the circumference of yet another perceptual circle materialises from out of the mist. Progress and diachronic time are symbiotically united: the one being incapable of meaningful existence without the other. Our modern notion of “truth” denies all wisdom that cannot be plotted on a graph; that cannot be traced backwards through the recorded evidence or textual archive. Our modern conceptions are, what Walter J. Ong calls, the consequence of a ‘grapholectic’ culture – that is, one reliant on the technologies of writing and/or print. Science, as we understand it, could not have arisen without a system of memorisation and retrieval that extended beyond the limits of an oral culture. In turn, modern religious practices are as much a consequence of ‘the written word’ as they are ‘the word of God’. The “truth” of science is similar in kind to the ”truth” of modern religion. It is the “truth” of the page; of a diachronic, grapholectic culture – a difficult ”truth” to swallow for those who maintain that ’dogma’ is only a religous vice. Dialectic cultures – ones which are based in oral traditions – do not consider history and time in the same way as grapholectic cultures. To the dialectic, meaning is reliant on what one can personally or culturally remember, rather than on what the extended memory of the page can hold in storage. Thus the attribution of meaning emerges from the present, synchronic situation, rather than being reliant on the consequences of past observation: “Some decades ago among the Tiv people of Nigeria the genealogies actually used orally in settling court disputes have been found to diverge considerably from the genealogies carefully recorded in writing by the British forty years earlier (because of the importance then, too, in court disputes). The later Tiv have maintained that they were using the same genealogies as forty years earlier and that the earlier written record was wrong. What had happened was that the later genealogies had been adjusted to the changed social relations among the Tiv: they were the same in that they functioned in the same way to regulate the real world. The integrity of the past was subordinate to the integrity of the present.” Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy

In the oral culture “truth” must be rooted in systems that are not time-reliant. As Karen Armstrong has oft noted, “a myth was an event which in some sense had happened once, but which also happened all the time.” Before the written tradition was used to brand Religious inclinations onto the page the flavour of myth was understood as its most valuable “truth”, rather than its ingredients. The transcendence of Buddha, of Brahmā or Jesus is a parable of existence, and not a true fact garnered from evidence and passed down in the pages of a book. Meaning is not to be found in final “truths”, but in the questioning of contexts; in the deliberation of what constitutes the circle. If we forget this then we commit, what A. N. Whitehead called, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: “This… consists in mistaking the abstract for the concrete. More specifically it involves setting up distinctions which disregard the genuine interconnections of things…. [The] fallacy occurs when one assumes that in expressing the space and time relations of a bit of matter it is unnecessary to say more than that it is present in a specific position in space at a specific time. It is Whitehead’s contention that it is absolutely essential to refer to other regions of space and other durations of time… [Another] general illustration of the fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness is… the notion that each real entity is absolutely separate and distinct from every other real entity, and that the qualities of each have no essential relation to the qualities of others.” A. H. Johnson, Whitehead’s Theory of Reality

Our error is to mistake grapholectic thought - thought maintained by writing and print - as the only kind of thought we are capable of. I predict that the next “great discontinuity” to be uncovered, the one that historians will look back upon as “the biggest shift in our understanding since Einstein”, will emerge not from the traditional laboratory, or from notions computed through the hazy-filters of written memory, but from our very notion of what it is for “events” to become “data” and for that data to become “knowledge”. The circle we now sit at the centre of, is one enclosed by the grapholectic perceptions we rely on to consider the circle in the first place. In order to shift it we will need a new method of transposing events that occur ‘outside’ the circle, into types of knowledge that have value ‘within’ the circle. This may sound crazy, even impossible in scope, but we may have already begun devising new ways for this kind of knowledge to reach us. Continued in… Part Two: The Data Deluge

Mon, 04 May 2009 07:17:00 -0700
<![CDATA[Michel Serres: Journals/Articles]]>

Writings about author, Michel Serres

Wed, 11 Mar 2009 10:45:00 -0700