of the Messag
Pictures: Agata Leszczyńska
Computers may be copying machines, but,
thanks to Aphrodite, we are not.
Friedrich A. Kittler, Universities: Wet, Hard, Soft,
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.
http://csmt.uchicago.edu/kittleruniversities.pdf (access: 16.8.2013)
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  2013 | 76
information or not? How does the substance
of the coin and symbols etched on it relate to
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
Computers are traditionally considered to
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
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
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
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
Machines that can be described by the von
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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-
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-
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
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
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
nicer if it were not held by antiaircraft guns
and arbitrary commands of random messiahs.
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,
by Anna Mirosławska-Olszewska