Algorithmic Catastrophe – the Revenge of Contingency

Parrhesia – a journal of critical philosophy, no. 23, pp. 122-143

This article introduces the question of algorithmic catastrophe by reinterpreting Paul Virilio’s concept of the original accident. Virilio finds Aristotle’s conflation of the double meaning of accident—as 1) predicate of substance and 2) contingent event—to be fully realized in the time of technological catastrophe. Departing from Virilio, this article goes further in distinguishing the contingency of the “second nature” (a natural-technological organic structure, illustrated in the Fukushima catastrophe) from the contingency of the laws of nature elaborated by Émile Boutroux. The second nature results from the constant exteriorization of reason in its effort to overcome contingency—something already proposed in Plato’s Protagoras, where reason was the measure for preventing the arrival of contingency (τὐχη, also meaning “luck”) in his anti-tragic theater. After Plato, Aristotle distinguishes between τὐχη and τὸ αὐτόματον as two forms of chance in the Physics; however, today we can observe that the automaton as automation is creating a new form of tuché or contingency, leading to the algorithmic catastrophe. These catastrophes are demonstrated by the “flash crash” of the financial market, the design principle of Amazon’s cloud computing (“everything fails”), and indeed were already warned about by Norbert Wiener in 1960 and more recently by Stephen Hawking in his commentary on AI. The article concludes by suggesting a way to understand the speculative aesthetics of algorithmic catastrophes through a reading of Quentin Meillassoux’s absolutization of contingency.

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