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  1. 1. The Future of the Messag Mateusz Curyło Pictures: Agata Leszczyńska Computers may be copying machines, but, thanks to Aphrodite, we are not. Friedrich A. Kittler, Universities: Wet, Hard, Soft, and Harder1. We live in singular times. Some philosophers, like Vilém Flusser, call them postmodernist or posthistoric. Flusser stresses the loss of the dominant role of writing in the society and new ways of creating modes of valuation, perception and acting in the world. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman refers to them as ‘liquid modernity’. The category of liquid modernity puts existential uncertainty of our time at the forefront. Paul Crutenz describes our time as a new geological epoch: anthropocene. The anthropocene, in existence for 200 years, is supposed to have an unprecedented impact on people on planet Earth. Robert Pepperell calls our condition ‘posthumanist’. Posthumanism means that humans lose the dominant position in the world. Cyberneticist Norbert Wiener called our times ‘the second industrial revolution’. As a result, man is to compete with machines not only in terms of manual work but also intellectual activity. Bernard Stiegler uses the phrase ‘the age of philosophical engineering’. It is a time when philosophical ideas are implemented in technology. We tend to refer to our time as ‘the information age’ or ‘the age of information revolution’. It just goes to show that we do not know what we are talking about. (access: 16.8.2013) 1 The concept of information is applied in many fields. We use it in the theory of communication, informatics, cybernetics, biology, marketing, knowledge management and cognitive science. And yet we do not understand what information is. There is Shannon’s mathematical theory of information and measuring information. It is the easiest to imagine the bit as a measure of information produced by a single coin toss. A coin toss entails uncertainty. It can be heads or tails. After the coin is tossed, uncertainty decreases: from two options (heads or tails) to one option (for example, tails). In this way one coin toss produces one bit of information. For a series of tosses uncertainty grows exponentially. For two tosses (two bits) there are four options, for three tosses (three bits) there are eight. This way of thinking raises various questions. Does a coin toss really have a potential, or does it have it only due to our lack of knowledge? Does a toss of a counterfeit coin (with two tails) produce autoportret 3 [42] 2013 | 76 ROWNOWAGA_1_UK_cs4-3.indd 76 13-10-30 14:41
  2. 2. re age information or not? How does the substance of the coin and symbols etched on it relate to information? Speaking of information, we call into existence another component of the world, apart from mass and energy. Attempts to solve dilemmas related to information are undertaken by scientists in many fields. When biologist Terrence W. Deacon strives to explain information through the category of absence, presence, intention, reference and difference, he gets confused among the terms used by Derrida. Unfortunately, he lacks the French philosopher’s appeal. The apparently exact definition of information is in fact more confusing than French philosophy. Over half a century has elapsed since Alan Turing invented ‘a universal computing machine’, Claude Shannon published A Mathematical Theory of Communication, and John van Neuman developed and implemented computer architecture. These theories are fundamental for contemporary computers. Mobile phones, tablets, notebooks, giant Google and Facebook servers are all based on Turing’s theory of the universal computing machine, Shannon’s theory of information and the von Neumann architecture. If a computer scientist were asked what a computer is, s/he would probably quote one of the above theories, or another one that was omitted, and would try to explain it. The computer would turn out to be a universal computing machine, a machine transferring symbols or a machine processing information. If we look at a desktop computer, we will see a singular effect. The computer consumes power from a socket or a battery and transforms electricity into heat, light and sound. From a naïve point of view, the computer is a flashing and noise-making heater. Computers are traditionally considered to ROWNOWAGA_1_UK_cs4-3.indd 77 be symbol-processing telescopes which are used to watch those symbols. Look at the computer, and you will see how symbols process themselves. Enter an equation, and you will get a result. Brian Cantwell-Smith discovered the opposite to be true. Symbols and IT theories are telescopes with which we observe computers. Computing machines are analogue heaters in which more or less controllable processes take place. These processes can be described using Turing’s theory of machine, the Lambda calculus and the theory of information. Concrete processes are defined by means of programming languages. Computers do not process information, symbols or programs. Information, symbols and programs are ways to describe how computers work. In fact, we do not know what computers are or what the nature of the computational processes that they perform is. We call our times the information age or the age of computerisation. We do not understand the nature of information and we do not understand the nature of computational processes in the computer. We know, however, that we live at a time of radical change. The extent of the radicality of the transformation is usually described by an analogy to the emergence of writing about four thousand years ago. Writing extended human cognitive capacities, including the capacity to remember, reason and issue orders. Although written records were used in Babylon and Egypt for administrative, religious and economic purposes, it was only Greek culture that made full use of the potential of the new media technology. Phonetic, alphabetical, universal and easy to learn, writing made it possible for personal lyric poetry and philosophy to develop. The alphabet turned gods into concepts. Whimsical gods were replaced by coherent, single, clear, well-defined and cognisable concepts. Writing divided the world into the object and subject of cognition, and fostered the emergence of good and justice. Everything that we traditionally consider the greatest achievement of human spirit, including the concept of the human spirit itself, we owe to the Greek use of writing. The emergence of writing had a tremendous influence on the human condition: mental, including the brain; intellectual, including the emergence of lyric poetry and Platonism; social, including the beginning of history as an accumulation of knowledge which enables historical activity and the notion of linear history; economic, including the possibility to record transactions and debt and universal numerical measure of value. We live in equally radical times. The von Neumann architecture, which builds and explains present-day computers, clarifies and is clarified by old media technologies. Putting it simply, it consists of addresses, buses and data. Commands to read/ write addressed data run along buses. In the discursive von Neumann media system the human being is an address to which the command to write or read flows. In the recurrent structure command data at addresses contains read/write data commands at next addresses. Friedrich Kittler, German media theorist, proposed to simplify the von Neumann architecture and to apply it to previous media systems. Taking McLuhan’s ‘medium is the message’ to extremes, he claimed that there was no software, and technologies were a response to other technologies. Hence, he discarded people, programs and messages from 13-10-30 14:41
  3. 3. the theory of media, leaving sheer hardware and its schemes: hardware making hardware, technology making technology. McLuhan’s ‘medium is the massage’, sometimes translated as ‘medium is the message’, was actually a printing mistake, work of creative incident. Kittler’s view of the human being as a negligible source of error in hardware is both an exact and radical theory of media. The von Neumann architecture is architecture of the army, royal power, Egyptian use of writing, school and watch. The commander issues an oral order addressed to a subordinate, overwriting the command to attack. In the king’s presence, the subordinate awaits the order to read data. The king addresses himself. In ancient Egypt hieroglyphic writing made it possible for central power to develop thoroughly. Writing enabled recording trading transactions by attributing to addresses data in the form of enormous amounts of gold and slaves. The data was stored in trading records addresses. Owing to writing, the possibility to transfer commands over distances and addressing orders, recurrence inherent in the von Neumann architecture, enabled an unprecedented development of hierarchy and specialisation. Workforce mobilisation that was necessary to build was subordinate to the recursive power structure. The biggest megamachine recorded in history, whose message – the Cheops pyramid – has been the best preserved of the seven wonders of the world, was mainly made up of people and Neumann architecture are primitive in comparison to modern machines deliberately built based on the von Neumann architecture. had the von Neumann architecture. School has transferred the von Neumann structure to a place previously occupied by education. A pupil at school is an address recorded as data at the address in the class register. The pupil is addressed by the register. S/he is overwritten during lessons, and during an exam s/he receives the command to read data. Present-day examination forms, often made for assessment procedures, contain addresses and data themselves. Reading the pupil is changed into the yes/no in the examination form addresses. The pupil is quantified into binary-read data, and is thus divided into further addresses, much below the level of the individual number in the register, below the individual examination form number, below the human address. The watch, the analogue predecessor of the smartphone, is probably the first automated personal device turning the human being into a cyborg managed by the von Neumann architecture. The register is the dial, the indicator bus sends the read data command from a given address. The read data command from the given address is addressed to the proud owner of the watch. The ticking of the mechanism makes it possible to determine the policy of sleep, work and free time that is independent of the overwritten biological clock. Machines that can be described by the von ROWNOWAGA_1_UK_cs4-3.indd 78 Norbert Wiener, mathematician and one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, lay the foundations for the construction of digital computers. He was also one of the first persons who pointed out the consequences of changes brought forth by the onset of the computerisation age. Wiener needed computers for a concrete and peculiar, in fact magical, purpose. He wanted to facilitate shooting down a plane in flight. To shoot down a plane, you need to shoot not at where the plane is but where it will be. The bullet will hit the plane in the future. You need to know the plane’s future. The message is a set of discrete or continuous measurements distributed in time. The eardrum measures continuous air vibrations, turning them into discrete neutron launches. I receive the message. I hear the message. Sometimes I know quite quickly what someone wants to say. The message has a past and a future. If I learn the past of the plane, I can, by making statistical calculations, predict its probable future. Who knows the future of the plane reduces the risk of a non-hit so s/he saves time and ammunition. Predicting the future of the message is currently nicely called the Big Data information technology. The big data is stored on big servers. The task of the big data and big servers is to save time and resources by predicting the message. Large-scale savings were first introduced by Wal-Mart. The chain of American supermarkets, known for low wages and an even lower profit margin of contractors, derived its power from information technologies. If we know the cost of transport, labour and components, we can calculate predicted profits of companies with which we are negotiating or 13-10-30 14:41
  4. 4. we might negotiate. We learn the partner’s possible messages. We strengthen our bargaining position. Wal-Mart used the cybernetic design of an antiaircraft gun to shoot down employees’ and contractors’ profits. The Wal-Mart scheme corresponds to the use made of almost all big servers in the world. They deal with predicting messages such as sickness, stock exchange transactions risk or an opportunity to sell a product. Everywhere that a new server is placed, there appear: risk marginalisation and profit margin increase. Everything works as long as we consider computers as information processing systems, and assume that information is free. As long as we believe in magic half-truths. The computer is a heater. If it does not emit thermal energy to the environment, it will melt down. Information costs. Measurements consume energy and someone has to pay for it. Big servers are big heaters, and the big data are big costs. Heaters are put/ located in cool places, and costs of measurements are transferred to the society. We know of examples of the risk of using big servers that led to social disasters. The economic crisis of 2008 took place when transferring risk in the financial system outside big financial servers owners resulted in the overheating of the whole system. Privatisation of the insurance sector combined with the predictions of future incidence rate in the USA resulted in the transferring of the insurance costs of the sickest and poorest to the whole American society. In both cases the system was used to transfer risk outside ROWNOWAGA_1_UK_cs4-3.indd 79 itself. In both cases the system generated or is generating enormous costs for the whole society. Jaron Lanier, American pioneer of computerisation and new media, believes that very similar principles underlie the operation of Google, Facebook and any other media which do not want to balance the costs of data accumulation. Fortunately, or perhaps to our detriment, Google and Facebook have not overheated yet. The problem of free information, potential profits and information processing costs is described in the theoretical tale of Maxwell’s demon. The demon is between two containers of gas, and controls the door between them. As we know from experience, a glass of water will eventually have the same temperature as the surroundings. The two connected containers equalise heat. Maxwell’s demon is a clever fraudster. The temperature depends on the speed of movement of molecules in the container of gas and in the glass of water. The demon observes each molecule passing through the door and opens and shuts it accordingly, storing the warm ones in one container and the cold ones in the other. As a result, the temperatures in both containers are high and low, respectively. It is as if water started to boil in the glass all by itself. Having divided the molecules into warm and cold ones, Maxwell’s demon opens the door and feels draught. He has just created a perpetuum mobile, a source of ever- lasting power. To create a perpetuum mobile, the demon would only need free information. Measurement is never free and always requires energy expenditure. Information processing generates heat. Hence, the demon has to collect energy from the surroundings to function, and excrete energy to compute. Every demon, ultimately, consumes and excretes. It is also the case of the magic derivatives which caused the financial crisis. It is also the case of computerised privatisation of health insurance. It is also any other case when someone claims they have a perpetuum mobile. A perpetuum mobile does not exist, and the society bears the cost. Military data addressing command architecture and belief in future predictions via a perpetuum mobile are two foundations of contemporary information technologies. The von Neumann architecture has greatly developed since the time of ancient Egypt. Man is no longer the final address. Instead, concrete memory cells, libidal energies or behavioural systems are addressed. It so happens in the case of cinema, advertising, the majority of computer games and school leaving examinations. In Egypt economic records made debt and property possible – a record of past and present receivables. Currently, evaluation of the future of the message has made credit possible – debt on account of future profits. The big data technologies are increasingly strong and efficient. We are becoming better and better at predicting the future of the message and getting the future into debt. Even if our technologies do not, or cannot, work, we do not mind. We invest into the new antiaircraft guns technology on a mass scale. We take aim at our own future. 13-10-30 14:41
  5. 5. Combining the von Neumann architecture with the Big Data results in the antiaircraft gun theory situation described already in the 1950s. In the former media systems man was the read or write address. Today it is not people but concrete memory and behavioural units that are read and overwritten. We count digitalised units to communicate - not with them but with their habitus and memory. Advertising does not need to appeal. On Coca-Cola bottles we can find many random names and titles. Masters and Johns. They aim not at an aesthetic effect but at a physical extension of the neuron network capacity related to the brand. Man is deprived of the former place in the media and social system. Man is no longer addressed. Due to increasing automatisation of computing, people who do intellectual work are losing sources of income. Let us forget about invoice clerks and typesetters. The first to go were journalists and musicians, the next will be drivers, teachers and doctors. The numerous class of highly qualified intellectual workers is being replaced by centralised computer systems working in clouds. The middle class is getting impoverished, while power and capital is being accumulated. This poses a threat to the economic and social order. A symptom is the decline of democracy, decrease in budgetary receipts and increase in unemployment rates. This is the source of various terms to refer to our times. Due to an enormous amount of data processed and a change of its evaluation, we call them posthistory and postmod- ROWNOWAGA_1_UK_cs4-3.indd 80 ernism. Due to uncertainty stemming from risk transfer outside central servers, we call them liquid modernity. Due to the energy released and the size of heaters used, we call them the anthropocene. Due to the loss of man’s position as an address in the media environment, we call it posthumanism. Due to the competition between intellectual workers and machines, we call it the second industrial revolution. Due to the belief in antiaircraft guns to shoot down the future and a perpetuum mobile, we call it the information age. Writing served not only to build pyramids. In other cultures there have been some limitations on von Neumann structures and technology. Norbert Wiener jokes that one of them was burning magicians and gadgeteers. It is a cruel joke. Fortunately, there are other solutions than burning people. Jews came out of Egypt and received six hundred and thirteen commandments. Three hundred and sixty-five are negative so the situation is still bleak. Jews clearly separated the part of culture that is liable to the von Neumann copying structure. There exists a distinctive set of carefully copied data in the form of the Sefer Torah. Both the process of its copying and physical properties of the medium are strictly determined. The data in the Sefer Torah is not an abstraction detached from the mode of recording. The addressing structure in the form of the letter layout is largely determined by the Halakha. Any mistake in the data is corrected. Each copy is carefully proofread. According to the Halakha, writing an additional book equals omitting a book. Copying the Sefer Torah has the von Neumann structure. Both the number of addresses and the data overwritten on them must tally with the original message. Oral Halakha is overbuilt on the von Neumann structure of the rewrite data command at addresses. Oral law no longer refers to addresses of the book but to people. It is continuously being created. The media structure of the Jewish tradition is notable for its serious treatment of both the command-copied Sefer Torah and of the position of man in the oral media environment. The Sefer Torah is a read-only memory to be copied and stored. It is non-negotiable and non-overwritable. As a result, it is extremely difficult to introduce dangerous changes to culture. Jews do not accept potential messiahs. Every rabbi is the wisest but none is the only wise one. The only wise one is the Sefer Torah. At the same time, it is treated as a person, since it is a part of culture. It deserves a burial. The burial of the Sefer Torah, paradoxically, emphasises that communication belongs to the living. It emphasises the fact that a living person is the most important part of the media system. The Jewish media system, with its tough, inviolable core and knarls negotiated by the living, is probably the most lasting. In the system with the Sefer Torah there is a central read-only type of memory and a read-write type discussion about it. To violate the read-only memory, one would have to be a messiah. Yet no one is the only wise one. Jews teach us that a lack of trust in messiahs is an alternative to witch burning. It is not technologists, wizards or gadgeteers operat- 13-10-30 14:41
  6. 6. ing locally, on the outskirts of culture, that are dangerous. Danger comes from messiahs who try to change the very core of the social and media system using their authority. Greek culture was also founded on the tension between oral and written elements. However, the foundations of culture – the judiciary and epic poetry – were embedded in oral culture. Easy to use alphabetic writing developed the culture of lyric poetry and philosophy. The von Neumann structure was used for the purpose it serves best: to memorise and copy. Writings by Greek philosophers and scientists were ways to create and store their output. In Phaedrus, one of Plato’s dialogues, we can find the most outstanding example of the Greek use of written word. Phaedrus and Socrates are lying under a sycamore tree. Phaedrus is reading Lysias’ speech. From time to time Socrates asks Phaedrus to go back, or to repeat a passage. He always takes notice of how Lysias manipulates feelings, and how he repeats rather than arguments. Without the memory of writing Socrates would not be able to do so. He would flow with the speech. Phaedrus is a record of one of the moments when critical use of writing was invented. Critical and individualistic use of writing, radically different from the Jewish approach, made it possible for Greek culture to develop dynamically. Paradoxically, it was possible only owing to a strong oral culture. When the new technology supplants the old one, Greece begins to develop. writing destroys the Horoi mortgage stones, relieving Athenians of debt. Athens become free and powerful. Even during Socrates’ life, weakened and increasingly literate Athens codified land trade. Platonic criticism is powerless. Greece was strong as long as the new medium was controlled by the oral tradition. As long as writing was used to a limited extent, both for political aims and in individual creation. The Greek example teaches us that librarians often lose sight. The Chinese adopted other solutions. Zhuangzi derided a crane helping to plough land, and learned writers derided perspective. Everything that released man from daily toil was treated with suspicion. A legend says that Taoist wise men acquired scientific knowledge but did not pass it on. Depriving others of the pleasure and effort of making discoveries spoils the game. The ‘Taoist’ approach is interesting and contrary to ‘good practices’ of interface designs. Effort allows one to understand and grow. A lack of effort causes degeneration of muscles, mind and body. Ancient Taoists teach us to be suspicious of interfaces that promise power without effort. At present we find ourselves in a rather amusing situation. We have messiahs from Google and communities which believe in the coming of Singularity and transferring of minds into the internet. Although it is hard to believe, it is happening. Singularity is the time in history when intelligent computers will create new intelligent computers. People will become dispensable. For some incomprehensible reasons they are to be transferred to the internet as artificial intelligences. DARPA is researching the possibility to extend soldiers’ lives in the social media. Algorhythms would extend a soldier’s life on Facebook trying to copy his behaviour. There exists the University of Singularity founded by Raymond Kurzweil. It deals with science which is to prepare us for a big event. In 2013 Google has revealed its vision of the future. Minds on the internet on Earth which is a copy of Earth stored in data bases. ‘Governments are too focused on democracy and the rule of law,’ says a digital copy of Larry Page, Google’s CEO, ‘we’ve found those things to be distractions’. It can be observed in the case of legislature in Athens. The law written down by Solon begins with a critical assessment of the situation created by the old constitution. A combination of the powers of speech and ROWNOWAGA_1_UK_cs4-3.indd 81 13-10-30 14:41
  7. 7. We ourselves believe in the promise of power achieved effortlessly with ‘good practices’ of interface creation. Interfaces are supposed to represent complicated activities with simple metaphors which will enable the user to rule computers without any knowledge or understanding. What is worse, the young generation is much worse at using computers than the older generations. Brought up on modern interfaces, it does not understand what drivers or catalogues are. Young people are not digital natives. They are blind librarians. At the same time, there is the giant information industry that centralises power and economy. It uses the von Neumann architecture and the antiaircraft gun theory. Messiahs are also blind librarians aiming at themselves. We have lost not only the memory of ‘good practices’ towards technology. We have also lost common sense. Jaron Lanier writes that in our times technologists are crazier than luddites. It is hardly disputable. Various solutions are proposed. The two major ones are: Lanier’s proposition to create a new economy of the internet and Bernard Stiegler’s proposition to allocate 20 % of the GNP to culture. Both are sensible and follow the same idea. It is to make the development of ideas and technology independent of the capitalism of antiaircraft guns. Our legal, economic and social structures are not up to the challenges of new technologies. We are losing balance, wobbling. It refers to both the blinded and those who blind. Even the description of our times proposed at the beginning of this text should be read backwards. For example, if we live in the age of posthumanism, it is not a reason to cheer. It is a challenge to create and secure a new place for man in the new media system. For instance, if history is over, it does not mean that we have no future. It means that the author has died and no god is holding the future of the message in his hand. It would be all the ROWNOWAGA_1_UK_cs4-3.indd 82 nicer if it were not held by antiaircraft guns and arbitrary commands of random messiahs. Afterword In a comment on the margin the Editors asked me to explain my standpoint. What is my proposition? Who should hold the future of the message in hand? The case is open and dubious, so I speak in the first person and in the afterward. Friedrich Kittler, whose theory I overuse here, was a radical fatalist. Despite that fact, he claimed that technology itself was liberating. Ireneusz Kania believes that the Polish nation does not understand tragedy. So I will reply from the depth of national foolishness. Development of technology needs man-hours and enormous financial outlays. There are two kinds of entities which have sufficient capital to hold the future of the message in hand. One of them are international corporations, and the others are states. If they want to survive, states have to notice that technology is not ‘a neutral historical or market force’, but it is part of infrastructure. Someone builds bridges in states, manages borders and collects toll. The first move should be to seek other budgetary receipts than those of labour. There will be less work. A good solution would be electronic state currency with a turnover tax on every transaction. A multiple turnover tax. This tax would generate budgetary receipts in the post-Ford world and would hinder profits deduction. I did not agree with this idea before the ‘invigilation summer’. My view changed while I was writing the article. Another move should be to decide the form of information economy. One solution would be socialism with a civic pension. Another is a kind of Lanier-style internet hypercapitalism. Each instance of data processing in the Big Data would be invoiced and require a micropayment to a data processing account. We would cease to pretend that information is for free. In both cases capital flow would allow new management of man-hours and revival of the middle class. The state and the corporation would cease to be the only entities capable of developing new technology. It would be done by state-supported citizens and hackers or citizens and hackers supporting themselves on new digital economy. Only the second move would result in the emergence of new possibilities of technology development, going beyond investment management and predicting its future. There is yet another step preceding the first step. In favourable conditions it would suffice. It would be to slowly mould civic technological awareness and grassroots investment into socially beneficial technologies. To form good habits and the ethics of technology use. To form a belief that our future is, despite efforts to close it, still open. To become subjects of our own technology, however, we have to understand and accept the way we are its objects. Instead of an answer, I would like to leave the Reader with a feeling of freedom of questioning. Questioning technology which is the open future of our joint message. ----The text is based on the following thinkers’ works: Brian Cantwell-Smith, Zhuangzi, Vilém Flusser, Martin Heidegger, Eric A. Havelock, Harold Innis, John V. A. Finne, Friedrich A. Kittler, Jaron Lanier, Maimonides, Lewis Mumford, Bernard Stiegler, Norbert Wiener. English translation by Anna Mirosławska-Olszewska 13-10-30 14:41