the excerpts below are work in progress of how to communicate our interest, at the laboratory for applied virtuality, in how to theorize technology. We are searching for a way to overcome the dis-proportionality we perceive today between the actual power and level of abstraction of the technology with which we plan, build, decide and live with, and the capacity of theory to complement the power of this technology with considerations on an equally abstract par. Information technology and electricity are algebraic. At the same time, the capacity of theory to provide a taming and familiarizing framework has gotten stuck, so we belief, in an ideological fight of whether to give primacy to numbers (Pythagoras, principle of harmony) or forms (Plato, eternal forms), arithmetics or geometry, discreteness or continuity, quantity or quality, particular or specific. Yet algebra is symbolic. It is more abstract than either one of them.
We are very sure that with theory and technology being out of proportion, we cannot domesticate our environment in a culturally, politically, socially responsible way. We cannot negotiate questions of feasibility, desireability, realizability, urgency, etc appropriately, because we cannot estimate the potentials adequately. Three examples of how we mean by that: 1) we treat electricity as if it were some sort of campfire, only more powerful. 2) We treat information as if it were a purely quantitative format completely detached from what is captured in its code. 3) We treat the logistical network established on the basis of both, electricity and information, as if it were the instantiation of a model – a very comprehensive model, but nevertheless, a model. The problem is not that these analogies would be “false”. In many respects they give a generally valid, and in that sense reliable, characterization. But they are inadequate for picturing the potentials proper to these technologies. Electricity is, strictly speaking, not even a form of energy, it is the abstraction of any form in particular – i.e. we can transform electricity into heat, fossil fuels or other fuels like food, water, etc. Similarly with information, information is not a form of content (be that “stuff” or “meaning”). Information is the abstraction of any form of content in particular – i.e. we can digitalize any form of “givenness” into information, text, numbers, images, sensorial qualities like sound, smell, or even physical, chemical or biological properties, up to the quantum level or that of genetical engineering. Anything which can be analytically described, and anything which can be registered (analogous), can be captured in digital code and becomes transformable into any other “form of content”. It is clear that with logistical networks, the situation is similar. Their capacities cannot be adequately formalized by arithmetics or geometry. Except if we apply algebraized geometries and calculi – but this is exactly what we lack theoretical concepts for!
We have technical descriptions of vectors, matrices, fields, numerical domains, algebraic integers, rings, categories, tensors etc, but no concepts with which to think in. The logicists working in this direction are very few, and they are much involved in smoothening the “foundational” discussions (intuitionists, formalists, pragmatists) they have to bridge within their own discipline.
So our approach at the laboratory for applied virtuality is more akin to that proper to the mechanists, especially since Lagrange’s and Euler’s algebraic treatment of variables and coordinates in what they called a Calculus of Variations (cf. E.T.Bell “From Mechanics to Generalized Variables” from his book The Development of Mathematics (1945) in the 18th century. Mechanics was considered unsystematic, an art, the systematization of which was indeed one of the main driving forces fueling the exploding advances of algebra in the 19th century (cf. E.T.Bell “From Application to Abstraction” dito).
We are trying to develop a way of theorizing technology today like the mechanists did it then. At their time they were also the people most interested in the new levels of abstraction brought about by analytical number theory. They could see their potentials, they had ideas about what these advances can mean – and the desire to explore in order to settle these abstractions (not the other way around, attempting to settle them first within the familiar). While other intellectuals were making the involvement of “fictitious” entities like infinitesimals, Gaussian Integers, imaginary quantities etc a question of principles, it was the committed idiosyncrasy of the mechanists who helped to provide the empirical grounds for subsequent systematization by people like deMorgan, Hamilton, Cayley, Boole, Gauss, Dirichlet, Grassmann, Riemann, Dedekind, Cantor, Hilbert, Whitehead. There is a peculiar attitude characteristic for the artistic mechanists: the were very serious about, and consistent in their explorations (relatively speaking), while at the same time they knew how to maintain an “immune system” protecting the consistencies they worked with by making them tolerant enough to accommodate uncertainties, vagueness, indeterminateness. This we admire a lot and we think it is crucial for learning how to think in new levels of abstraction.
This way we are theorizing technology, and its rôle for thinking, as intellectuals, as architects, as urbanists, as designers, as information scientiests, does not fit properly within any one of the disciplinary ways of how this is currently practiced. While it draws a lot from most of those discourses, its main aim is to encourage individual persons to engage with it in the gesture of an affirmative self-capacitation. It is Bildung, education on a personal, not a disciplinary scale, where we find the importance of theorizing technology today – as a complement to whatever practice, whoever might be engaged in. We want to theorize technology as a means to develop one‘s own stance, in contemporary world, in an aware, critical, interested, curious, but also powerful way that has always distinguished intellectuals from bureaucrats – regardless of their particular activisms.
While in antiquity, during the classical inception of philosophy and science, the sorting out of the interrelations between ars and techné was among the major concerns, the rôle of technics for learning and for aquiring knowledge has only relatively recently, throughout the 19th century, returned as a key topos to be theorized in its own right. The rather recently coined neologisms of technoscience and technoculture indicate how inextricably intertwinded formerly distinct spheres and practices have meanwhile become. Today, technology is pervasive to any cultural, political, economical and scientific field of contemporary life, and accordingly diverse are the approaches to theorize it.
In the discursive formations of where we find orientation for how to theorize technology today, especially three figures stand out from my point of view:
Michel Serres has given an important lecture on the 40th anniversary of INRA, einer Organisation die sich der Forschung im Bereich Sciences et Technologies du Numérique widmet. Here is an English translation of his speech (work in progress – any correction and comment is highly welcome).
Peter Sloterdijk is raising the attention of both an academic and an popular audience to the challenges and developments of technics in the” latest chapter” of humanization. Here a lecture entitled “Optimierung des Menschen?” (Optimization of the Human?) (English translations are forthcoming). Cf. also my (draft) article: “Peter Sloterdijk’s phantastic philosophy – taking the concept of the differential as a relational measure”, in: Playground. Experiencing Responsibility for Choosing. Edited by Francisco Martínez and Klemen Slabina, Tallinn University Press 2012 (forthcoming)
Another philosopher whose work can hardly be underestimated today, both in the theoretical stances he develops as well as in his temparament and personal gesture as a philosopher who founded the IRI, Institut de Recherche et d‘Innovation, for theorizing the developments and impacts of information science at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (http://www.iri.centrepompidou.fr), and as the initiatior of Ars Industrialis, and international association for what he calls une politique industrielle des technologies de l’esprit (http://www.arsindustrialis.org), and furthermore, as the initiatior of his own philosophy school in the French town of Épineuil-le-Freuriel, France. For a first encounter with his work we would like to recommend an interview entitled Man and Technics, available in two parts on youtube:
Furthermore, let us point you to a short and surprising statement recently published by Slavoj Zizek: Don‘t act, just think, maintains Zizek, the marxist and psychoanalytic theorist, here.