Tag: particularity


Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism

June 20th, 2019 — 8:34pm

Earlier this year I read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and was strongly affected by it. It’s always hard to judge how new works will age, but I found her narrative a poignant comment on the last few decades of the information society: a society that evolved quite differently from what many expected from the early days of the Internet. I’m willing to guess that this book will remain relevant for a long time as a snapshot of the direction that society has taken in our present time. Morozov has analysed the book in more detail than I am capable of. Here I will try to relate some of Zuboff’s points to the ideas I have developed on this blog. Unlike Fleischer (Swedish) I feel that the length of this book is justified.

I’m not categorically against capitalism (yet), but I do believe that capitalism can take problematic forms and sustain negative processes in society. Zuboff argues that what our contemporary social/behavioural data-driven internet giants represent is nothing less than a genuinely new form of capitalism that is essentially dependent on the need to observe and predict (ultimately, influence) increasingly minute forms of human behaviour. All those accidental data leaks from mobile apps, etc., are not accidental. She draws liberally on Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism) to make her case. There’s ample room to draw on Heidegger (enframing/gestellung), but for some reason, Zuboff chooses not to go there.

Humans wish to live in freedom (we usually agree) and perhaps do live in freedom. But what is this freedom? One definition would be that free actions do not have a calculable cause, need not be rational. In a certain way, freedom is the freedom to be arbitrary, to be irrational. This might not mean that causes do not exist, but it may mean that the right to conceal causes is important.

But from a systems point of view, entirely free, as in unconstrained, humans (in a vacuum, or a blank space devoid of meaningful relations or objects, etc) are not free. Probably, we feel most free when we are constrained to the appropriate degree: we need a floor to stand on, momentum to move with, fixed points to brace against… if the constraints are appropriate and partial in this way, then we develop a style of behaviour. In theory, we can imagine a situation where humans are so constrained that they can hardly make any choices from one moment to the next. Exploiting the gap between on one hand totally constrained and specified behaviour, and on the other hand the moderate constraints of an “appropriate” situation in the above sense, a situation with slack, we are free to play, to endow our actions with style, to perform. Perhaps this is one useful notion of freedom. Behavioural markets, then, purchase the right to choose our behavioural styles for us, to invisibly constrain us and introduce more friction. Perhaps they convert the slack into profit, perhaps they transfer it to other actors using money as a conduit. (Of course, we may think of the ability to endow one’s own actions with style in such a constraint gap as the flow of particularity.)

Why is human freedom still a scary notion to us, individually and collectively? Many consumers and techno-optimists would happily trust the voice of the algorithms rather than personally make choices. Many rush to record and give away vast quantities of data. Various forms of private and governmental surveillance combine in ways probably unimaginable to most who participate in it. Which unconscious drives are at work here? What do we hope to gain as a society? Can the internet, software, and modern electronics not be applied to nobler ends?

Comment » | Philosophy, Uncategorized

Photography

September 6th, 2018 — 3:02pm

One of my recent interests has been film photography. Of course, I was interested in exploring the difference between digital and analog technology, and having taken more than my share of smartphone pictures in my life, I was ready to jump to the opposite end of the spectrum. It also helps that Japan has an excellent second-hand market for vintage cameras and lenses. Some manual focus lenses made here in the 1970s and 1980s are still considered excellent performers with today’s latest “mirrorless” digital cameras.

I have been surprised by the richness of this activity. Film photography forces a higher level of consciousness than the easy point and click photography of smartphones, which must now be almost as automatic as breathing for many. With film, it is necessary to compose the shot, consider, and then wait for the result. Of course, there will be no previews until the film has been processed. Not only am I forced to think more about the shots, I’m also forced to consider what photography is, becoming aware of myself as someone who observes and records.

Susan Sontag has argued clearly enough that photography is not objective truth. Unless some kind of scientific attitude is applied, there is too much framing, selection and cherry-picking. But photography is maybe the art form that most convincingly makes the claim to being objective truth. A phenomenology of photography, the taking of photos and their viewing, would be something rich and complex. For me as a photographer, photography is almost a pure exploration of the psyche and of my own reaction to subjects. Other people viewing my photographs would, I expect, usually discover a completely different meaning than the one I have already attached to them.

Truth and meaning-considerations aside, impressions of the physical world are on some level captured in photographs, digital as well as analog. Photography exemplifies several ways of relating to particularity through instruments and attitudes. Digital photography imposes a final alphabet and ground level of measurements, and a digital image is thus effectively a number in a very large integer space. Film photography impresses the image upon silver halide crystals, which are not homogenous, not square-shaped, and whose physical properties may or may not have been fully elucidated. In some sense the ground of film photography may be said to be open in a way that digital photography is not. For all that, of course, in 2018 digital photography may be the quickest and most practical way to get sharp and high quality images, by most people’s common sense standards. But it is hard to suppress the feeling that something must be lacking there, that we tend to make the leap too easily and quickly.

Comment » | Life, Philosophy

Action, traces and perception

August 25th, 2017 — 11:21am

A sketch of the ways that concepts allow us to make sense of traces of action in the world (or simply of processes, if we do not wish to posit an actor).

Actions (or processes) leave traces. Traces of such processes include beings, such as houses, roads, animals and plants, and also non-beings, some of which may be potential beings, for example new species or scientific phenomena to be named in the future.

The intelligibility of traces depends on having access to meaningful concepts, such as the concept of an oak or an owl. Not only must we have developed the relevant concept in ourselves and become sufficiently familiar with it, but it must also present itself at the right time when we encounter pre-conceptual oak-indications or owl-indications (or traces of an oak-making process). Some doubt as to whether the traces are of an oak or of a different tree is allowed at first, but not later as the learner becomes more experienced in the world of trees.

What presents itself is not merely an instance of the concept “oak” but also qualities of the oak. It may be towering, withered, majestic or small. Weather conditions and parasites may have left all kinds of marks that interleave themselves with the basic impression. The oak’s particularity is inexhaustible. “I saw an oak” is in no way a complete account of what was seen. Indeed the task of seeing the oak itself may be time-consuming and difficult if taken seriously. A world where all oaks were merely pure instances of the oak concept would be a completely meaningless one.

If what is perceived is man-made, then it will be the perception of a process that contains in part a sequence of actions carried out by humans (but necessarily has its ultimate origin in a non-human process). Here the additional dimension of intent may be added to the act of perception. Through our understanding of ourselves and of our culture, we may be able to work out what was created and why, and for what purpose. The case of a neighbour redecorating their garden is comparable in quality to that of encountering a foreign culture and trying to understand its religious ceremonies and objects. In a time of conflict, we may look at the object as a source of potential hostility or friendliness.

Man-made objects will be the easiest ones to imitate since intent and human actions may be extracted from the traces. Seeing a man-made object will in many cases allow someone with sufficient pre-existing skill to create a similar object. Natural processes are considerably harder. We are as yet unable to manufacture oaks or owls from scratch (not the same as sowing an acorn or hatching an egg). Laboratories, biomedical and otherwise, are constantly at work translating the processes of nature into sequences of human actions (e.g. molecular cloning protocols). Thus science works by expanding the space of what is, or can be, man-made.

 

 

 

Comment » | Philosophy

Synthesis is appropriation

December 11th, 2016 — 5:58pm

In contemporary society, we make use of the notion that things may be synthetic. Thus we may speak of synthetic biology, “synthesizers” (synthetic sound), synthetic textile etc. Such things are supposed to be artificial and not come from “nature”.

However, the Greek root of the word synthesis actually seems to refer to the conjoining of pre-existing things, rather than something being purely man-made. But what does it mean to be purely man-made?

Furniture, bricks, bottles, roads and bread are all made in some sense; they are the result of human methods, tools and craft applied to some substrate. But they do not ever lose the character of the original substrate, and usually this is the point – we would like to see the veins of wood in fine furniture, and when we eat bread, we would like to ingest the energy, minerals and other substances that are accumulated in grains of wheat.

Products like liquid nitrogen or pure chlorine, created in laboratories, are perhaps the ones most readily called “synthetic”, or the ones that most readily would form the basis for something synthetic.  This owing to their apparent lack of specific character/particularity, such as the veins of wood or the minerals in wheat. On the other hand, it is apparent that they possess such non-character only from the point of reference of atoms as the lowest level. If we take into consideration ideas from string theory or quantum mechanics, most likely the bottom level shifts and the pure chlorine no longer seems so homogenous.

Accordingly, if we follow this line of thought to the end, as long as we have not established the bottom or ground level of nature – and it is questionable if we ever shall – all manufacture, all making and synthesis, is only a rearrangement of pre-existing specificity. Our crafts leave traces in the world, such as objects with specific properties, but do not ever bring something into existence from nothing.

Synthesis is appropriation: making is taking.

Comment » | Bioinformatics, Philosophy

Method and object. Horizons for technological biology

March 22nd, 2016 — 10:32pm

(This post is an attempt at elaborating the ideas I outlined in my talk at Bio-pitch in February.)

The academic and investigative relationship to biology – our discourse about biology – is becoming increasingly technological. In fields such as bioinformatics and computational biology, the technological/instrumental relationship to nature is always at work, constructing deterministic models of phenomena. By using these models, we may repeatedly extract predictable results from nature. An example would be a cause-effect relationship like: exposing a cell to heat causes “heat shock proteins” to be transcribed and translated.

The implicit understanding in all of these cases is that nature can be turned into engineering. Total success, in this understanding, would amount to one or both of the following:

  1. Replacement/imitation as success. If we can replace the phenomena under study by its model (concretely, a machine or a simulation), we have achieved success.
  2. Control as success. If we can consistently place the phenomena under study in verifiable, fully defined states, we have achieved success. (Note that this ideal implies that we also possess perfect powers of observation, down to a hypothetical “lowest level”).

These implicitly held ideals are not problematic as long as we acknowledge that they are mere ideals. They are very well suited as horizons for these fields to work under, since they stimulate the further development of scientific results. But if we forget that they are ideals and begin to think that they really can become realities, or if we prematurely think that biology really must be like engineering, we might be in trouble. Such a belief conflates the object of study with our relatedness to that object. It misunderstands the role of the equipment-based relationship. The model – and associated machines, software, formulae. et cetera – is equipment that constitutes our relatedness to the phenomena. It cannot be the phenomena themselves.

Closely related to the ideals of replacement and control is the widespread application of abstraction and equality in engineering-like fields (and their application to new fields that are presently being clad in the trappings of engineering, such as biology). Abstraction and equality – – the notion that two entities, instances, moments, etc., are in some way the same – allow us to introduce an algebra, to reason in the general and not in specifics. And this is of course what computers do. It also means that two sequences of actions (laboratory protocols for example), although they are different sequences, or the same sequence but at different instances in time, can lead to the same result. Just as 3+1 and 2+2 both “equal” 4. In other words, history becomes irrelevant, the specific path taken no longer means very much. But it is not clear that this can ever truly be the case outside of an algebra, and that is what risks being forgotten.

We might call all this the emergence of technological biology, or technological nature, the conquest of biology by λόγος, et cetera. The principal danger seems to be the conflation of method with object, of abstraction with the specific. And here we see clearly how something apparently simple – studying RNA expression levels in the software package R, for example – opens up the deepest metaphysical abysses. One of the most important tasks right now, then, would be the development of a scientific and technological culture that keeps the benefits of the technological attitude without losing sight of a more basic non-technological relatedness. The path lies open…

Comment » | Bioinformatics, Computer science, Philosophy

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