Digital Milieu

Philosophy of Digital Objects

Archivist Manifesto

Written for an intervention in a workshop on archives in Lüneburg, can also be read on Mute:

A new archivist has been appointed. But has anyone actually appointed him? Is he not rather acting on his own instructions?… He will not concern himself with what previous archivists have treated in a thousand different ways: propositions and phrases. He will ignore both the vertical hierarchy of propositions which are stacked on top of one another, and the horizontal relationship established between phrases in which each seems to respond to another.

– New Archivist, Gilles Deleuze

§1. Archive

We are archivists, since we have to be. We don’t have choice. This decision is already made, or determined by the contemporary technological condition. The ubiquity of information in digital, calculable forms has created a new situation of work and exploitation, we entered an endless process of data production, and then we also enter an endless black hole of data navigation. The internet of data is a huge archive of data and at the same time a enormous black hole that sucks all productivities. Google is the best exemplification of this double: on the one hand, we are contributing data by using the Google tools, emails, blogs, Google+, Hangout, etc; on the other hand, Google gives us searching and managing tools to survive in this milieu. Worse still, Facebook shows another face, a huge archive of data without navigability, the only navigation one can do is to search for your friend, otherwise you need to stroll down the page to find out what you have written years ago.

Under such situation, we must recognize that one of the main economical and political questions concerning the digital is the one of archives. What has happened to the concept of archive after the digital turn? What kind of power structure is present to us in this new setting? Archives for Foucault are traces of enunciations by which one can reconstruct the game of rules (le jeu des régles), that in turn reveal the power structure of its milieu. Archives in this sense are reservoirs of discourses that make possible an archeology of knowledge. In order word, archives are sources of deduction for archeologists. The will of archive further makes archives as a manifestation of power. This will expands in the modern time and set up a direct relation between institutes and archives. Each institution has its archive, has its history of discourses. In order to maintain its status quo of discourses, it needs to give its archive a proper name. As Foucault observes the expansion of museums and libraries in modern time, that attempts “to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes”1. An archive is also a symbol of authenticity and authority. This project of the moderns confronts the biggest challenge in the digital age. On the one hand, public institutions adopting digital strategies also have to develop new form of interaction between archive and audiences, so to speak they are forced to open their archives; on the other hand, within an institutional framework, they continue keeping their archive in a centralized way (even the Michel Foucault Archive) in order to consolidate the status of these institution. Though today when these institutions implement “open polices” or alas crowdsourcing, it is still a strategy of crowd sourcing under the name of humanities or digital humanities to serve its central archives.

In this respect, Google is technically moving far ahead of these organisations, Google book, Goolge Museums are efforts to re-appropriate humanities through digitisation and crowd sourcing. Google doesn’t only provide services with higher qualities and higher speed, but also goes beyond the relation between archives and human subjects. Google’s archives exhibit an important distinction from that of Foucault’s. It is that power is posing its forces directly on archives to achieve control, that is to say archives become a mechanism of control and social actions, instead of being traces of power2. Now we have to face a new game of rules that operates on more and more automatic and algorithmic level. Metadata produced by users become materials of induction, to generate patterns for prediction, rules, protocols of control. Archive stretches from discourses to gestures. It seems to me very clear, today in order to response to this political and economical dimensions of the web, we have to politicize the question of archive. The key seems to be personal archives. It is not simply from a technical consideration that we can then mitigate controls from the service providers or to keep privacy, but rather to rethink our relation with archives and to create another technological/digital culture. In order to do so, I propose to reflect on the following questions: What are we archiving and for what are we archiving? what does it mean to be an archivist? Read the rest of this entry »

Collective Individuation in UnLikeUs Reader

UnLikeUs Reader

A co-authored article with Harry Halpin (W3C) is now available in UnLikeUs Reader – Social Network Monopolies and Their Alternatives, edited by Geert Lovink and Miriam Rasche. You can download our chapter here: Collective Individuation: The Future of The Social Web. This chapter comes out from our research in IRI/Paris.

We are in the epoch of networks. The world is now rapidly being perceived as a vast space of interlocking networks of seemingly infinite variety: biological, productive, cy- bernetic, and – most important of all – social. The image of the network, with its obvi- ous bias towards vision, has become the paradigmatic representation of understand- ing our present technological society as a holistic entity that would otherwise escape our cognitive grasp. Yet no image is ideologically neutral, for the image of the network is also a mediation between the subject and object that inscribes – or pre-programs – a certain conceptual apparatus onto the world, namely that of nodes and links (or in graph-theoretic terms, vertices and edges). This is not without consequences: due to its grasp over our imagination, the network constitutes the horizon of possible inven- tion, as Simondon showed in Imagination et Invention.1 Yet where did the concept of the network itself come from? Despite the hyperbole over the dominance of digital social networks like Facebook, the concept of the quantified social network pre-dates digital social networks, originating from the work of the psychologist Moreno in the late 1930s, and we argue that what the advent of the digital computer has done has primar- ily been the acceleration of the pre-digital conceptual apparatus of networks. Although no one can deny its now global influence, the fundamentally ontological presumptions of the social network have yet to be explored despite its present preponderance. To borrow some terms from Bernard Stiegler, how does the what of Facebook constitute our who?2

1. Gilbert Simondon, Imagination et Invention, Chatou: Editions de la Transparence, 2008.

2. Bernard Stiegler, ‘Who? What? The Invention of the Human’, in Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998, pp. 134-180.

Read more…

You can download the whole book from Lovink’s Institute of Network Culture: UnLikeUs Reader.


The notion of information in Simondon [1]

What exactly is information in the thoughts of Gilbert Simondon? Is it different from what has been understood by Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener? This question seems to be crucial to understand firstly the concepts of transduction, individuation, amplification, disparity etc; secondly the relation between Simondon and cybernetics: is Simondon a cybernetician? But it seems to me that the responses from the commentators of Simondon remain unsatisfactory, firstly there is a misunderstanding of “information” in cybernetics; secondly Simondon tries to distant himself from his fellow cyberneticians, but in fact in his lecture notes and conference papers [60s and 70s] Simondon spoke like a neuroscientist today.

This series of notes attempt to understand the notion of information in Simondon and its relevant implications to address the current technological development. In fact, the misunderstanding of information seems to be normal, because even in cybernetics Shannon and Wiener share two different understandings of ‘information’. It seems that some commentators of Simondon tend to propose such correlation: Cybernetics- form, Simondon- information even though the term information was firstly made known by the cyberneticians. For example in Muriel Combes’s Simondon Individu et collectivité –Pour une philosophie du transindividuel, while explaining Simondon’s critique of hylomorphism Read the rest of this entry »

The Theatre of Engineers – Materialism on an uncanny Stage

The Theatre of Engineers – Materialism on an uncanny Stage, YUK HUI

An invited speech given at the Atelier “Philosophie et Ingénierie”, at Chambery, France, 16 May, 2011. This is also a drafted paper in preparation for publication.

This talk is a reflection on what Tim Berners-Lee calls ‘philosophical engineering’. There are several ways we can discuss about philosophy and engineering. For example, we can talk about the philosophical implication within the discipline engineering, especially how philosophical logic and philosophical understanding of language can be used to build machines, in this sense, philosophy becomes kind of conceptual-engineering, and engineering is necessarily philosophical. We can also work on the question of ethics and technology which is becoming more and more important. We can also have a philosophical reflection on engineering in order to discover a cultural history, and also to reflect on its development. For examples, we can see in the works of Martin Heidegger, Jacques Ellul, Gilbert Simondon, Carl Mitcham etc. But it is surprising to note that there hasn’t been much discussion about engineers, what we can find are only historical materials or biographies of genius engineers, for example Leonardo da Vinci. In most of the philosophical reflections, it seems as if the engineers didn’t exist or do not have a place to act, but only machines and humans. But such carelessness nevertheless ignores that engineers are the one who are building the world, they do it by projecting their own ways of seeing, and hence transformed the way of our seeing. On the one hand we have to ask how can we understand their practice, and engage more with the engineers’ work? On the other hand, the engineers have to reflect on the reality and their way of acting. This paper attempts to tackle this ignored question, and sketch a possible way of interventions. It starts and ends with a reflection on what Tim Berners-Lee calls philosophical engineers:

We are not analyzing a world, we are building it. We are not experimental philosophers, we are philosophical engineers. We declare “this is the protocol”. When people break the protocol, we lament, sue, and so on. But they tend to stick to it because we show that the system has very interesting and useful properties.

This title ‘philosophical engineers’ is probably one of the most dangerous words if we understand it intuitively. Though Berners-Lee proposed this term since physics was once called practical philosophy, so engineering can be related to philosophy as well. But isn’t engineering itself philosophical at the very beginning? This is one of the things I wanted to demonstrate. Also, having the prefix ‘philosophical’ kind of suggests that engineers are now judges of truth, and that makes it dangerous. In fact, we can easily associate Berners-Lee’s statement with Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach. In this famous short text, Marx criticized Feuerbach’s materialism that he only concerns how humans are affected by the world, but forgets that humans are the one who change the world. The criticism is concretized in the last sentence: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’. Marx’s tone is repeated today not by the revolutionaries, but Tim Berners-Lee: engineers build the world, even if you refuses, finally you will have to live with it. But if we didn’t clarify the above questions, the word ‘philosophical engineer’ remains obscure. We may want to ask do these philosophical engineers with Marx’s gesture, miss Feuerbach’s point? This demands a hermeneutics interpretation of the engineering culture, which is always a looking back (après coup) and also a projection (le projet).
Read the rest of this entry »