Category Archives: technology

Signal

One of the key moments in the composition of the conditions of possibility for a digital abstraction, within which certain logical operations might be combined, performed and arranged to carry out algorithmic computation took place in 1961 when James Buie who was employed by Pacific Semiconductor patented the Transistor Transistor Logic (TTL). This was an all transistor logic for analogue circuitry that crucially standardised the voltage configuration for digital circuitry (0v-5v). This represented a development from the earlier Diode–transistor logic (DTL) which used a diode network and an amplifying function performed by a transistor, and the even earlier Resistor–transistor logic (RTL) based on resistors which handled the input network and bipolar junction transistors (BJTs) as the switching devices. The key to these logic circuits was the creation of a representation of logic functions through the arrangement of the circuitry such that key boolean logic operations could be performed. TTL offered an immediate speed increase as the transition over a diode input is slower than using a transistor. With the creation of the TTL circuitry the logical operations of NAND and NOR allowed the modular construction of a number of boolean operations that themselves served as the components of microprocessor modules, such as the Adder.

I want to explore the importance of signal in relation to the interface between the underlying analogue carrier of the digital circuitry and the logical abstraction of digital computation – that is the maximisation of signal over noise in the creation of a digital signal carrier. It is exactly at this point that the emergence of digital computation is made possible, but also a suggestive link between signal/noise that points to the use of abstraction to minimise noise throughout the design of the digital computer, and which creates a logical universe within which computational thinking, that is signal without noise, or without noise as previously understood as thermal noise, is a constituent of programming practice. This is useful for developing an understanding between notions of materiality in theorising the digital, but also in making explicit the connection between digital “signal” and voltage “signal” or between the possibility of communication of information in a digital system.

At its most basic level standard TTL circuits require a 5-volt power supply which provides the framework within which a binary dichotomy is constructed to represent the true (1) and the false (0). The TTL signal is considered “low”, that is “false” or “0”, when the voltage is between the values of 0V and 0.8V (with respect to ground) and “high”, that is “true” or “1” when the voltage lies between 2.2V and 5V (called VCC to indicate that the top voltage is provided by the power supply, known as the positive supply voltage). Voltage which lies between 0.8V and 2.0V is considered “uncertain” or “illegitimate” and may resolve to either side of the binary division depending on the prior state of the circuitry or be filtered out by the use of additional circuitry. The range of voltages allows for manufacturing tolerances and instabilities of the material carrier, such that noise, uncertainty and glitches can be tolerated. This tripartite division creates the following diagram:

Tripartite division of voltage in TTL digital circuitry

This standardisation of the grammatisation of voltage creates the first and significant “cut” of the analogue world and one which was hugely important historically. By standardising the division of the binary elements of digital computation, in effect, the interoperability of off-the-shelf digital circuits becomes possible, and thus instead of thinking in terms of electrical compatibility, voltage and so forth, the materiality of the binary circuit is abstracted away. This makes possible the design and construction of a number of key circuits which can be combined in innovative ways. It is crucial to recognise that from this point, the actual voltage of the circuits themselves vanishes into the background of computer design as the key issue becomes the creation of combination of logical circuits and the issues of propagation, cross-talk and noise emerge at the different level. In effect, the signal/noise problematic is raised to a new and different level.

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Postdigital Aesthetics: Art, Computation and Design

Edited by David M. Berry and Michael Dieter.  

Flat Theory

The world is flat.[1] Or perhaps better, the world is increasingly “layers”. Certainly the augmediated imaginaries of the major technology companies are now structured around a post-retina notion of mediation made possible and informed by the digital transformations ushered in by mobile technologies that provide a sense of place, as well as a sense of management of complex real-time streams of information and data.

Two new competing computational interface paradigms are now deployed in the latest version of Apple and Google’s operating systems, but more notably as regulatory structures to guide the design and strategy related to corporate policy. The first is “flat design” which has been introduced by Apple through iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite as a refresh of the ageing operating systems’ human computer interface guidelines, essentially stripping the operating system of historical baggage related to techniques of design that disguised the limitations of a previous generation of technology, both in terms of screen but also processor capacity. It is important to note, however, that Apple avoids talking about “flat design” as its design methodology, preferring to talk through its platforms specificity, that is about iOS’ design or OS X’s design. The second is “material design” which was introduced by Google into its Android L, now Lollipop, operating system and which also sought to bring some sense of coherence to a multiplicity of Android devices, interfaces, OEMs and design strategies. More generally “flat design” is “the term given to the style of design in which elements lose any type of stylistic characters that make them appear as though they lift off the page” (Turner 2014). As Apple argues, one should “reconsider visual indicators of physicality and realism” and think of the user interface as “play[ing] a supporting role”, that is that techniques of mediation through the user interface should aim to provide a new kind of computational realism that presents “content” as ontologically prior to, or separate from its container in the interface (Apple 2014). This is in contrast to “rich design,” which has been described as “adding design ornaments such as bevels, reflections, drop shadows, and gradients” (Turner 2014).

I want to explore these two main paradigms – and to a lesser extent the flat-design methodology represented in Windows 7/8 and the, since renamed, Metro interface (now Microsoft Modern UI) – through a notion of a comprehensive attempt by both Apple and Google to produce a rich and diverse umwelt, or ecology, linked through what what Apple calls “aesthetic integrity” (Apple 2014). This is both a response to their growing landscape of devices, platforms, systems, apps and policies, but also to provide some sense of operational strategy in relation to computational imaginaries. Essentially, both approaches share an axiomatic approach to conceptualising the building of a system of thought, in other words, a primitivist predisposition which draws from both a neo-Euclidian model of geons (for Apple), but also a notion of intrinsic value or neo-materialist formulations of essential characteristics (for Google). That is, they encapsulate a version of what I am calling here flat theory. Both of these companies are trying to deal with the problematic of multiplicities in computation, and the requirement that multiple data streams, notifications and practices have to be combined and managed within the limited geography of the screen. In other words, both approaches attempt to create what we might call aggregate interfaces by combining techniques of layout, montage and collage onto computational surfaces (Berry 2014: 70).

The “flat turn” has not happened in a vacuum, however, and is the result of a new generation of computational hardware, smart silicon design and retina screen technologies. This was driven in large part by the mobile device revolution which has not only transformed the taken-for-granted assumptions of historical computer interface design paradigms (e.g. WIMP) but also the subject position of the user, particularly structured through the Xerox/Apple notion of single-click functional design of the interface. Indeed, one of the striking features of the new paradigm of flat design, is that it is a design philosophy about multiplicity and multi-event. The flat turn is therefore about modulation, not about enclosure, as such, indeed it is a truly processual form that constantly shifts and changes, and in many ways acts as a signpost for the future interfaces of real-time algorithmic and adaptive surfaces and experiences. The structure of control for the flat design interfaces is following that of the control society, is “short-term and [with] rapid rates of turnover, but also continuous and without limit” (Deleuze 1992). To paraphrase Deleuze: Humans are no longer in enclosures, certainly, but everywhere humans are in layers.

Apple uses a series of concepts to link its notion of flat design which include, aesthetic integrity, consistency, direct manipulation, feedback, metaphors, and user control (Apple 2014). Reinforcing the haptic experience of this new flat user interface has been described as building on the experience of “touching glass” to develop the “first post-Retina (Display) UI (user interface)” (Cava 2013). This is the notion of layered transparency, or better, layers of glass upon which the interface elements are painted through a logical internal structure of Z-axis layers. This laminate structure enables meaning to be conveyed through the organisation of the Z-axis, both in terms of content, but also to place it within a process or the user interface system itself.

Google, similarly, has reorganised it computational imaginary around a flattened layered paradigm of representation through the notion of material design. Matias Duarte, Google’s Vice President of Design and a Chilean computer interface designer, declared that this approach uses the notion that it “is a sufficiently advanced form of paper as to be indistinguishable from magic” (Bohn 2014). But magic which has constraints and affordances built into it, “if there were no constraints, it’s not design — it’s art” Google claims (see Interactive Material Design) (Bohn 2014). Indeed, Google argues that the “material metaphor is the unifying theory of a rationalized space and a system of motion”, further arguing:

The fundamentals of light, surface, and movement are key to conveying how objects move, interact, and exist in space and in relation to each other. Realistic lighting shows seams, divides space, and indicates moving parts… Motion respects and reinforces the user as the prime mover… [and together] They create hierarchy, meaning, and focus (Google 2014). 

This notion of materiality is a weird materiality in as much as Google “steadfastly refuse to name the new fictional material, a decision that simultaneously gives them more flexibility and adds a level of metaphysical mysticism to the substance. That’s also important because while this material follows some physical rules, it doesn’t create the “trap” of skeuomorphism. The material isn’t a one-to-one imitation of physical paper, but instead it’s ‘magical'” (Bohn 2014). Google emphasises this connection, arguing that “in material design, every pixel drawn by an application resides on a sheet of paper. Paper has a flat background color and can be sized to serve a variety of purposes. A typical layout is composed of multiple sheets of paper” (Google Layout, 2014). The stress on material affordances, paper for Google and glass for Apple are crucial to understanding their respective stances in relation to flat design philosophy.[2]

Glass (Apple): Translucency, transparency, opaqueness, limpidity and pellucidity. 

Paper (Google): Opaque, cards, slides, surfaces, tangibility, texture, lighted, casting shadows. 

Paradigmatic Substances for Materiality

In contrast to the layers of glass that inform the logics of transparency, opaqueness and translucency of Apple’s flat design, Google uses the notion of remediated “paper” as a digital material, that is this “material environment is a 3D space, which means all objects have x, y, and z dimensions. The z-axis is perpendicularly aligned to the plane of the display, with the positive z-axis extending towards the viewer. Every sheet of material occupies a single position along the z-axis and has a standard 1dp thickness” (Google 2014). One might think then of Apple as painting on layers of glass, and Google as thin paper objects (material) placed upon background paper. However a key difference lies in the use of light and shadow in Google’s notion which enables the light source, located in a similar position to the user of the interface, to cast shadows of the material objects onto the objects and sheets of paper that lie beneath them (see Jitkoff 2014). Nonetheless, a laminate structure is key to the representational grammar that constitutes both of these platforms.

Armin Hofmann, head of the graphic design department at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel (Basel School of Design) and was instrumental in developing the graphic design style known as  the Swiss Style. Designs from 1958 and 1959. 

Interestingly, both design strategies emerge from an engagement with and reconfiguration of the principles of design that draw from the Swiss style (sometimes called the International Typographic Style) in design (Ashghar 2014, Turner 2014).[3] This approach emerged in the 1940s, and

mainly focused on the use of grids, sans-serif typography, and clean hierarchy of content and layout. During the 40’s and 50’s, Swiss design often included a combination of a very large photograph with simple and minimal typography (Turner 2014).

The design grammar of the Swiss style has been combined with minimalism and the principle of “responsive design”, that is that the materiality and specificity of the device should be responsive to the interface and context being displayed. Minimalism is a “term used in the 20th century, in particular from the 1960s, to describe a style characterized by an impersonal austerity, plain geometric configurations and industrially processed materials” (MoMA 2014). Robert Morris, one of the principle artists of Minimalism, and author of the influential Notes on Sculpture used “simple, regular and irregular polyhedrons. Influenced by theories in psychology and phenomenology” which he argued “established in the mind of the beholder ‘strong gestalt sensation’, whereby form and shape could be grasped intuitively” (MoMA 2014).[4]

Robert Morris: Untitled (Scatter Piece), 1968-69, felt, steel, lead, zinc, copper, aluminum, brass, dimensions variable; at Leo Castelli Gallery, New York. Photo Genevieve Hanson. All works this article © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The implications of these two competing world-views are far-reaching in that much of the worlds initial contact, or touch points, for data services, real-time streams and computational power is increasingly through the platforms controlled by these two companies. However, they are also deeply influential across the programming industries, and we see alternatives and multiple reconfigurations in relation to the challenge raised by the “flattened” design paradigms. That is, they both represent, if only in potentia, a situation of a power relation and through this an ideological veneer on computation more generally. Further, with the proliferation of computational devices – and the screenic imaginary associated with them in the contemporary computational condition – there appears a new logic which lies behind, justifies and legitimates these design methodologies.

It seems to me that these new flat design philosophies, in the broad sense, produce an order in precepts and concepts in order to give meaning and purpose not only in the interactions with computational platforms, but also more widely in terms of everyday life. Flat design and material design are competing philosophies that offer alternative patterns of both creation and interpretation, which are meant to have not only interface design implications, but more broadly in the ordering of concepts and ideas, the practices and the experience of computational technologies broadly conceived. Another way to put this could be to think about these moves as being a computational founding, the generation of, or argument for, an axial framework for building, reconfiguration and preservation.

Indeed, flat design provides and more importantly serves, as a translational or metaphorical heuristic for both re-presenting the computational, but also teaches consumers and users how to use and manipulate new complex computational systems and stacks. In other words, in a striking visual technique flat design communicates the vertical structure of the computational stack, on which the Stack corporations are themselves constituted. But also begins to move beyond the specificity of the device as privileged site of a computational interface interaction from beginning to end. For example, interface techniques are abstracted away from the specificity of the device, for example through Apple’s “handoff” continuity framework which also potentially changes reading and writing practices in interesting ways.

These new interface paradigms, introduced by the flat turn, have very interesting possibilities for the application of interface criticism, through unpacking and exploring the major trends and practices of the Stacks, that is, the major technology companies. I think that further than this, the notion of layers are instrumental in mediating the experience of an increasingly algorithmic society (e.g. think dashboards, personal information systems, quantified self, etc.), and as such provide an interpretative frame for a world of computational patterns but also a constituting grammar for building these systems in the first place. There is an element in which the notion of the postdigital may also be a useful way into thinking about the question of the link between art, computation and design given here (see Berry and Dieter, forthcoming) but also the importance of notions of materiality for the conceptualisation deployed by designers working within both the flat design and material design paradigms – whether of paper, glass, or some other “material” substance.[5]

Notes

[1] Many thanks to Michael Dieter and Søren Pold for the discussion which inspired this post. 
[2] The choice of paper and glass as the founding metaphors for the flat design philosophies of Google and Apple raise interesting questions for the way in which these companies articulate the remediation of other media forms, such as books, magazines, newspapers, music, television and film, etc. Indeed, the very idea of “publication” and the material carrier for the notion of publication is informed by the materiality, even if only a notional affordance given by this conceptualisation. It would be interesting to see how the book is remediated through each of the design philosophies that inform both companies, for example. 
[3] One is struck by the posters produced in the Swiss style which date to the 1950s and 60s but which today remind one of the mobile device screens of the 21st Century. 
[4] There is also some interesting links to be explored between the Superflat style and postmodern art movement, founded by the artist Takashi Murakami, which is influenced by manga and anime, both in terms of the aesthetic but also in relation to the cultural moment in which “flatness” is linked to “shallow emptiness”.
[5] There is some interesting work to be done in thinking about the non-visual aspects of flat theory, such as the increasing use of APIs, such as the RESTful api, but also sound interfaces that use “flat” sound to indicate spatiality in terms of interface or interaction design.  

Bibliography

Apple (2014) iOS Human Interface Guidelines, accessed 13/11/2014, https://developer.apple.com/library/ios/documentation/userexperience/conceptual/mobilehig/Navigation.html

Ashghar, T. (2014) The True History Of Flat Design, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.webdesignai.com/flat-design-history/

Berry, D. M. (2014) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury.

Berry, D. M. and Dieter, M. (forthcoming) Postdigital Aesthetics: Art, Computation and Design, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bohn, D. (2014) Material world: how Google discovered what software is made of, The Verge, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.theverge.com/2014/6/27/5849272/material-world-how-google-discovered-what-software-is-made-of

Cava, M. D. (2013) Jony Ive: The man behind Apple’s magic curtain, USA Today, accessed 1/1/2014, http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2013/09/19/apple-jony-ive-craig-federighi/2834575/

Deleuze, G. (1992) Postscript on the Societies of Control, October, vol. 59: 3-7.

Google (2014) Material Design, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.google.com/design/spec/material-design/introduction.html

Google Layout (2014) Principles, Google, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.google.com/design/spec/layout/principles.html

Jitkoff, N. (2014) This is Material Design, Google Developers Blog, accessed 13/11/2014,  http://googledevelopers.blogspot.de/2014/06/this-is-material-design.html

MoMA (2014) Minimalism, MoMA, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.moma.org/collection/details.php?theme_id=10459

Turner, A. L. (2014) The history of flat design: How efficiency and minimalism turned the digital world flat, The Next Web, accessed 13/11/2014, http://thenextweb.com/dd/2014/03/19/history-flat-design-efficiency-minimalism-made-digital-world-flat/

On Capture

In thinking about the conditions of possibility that make possible the mediated landscape of the post-digital (Berry 2014) it is useful to explore concepts around capture and captivation, particularly as articulated by Rey Chow (2012). Chow argues the being “captivated” is

the sense of being lured and held by an unusual person, event, or spectacle. To be captivated is to be captured by means other than the purely physical, with an effect that is, nonetheless, lived and felt as embodied captivity. The French word captation, referring to a process of deception and inveiglement [or persuade (someone) to do something by means of deception or flattery] by artful means, is suggestive insofar as it pinpoints the elusive yet vital connection between art and the state of being captivated. But the English word “captivation” seems more felicitous, not least because it is semantically suspended between an aggressive move and an affective state, and carries within it the force of the trap in both active and reactive senses, without their being organised necessarily in a hierarchical fashion and collapsed into a single discursive plane (Chow 2012: 48). 

To think about capture then is to think about the mediatized image in relation to reflexivity. For Chow, Walter Benjamin inaugurated a major change in the the conventional logic of capture, from a notion of reality being caught or contained in the copy-image, such as in a repository, the copy-image becomes mobile and this mobility adds to its versatility. The copy-image then supersedes or replaces the original as the main focus, as such this logic of the mechanical reproduction of images undermines hierarchy and introduces a notion of the image as infinitely replicable and extendable.  Thus the “machinic act or event of capture” creates the possibility for further dividing and partitioning, that is for the generation of copies and images, and sets in motion the conditions of possibility of a reality that is structured around the copy.

Chow contrasts capture to the modern notion of “visibility” such that as Foucault argues “full lighting and the eyes of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap” (Foucault 1991: 200). Thus in what might be thought of as the post-digital – a term that Chow doesn’t use but which I think is helpful in thinking about this contrast – what is at stake is no longer this link between visibility and surveillance, indeed nor is the link between becoming-mobile and the technology of images, but rather the collapse of the “time lag” between the world and its capture.

This is when time loses its potential to “become fugitive” or “fossilised” and hence to be anachronistic. The key point being that the very possibility of memory is disrupted when images become instantaneous and therefore synonymous with an actual happening. Thus in a condition of the post-digitial, whereby digital technologies make possible not only the instant capture and replication of an event, but also the very definition of the experience through its mediation both at the moment of capture – such as with the waving smart phones at a music concert or event  – but also in the subsequent recollection and reflection on that experience.

Thus the moment of capture or “arrest” is an event of enclosure, locating and making possible the sharing and distribution of a moment through infinite reproduction and dissemination. So capture represents a techno-social moment but is also discursive in that it is a type of discourse that is derived from the imposition of power on bodies and the attachment of bodies to power. This Chow calls a heteronomy or heteropoiesis, as in a system or artefact designed by humans, with some purpose, but not able to self-reproduce but which is yet able to exert agency in the form of prescription often back onto its designers. Essentially producing an externality in relation to the application of certain “laws” or regulations.

Nonetheless, capture and captivation also constitute a critical response through the possibility of a disconnecting logic and the dynamics of mimesis. This possibility reflected through the notion of entanglements refers to the “derangements in the organisation of knowledge caused by unprecedented adjacency and comparability or parity”. This is, of course, definitional in relation to the notion of computation when itself works through a logic of formatting, configuration, structuring and the application of computational ontologies (Berry 2011, 2014).

Here capture offers the possibility of a form of practice in relation to alienation by making the inquirer adopt a position of criticism, the art of making strange. Chow here is making links to Brecht and Shklovsky, and in particular their respective predilection for estrangement in artistic practice, such as in Brecht’s notion of verfremdung, and thus to show how things work, whilst they are being shown (Chow 2012: 26-28). In this moment of alienation the possibility is thus raised of things being otherwise. This is the art of making strange as a means to disrupt the everyday conventionalism and refresh the perception of the world – art as device. The connections between techniques of capture and critical practice as advocated by Chow, and reading or writing the digital are suggestive in relation to computation more generally, not only in artistic practice but also in terms of critical theory. Indeed, capture could be a useful hinge around which to subject the softwarization practices, infrastructures and experiences of computation to critical thought both in terms of their technical and social operations but also to the extent to which they generate a coercive imperative for humans to live and stay alive under the conditions of a biocomputational regime.

Bibliography

Berry, D. M. (2011) The Philosophy of Software, London: Palgrave.

Berry, D. M. (2014) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury.

Chow, R. (2012) Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture, London: Duke University Press.

Foucault, M. (1991) Discipline and Punish, London: Penguin Social Sciences.

Digital/Post-digital

I want to take up the question of the definition of the “post-digital” again because I think that what the post-digital is pointing towards as a concept is the multiple moments in which the digital was operative in various ways (see Berry 2014a, 2014b, 2014c). Indeed, historicising the “digital” can be a useful, if not crucial step, in understanding the transformation(s) of digital technologies. That is, we are at a moment whereby we are able to survey the various constellations of factors that made up a particular historical configuration around the digital and in which the “digital” formed an “imagined” medium to which existing analogue mediums where often compared, and to which the digital tended to be seen as suffering from a lack, e.g. not a medium for “real” news, for film, etc. etc. The digital was another medium to place at the end (of the list) after all the other mediums were counted – and not a very good one. It was where the digital was understood, if it were understood at all, as a complement to other media forms, somewhat lacking, geeky, glitchy, poor quality and generally suited for toys, like games or the web, or for “boring” activities like accountancy or infrastructure. The reality is that in many ways the digital was merely a staging post, whilst computing capacity, memory, storage and display resolutions could fall in price/rise in power enough to enable a truly “post-digital” environment that could produce new mediated experiences. That is, that it appears that the digital was “complementary” but the post-digital is zero-sum. Here is my attempt to sum up some of the moments that I think might serve as a provocation to debate the post-digital.


 DIGITAL 


 POST-DIGITAL 
Non-zero sum Zero-sum
Objects Streams
Files Clouds
Programs Apps
SQL databases NoSQL storage
HTML node.js/APIs
Disciplinary Control
Administration Logistics
Connect Always-on
Copy/Paste Intermediate
Digital Computal
Hybrid Unified
Interface Surface
BitTorrent Scraping
Participation Sharing/Making
Metadata Metacontent
Web 2.0 Stacks
Medium Platform
Games World
Software agents Compactants
Experience Engagement
Syndication Push notification
GPS Beacons  (IoTs)
Art Aesthetics
Privacy Personal Cloud
Plaintext Cryptography
Responsive Anticipatory
Tracing Tracking
Surfing Reading

figure 1: Digital to Post-Digital Shifts 
This the table offers constellations or moments within a “digital” as opposed to a “post-digital” ecology, as it were, and, of course, a provocation to thought. But they can also be thought of as ideal types that can provide some conceptual stability for thinking, in an environment of accelerating technical change and dramatic and unpredictable social tensions in response to this. The question then becomes to what extent can the post-digital counter-act the tendencies towards domination of specific modes of thought in relation to instrumentality, particularly manifested in computational devices and systems? For example, the contrast between the moments represented by Web 2.0 / Stacks provides an opportunity for thinking about how new platforms have been built on the older Web 2.0 systems, in some cases replacing them, and in others opening up new possibilities which Tiziana Terranova (2014) has pointed to in her intriguing notion of “Red Stacks”, for example (and in contrast to Bruce Sterlings notion of “The Stacks”, e.g. Google, Facebook, etc.). Here I have been thinking of the notion of the digital as representing a form of “weak computation/computationality”, versus the post-digital as “strong computation/computationality”, and what would the consequences be for a society that increasingly finds that the weak computational forms (CDs, DVDs, laptops, desktops, Blogs, RSS, Android Open Source Platform [AOSP], open platforms and systems, etc.) are replaced by stronger, encrypted and/or locked-in versions (FairPlay DRM, Advanced Access Content System [AACS], iPads, Twitter, Push-notification, Google Mobile Services [GMS], Trackers, Sensors, ANTICRISIS GIRL, etc.)?  

These are not just meant to be thought of in a technical register, rather the notion of “weak computation” points towards a “weak computational sociality” and “strong computation” points towards a “strong computation sociality”, highlighting the deeper penetration of computational forms into everyday life within social media and push-notification, for example. Even as the post-digital opens up new possibilities for contestation, e.g. megaleaks, data journalism, hacks, cryptography, dark nets, torrents, piratization, sub rosa sharing networks, such as the Alexandria Project, etc. and new opportunities for creating, sharing and reading knowledges, the “strong computation” of the post-digital always already suggests the shadow of computation reflected in heightened tracking, surveillance and monitoring of a control society. The post-digital points towards a reconfiguration of publishing away from the (barely) digital techniques of the older book publishing industry, and towards the post-digital singularity of Amazonized publishing with its accelerated instrumentalised forms of softwarized logistics whilst also simultaneously supporting new forms of post-digital craft production of books and journals, and providing globalised distribution. How then can we think about these contradictions in the unfolding of the post-digital and its tendencies towards what I am calling here “strong computation”, and in what way, even counter-intuitively, does the digital (weak computation) offer alternatives, even as marginal critical practice, and the post-digital (strong computation) create new critical practices (e.g. critical engineering), against the increasing interconnection, intermediation and seamless functioning and operation of the post-digital as pure instrumentality, horizon, and/or imaginary.  



Bibliography

Berry, D. M. (2014a) The Post-Digital, Stunlaw, accessed 14/1/2014, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/the-post-digital.html

Berry, D. M. (2014b) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury.

Berry, D. M. (2014c) On Compute, Stunlaw, accessed 14/1/2014,  http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/on-compute.html

Terranova, T. (2014) Red stack attack! Algorithms, capital and the automation of the common, EuroNomade, accessed 20/2/2014,  http://www.euronomade.info/?p=1708


Marcuse and Objects

Herbert Marcuse

For Marcuse, the a priori concept of the object precedes and makes possible its appropriation by rational theory and practice. That is, that the links between science, technology and society are shared in the form of experience created through the technological a priori that creates a quantifiable reality of science and hence an instrumentalizable reality for society (Feenberg 2013) – objects as such. That is, “when technics becomes the universal form of material production, it circumscribes an entire culture; it projects a historical totality – a ‘world'” (Marcuse 1999: 154). In other words, “technology has become the great vehicle for reification – reification in its most mature and effective form” (Marcuse 1999:168). As such “the world tends to become the stuff of total administration, which absorbs even the administrators” (Marcuse 199: 169). Thus, Marcuse argues that,

The science of nature develops under the technological a priori which projects nature as potential instrumentality, stuff of control and organisation. And the apprehension of nature as (hypothetical) instrumentality precedes the development of all particular technical organisation (Marcuse 1999: 153). 

Even experience itself becomes “corrupted” because of the way in which experience is mediated through technologies and scientific methods resulting in abstract labour and the fetishism of commodities (Feenberg 2013: 609). The measure of society is then, in this account, eliminated, depriving society and individuals of a means to critique or provide justifications against the prevailing a priori of technological rationality. This,

technological reality, the object world, (including the subjects) is experienced as a world of instrumentalities. The technological context predefines the form in which the objects appear… The object world is thus the world of a specific historical project, and is never accessible outside the historical project which organises matter, and the organisation of matter is at one and the same time a theoretical and a practical enterprise (Marcuse 1999: 219). 

As such, there are two moments that Marcuse identifies in relation to this, namely quantification and instrumentalization. He writes, firstly regarding quantification that,

The quantification of nature, which led to its explication in terms of mathematical structures, separated reality from all inherent ends and, consequently, separated the true from the good, science from ethics… And no matter how constitutive may be the role of the subject as point of observation, measurement, and calculation, this subject cannot play its scientific role as ethical or aesthetic or political agent (Marcuse 1999: 146-7)

Secondly he explains that it is claimed that,

Theoretically, the transformation of man and nature has no other objective limits than those offered by the brute factuality of matter, its still unmastered resistance to knowledge and control. To the degree which this conception becomes applicable and effective in reality, the latter is approached as a (hypothetical) system of instrumentalities; the metaphysical “being-as-such” gives way to “being-instrument.” Moreover, proved in its effectiveness, this conception works as an a priori – it predetermines experience, it projects the direction of the transformation of nature, it organizes the whole (Marcuse 1999: 152). 

This creates a way of being, and experience of and set of practices towards everyday life that embody and realise this a priori in a number of moments across a life experience. Indeed, it develops an attitude or a towards-which that is infused with the instrumentality towards the world that conceives of it as being a world of entities which can be known, controlled, manipulated and if required transformed. Consequently,

the “correct” attitude towards instrumentality is the technical approach, the correct logos is techno-logy, which projects and responds to a technological reality. In this reality, matter as well as science is “neutral”; objectivity has neither a telos in itself nor is it structured towards a telos. But it is precisely its neutral character which relates objectivity to a specific historical Subject – namely, to the consciousness that prevails in the society by which and for which this neutrality is established. It operates in the very abstractions which constitute the new rationality – as an internal rather than external factor… the reduction of secondary to primary qualities, quantification and abstraction from “particular sorts of entities” (Marcuse 1999: 156). 

The question then becomes the extent to which this totalising system overwhelms the capacity for agency, and as such a critical consciousness. Indeed, related to this is the important question of the relationship between science and technology itself, in as much as the question to be addressed is, is science prior to technology and therefore a condition of possibility for it? Or has science become technologised to the extent that science is now itself subjected to a technological a priori? The latter a position held by Heidegger, for example. In other words, is science “complicit with the system of domination that prevails under capitalism” (Feenberg 2013: 609). Indeed, Marcuse agreed that,

Critical analysis must dissociate itself from that which it strives to comprehend; the philosophic terms must be other than the ordinary ones in order to elucidate the full meaning of the latter. For the established universe of discourse bears throughout the marks of the specific modes of domination, organisation, and manipulation to which the members of a society are subjects (Marcuse 1999: 193). 

The danger of “one-dimensionality” that the lack of critical thought implies, creates a form of modern reason that has domination built into its structure. Indeed, Horkheimer and Adorno argue,

The thing-like quality of the means, which makes the means universally available, its “objective validity” for everyone, itself implies a criticism of the domination from which thought has arisen as its means. On the way from mythology to logistics, thought has lost the element of reflection on itself, and machinery mutilates people today, even if it also feeds them. In the form of machines, however, alienated reason is moving toward a society which reconciles thought, in its solidification as an apparatus both material and intellectual, with a liberated living element, and relates it to society itself as its true subject. The particularist origin and the universal perspective of thought have always been inseparable. Today, with the transformation of the world into industry, the perspective of the universal, the social realization of thought, is so fully open to view that thought is repudiated by the rulers themselves as mere ideology (Horkheimer and Adorno 1999: 37; quoted in Feenberg 2013: 609).

How then to recover the capacity for reflection and thought and thus to move to a new mode of experience, a “two dimensional experience responsive to the potentialities of people and things” (Feenberg 2013: 610). This would require a new orientation towards potentiality, or what I call elsewhere possibility (Berry 2014) that would enable this new spirit of criticality, critical reason as such. In other words, the reconfiguring of quantification practices and instrumental processes away from domination (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse) and control (Habermas), instead towards reflexivity, critique and democratic practices.

For Feenberg this requires “counter-acting the tendencies towards domination in the technological a priori” through the “materialization of values” (Feenberg 2013: 613). This he argues can be found at specific intervention points within the materialisation of this a priori, such as in design processes. Feenberg argues that “design is the mediation through which the potential for domination contained in scientific-technical rationality enters the social world as a civilisational project” (Feenberg 2013: 613). Instead, Feenberg argues that the “socialist a priori” should inform the processes of technical implementation and technical practice. However, it seems to me that this misses the instrumentality implicit in design and design practices more generally, which often tend to maximise instrumental values in their application of concepts of efficiency and organisation. This, in some senses requires a call for a radical politicisation of design, or a new form of critical design which is different and more revolutionary than the form outlined by Dunne & Raby (2013). Here we might start making connections to new forms of rationality that offer possibilities to augment or perhaps replace instrumental rationalities, for example in the potentialities of critical computational rationalities, iteracies, and other computational competences whose performance and practice are not necessarily tied to instrumental notions of efficiency and order, nor to capitalist forms of reification (Berry 2014).

Bibliography

Berry, D. M. (2014) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury.

Dunne, A. and  Raby, F. (2013) Critical Design FAQ, accessed 23/1/2013, http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/bydandr/13/0

Feenberg, F. (2013) Marcuse’s Phenomenology: Reading Chapter Six of One-Dimensional Man, Constellations, Volume 20, Number 4, pp. 604-614.

Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. W. (1999) The Dialectic of Enlightenment, London: Verso.

Marcuse, H. (1999) One-dimensional Man, London: Routledge.

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