Tag Archives: code

The New Bifurcation? Object-Oriented Ontology and Computation

Alan Turing

There are now some interesting challenges emerging to the philosophical systems described in object-oriented ontology, such as Alex Galloway’s recent piece, ‘A response to Graham Harman’s “Marginalia on Radical Thinking”’ and Christian Thorne’s, ‘To The Political Ontologists‘, as well as my own contribution, ‘The Uses of Object-Oriented Ontology‘.

Here, I want to tentatively explore the links between my own notion of computationality as ontotheology and how object-oriented ontology unconsciously reproduces some of these structural features that I think are apparent in its ontological and theological moments. In order to do this, I want to begin outlining some of the ways one might expect the ‘ontological moment’, as it were, to be dominated by computational categories and ideas which seem to hold greater explanatory power. In this regard I think this recent tweet by Robert Jackson is extremely revealing,

Robert Jackson (@Recursive_idiot)

04/06/2012 13:34

I think this Galloway / OOO issue can be resolved with computability theory. Objects / units need not be compatible with the state.

Revealing, too, are the recent discussions by members of object-oriented ontology and the importance of the computational medium for facilitating its reproduction – see Levi Bryant’s post ‘The Materiality of SR/OOO: Why Has It Proliferated?‘, and Graham Harman’s post ‘on philosophical movements that develop on the internet‘.

It is interesting to note that these philosophers do not take account of the possibility that the computational medium itself may have transformed the way in which they understand the ontological dimension of their projects. Indeed, the taken-for-granted materiality of digital media is clearly being referred to in relation to a form of communication theory – as if the internet were merely a transparent transmission channel – rather than seeing the affordances of the medium encouraging, shaping, or creating certain ways of thinking about things, as such.

Of course, they might respond, clearly the speed and publishing affordances allow them to get their messages out quicker, correct them, and create faster feedback and feedforward loops. However, I would argue that the computational layers (software, applications, blogs, tweets, etc.) also discipline the user/writer/philosopher to think within and through particular computational categories. I think it is not a coincidence that what is perhaps the first internet or born-digital philosophy has certain overdetermined characteristics that reflect the medium within which they have emerged. I am not alone in making this observation, indeed, Alexander Galloway has started to examine the same question, writing,

[T]he French philosopher Catherine Malabou asks: “What should we do so that consciousness of the brain does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism?”….Malabou’s query resonates far and wide because it cuts to the heart of what is wrong with some philosophical thinking appearing these days. The basic grievance is this: why, within the current renaissance of research in continental philosophy, is there a coincidence between the structure of ontological systems and the structure of the most highly-evolved technologies of postfordist capitalism? I am speaking, on the one hand, of computer networks in general, and object-oriented computer languages (such as Java or C++) in particular, and on the other hand, of certain realist philosophers such as Bruno Latour, but also more pointedly Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, and their associated school known as “speculative realism.” Why do these philosophers, when holding up a mirror to nature, see the mode of production reflected back at them? Why, in short, a coincidence between today’s ontologies and the software of big business? (Galloway, forthcoming, original emphasis)

He further argues:

Philosophy and computer science are not unconnected. In fact they share an intimate connection, and have for some time. For example, set theory, topology, graph theory, cybernetics and general system theory are part of the intellectual lineage of both object-oriented computer languages, which inherit the principles of these scientific fields with great fidelity, and for recent continental philosophy including figures like Deleuze, Badiou, Luhmann, or Latour. Where does Deleuze’s “control society” come from if not from Norbert Wiener’s definition of cybernetics? Where do Latour’s “actants” come from if not from systems theory? Where does Levi Bryant’s “difference that makes a difference” come from if not from Gregory Bateson’s theory of information? (Galloway, forthcoming).

Ian Bogost’s (2012) Alien Phenomenology is perhaps the most obvious case where the links between his computational approach and his philosophical system are deeply entwined, objects, units, collections, lists, software philosophy, carpentry (as programming) etc. Indeed, Robert Jackson also discusses some of the links with computation, making connections between the notion of interfaces and encapsulation, and so forth, in object-oriented programming in relation to forms of object-orient ontology’s notion of withdrawal, etc. He writes,

Encapsulation is the notion that objects have both public and private logics inherent to their components. But we should be careful not to regard the notion that private information is deliberately hidden from view, it is rather the unconditional indifference of objects qua objects. Certain aspects of the object are made public and others are occluded by blocking off layers of data. The encapsulated data can still be related to, even if the object itself fails to reveal it (Jackson 2011).

This, he argues, serves as a paradigmatic example of the object-oriented ontologists’ speculations about objects as objects. Therefore, a research project around object-oriented computational systems would, presumably, allow us to cast light on wider questions about other kinds of objects, after all, objects are objects, in the flat ontology of object-oriented ontology. In contrast, I would argue that it is no surprise that object-oriented ontology and object-oriented programming have these deep similarities as they are drawing from the same computational imaginary, or foundational ideas, about what things are or how they are categorised in the world, in other words a computational ontotheology – computationality.

The next move is the step that Alex Galloway makes, to link this to the wider capitalist order, postfordist or informational capitalism (what I would call Late Capitalism). He then explores how this ideological superstructure is imposed onto a capitalist mode of production, both to legitimate and to explain its naturalness or inevitability. Galloway argues,

(1) If recent realist philosophy mimics the infrastructure of contemporary capitalism, should we not show it the door based on this fact alone, the assumption being that any mere repackaging of contemporary ideology is, by definition, anti-scientific and therefore suspect on epistemological grounds? And (2) even if one overlooks the epistemological shortcomings, should we not critique it on purely political grounds, the argument being that any philosophical project that seeks to ventriloquize the current industrial arrangement is, for this very reason, politically retrograde? (Galloway, forthcoming).

He further writes,

Granted, merely identifying a formal congruity is not damning in itself. There are any number of structures that “look like” other structures. And we must be vigilant not to fetishize form as some kind of divination–just as numerology fetishizes number. Nevertheless are we not obligated to interrogate such a congruity? Is such a mimetic relationship cause for concern? Meillassoux and others have recently mounted powerful critiques of “correlationism,” so why a blindness toward this more elemental correlation?… What should we do so that our understanding of the world does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism? (Galloway, forthcoming, original emphasis).

Galloway concludes his article by making the important distinction between materialism and realism, pointing out that materialism must be historical and critical whereas realism tends towards an ahistoricism. By historicising object-oriented ontology, we are able to discern the links between the underlying computational capitalism and its theoretical and philosophical manifestations.

Chales Darwin

More work needs to be done here to trace the trajectories that are hinted at, particularly the computationality I see implicit in object-oriented ontology and speculative realism more generally. But I also want to tentatively gesture towards object-oriented ontology as one discourse contributing to a new bifurcation (as Whitehead referred to the nature/culture split). In this case, not between nature and culture, which today have begun to reconnect as dual hybridised sites of political contestation – for example, climate change – but rather as computation versus nature-culture.

Where nature-culture becomes a site of difference, disagreement, political relativism and a kind of ‘secondary’ quality, in other words ‘values’ and ‘felicity conditions’. Computationality, or some related ontological form, becomes the site of primary qualities or ‘facts’, the site of objectivity, and is foundational, ahistorical, unchanging and a replacement for nature in modernity as the site of agreement upon which a polity is made possible – a computational society.

Here, the abstract nature of objects within object-oriented programming, formal objects which inter-relate to each other and interact (or not), and yet remain deeply computational, mathematical and discrete is more than suggestive of the flat ontology that object-oriented ontology covets. The purification process of object-oriented design/programming is also illustrative of the gradual emptying of the universe of ‘non-objects’ by object-oriented ontology, which then serves to create ontological weight, and the possibility of shared consensus within this new bifurcated world. This creates a united foundation, understood as ontological, a site of objectivity, facts, and with a strict border control to prevent this pure realm being affected by the newly excised nature-culture. Within this new bifurcation, we see pure objects placed in the bifurcated object-space and subjects are located in the nature-culture space – this is demonstrated by the empty litanies that object-oriented ontologists share and which describe abstract objects, not concrete entities. This is clearly ironic in a philosophical movement that claims to be wholly realist and displays again the anti-correlationist paradox of object-oriented ontology.

This ontological directive also points thought towards the cartography of pure objects, propositions on the nature of ‘angels’, ‘Popeye’ and ‘unicorns’, and commentary on commentary in a scholastic vortex through textual attempts to capture and describe this abstract sphere – without ever venturing into the ‘great outdoors’ that object-oriented ontologists claim to respect. What could be closer to the experience of contemporary capitalist experience than the digital mazes that are set up by the likes of Facebook and Google, to trap the user into promises of entertainment and fulfilment by moving deeper and deeper around the social ontologies represented in capitalist social networks, and which ultimately resolve in watching advertisements to fuel computational capitalism?

Galloway rightly shows us how to break this spell, reflected also in the object-oriented ontologists refusal to historicise, through a concrete analysis of the historical and material conditions of production, he writes:

One might therefore label this the postfordist response to philosophical realism in general and Meillassoux in particular: after software has entered history, math cannot and should not be understood ahistorically… math itself, as algorithm, has become a historical actor. (Galloway, forthcoming, original emphasis).

Bibliography

Bogost, I. (2012a) Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like To Be A Thing, Minnesota University Press.

Galloway, A. R. (forthcoming) The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Postfordism, copy supplied by the author.

Jackson, R. (2011) Why we should be Discrete in Public – Encapsulation and the Private lives of Objects, accessed 04/06/2012, http://robertjackson.info/index/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Aarhus-presentation.pdf

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The Commodity-Mechanism Form of Software/Code

This post is part of a paper I gave at Unlike Us conference, Amsterdam 2012. The recording of the lecture is available online


Software presents a translucent interface relative to the common ‘world’ and so enables engagement with a ‘world’, this we call its interface. It is tempting, when trying to understand software/code to provide analysis at the level of this surface level, however software also possesses an opaque machinery that mediates engagement that is not experienced directly nor through social mediations. Without an attentiveness to the layers of software beneath this surface interface we are in danger of ‘screen essentialism’.  In terms of this analytic approach, one of the key aspects is that the surface can remain relatively stable whilst the machinery layer(s) can undergo frenetic and disorienting amounts of change (Berry 2012). This frantic disorientation at the machinery layer is therefore insulated from the user, who is provided with a surface which can be familiar, skeuomorphic (from the Greek, skeuos – vessel or tool, morphe – shape), representational, metonymic, figurative or extremely simplistic and domestic. It is important to note that the surface/interface need not be visual, indeed it may be presented as an application programming interface (API) which hides the underlying machinery behind this relatively benign interface.

The software we use is part of a wider constellation of software ecologies made possible by a plethora of computational devices that facilitate the colonisation of code into the lifeworld. In other words, software enables access to certain forms of mediated engagement with the world, this is achieved via the translucent surface interface and enables a machinery to be engaged which computationally interoperates with the world. These engagements are enabled by processes we might call compactants (computational actants) which can be understood through a dual surface/machinery structure. Compactants are often constructed in such a way that they can be understood as having a dichotomous modality of data-collection/visualisation, each of which is a specific mode of operation. Again this may not necessarily be a visual component of the compactant, which may merely re-present data through computational analysis to a visual packager or visualisation device/software system. This modal setting may be accessible to the user, or it may be a hidden function accessible only to certain people/coder/other compactants, etc.

Compactants are designed to passive-aggressively record data.  With the notion of compactants I want to particularly draw attention to this passive-aggressive feature of computational agents that are collecting information. Both in terms of their passive quality – under the surface, relatively benign and silent – but also the fact that they are aggressive in their hoarding of data – monitoring behavioural signals, social signals, streams of affectivity and so forth.  The word compact also has useful overtones of having all the necessary components or functions neatly fitted into a small package, and compact as in conciseness in expression. The etymology from the Latin compact for closely put together, or joined together, also nearly expresses the sense of what web-bugs and related technologies are. The term compactants is also evocative in terms of the notion of ‘companion actants’ (see Harraway 2003).

Analytically, therefore, software can be said to have two faces:

Commodity: accessible via the interface/surface and providing or procuring a commodity/service/function. Provides a relative stability for the consumption of ends.

Mechanism: accessible via textual source code, which contains the mechanisms and functions ‘hidden’ in the software (means).  This can be thought of as the substructure for the overlay of commodities and consumption.

The materiality of software requires a form of reading/writing of these depths through attentiveness to codes affordances. By attending to the ontological dimension of software, that is it structure and construction, we gather an insight into the substructure and machinery of software. Software is used/enjoyed without the encumbrance or engagement with its context due to this commodity form.

One of the striking things about using this analytical model for thinking about software is that it draws attention to a source of stability in computational society. That is, the commodity layer, the interface, may stay relatively stable vis a vis the user, whilst underneath at the level of the machinery there can be rapid change in terms of both hardware and software. In a usual case, the user is unlikely to notice much difference in the usability of the device, however the interface’s constant allows for a de-freneticness or at least a looser coupling between rapid technical change and the user experience of technology. We should expect that when interfaces achieve a certain retinal quality, making them indistinguishable from other representational forms, such as high definition images or photography, then further developments will begin to be made in terms of the skeuomorphic/figurative/metonymic. Indeed, to some extent this is already starting to happen within user interface design with the move to ‘simple’ or ‘obvious’ design principles (see Beecher 2010).

Bibliography

Beecher, F. (2010) UI Guidelines for Skeuomorphic Multi-Touch Interfaces , accessed 29/03/2012, http://userexperience.evantageconsulting.com/2010/11/ui-guidelines-for-skeuomorphic-multi-touch-interfaces/

Berry, D. M. (2012) Thinking Software: Realtime Streams and Knowledge in the Digital Age, UnlikeUs 2012, accessed 29/03/2012, http://vimeo.com/39256099

Harraway, D. (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Prickly Paradigm Press.

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