Felix Stalder on Mon, 4 Jun 2018 16:11:15 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Complexity, epistemology and power in the digital condition

[Today  I was at an internal workshop at the HKW which was about
preparing the opening event of their new 3 year program "The New
Alphabet". These are notes for my introductory input. Not a full linear
text, but close enough to it that it's hopefully still accessible in
this form. Felix]

Complexity, epistemology and power in the digital condition

    • I start from several assumptions

 	1. We – as increasingly global societies – are experiencing a sharp
rise in social complexity
 	2. This is triggered by an explosion of social, biological and
machinic actors that overwhelm established orders.
 	3. This proliferation of agencies is sustained and accelerated by
digital infrastructures.
 	4. There is a close relationship between epistemology – how to create
facts about the world, what can be stated as facts and who can state
them – and power – how to organize the world, what needs to be organized
and who can do it.
 	5. the present is characterized by a crisis of the established
epistemic-political order, let’s call this modern-liberal, and the
emergence of a new one, that is yet to be named.

    • So, these are the assumptions.

    • To give a sense of the stakes of this crisis and the relationship
epistemological and political regime – and because I think the analogy
to the baroque proposed by the HKW can be quite productive – I am
looking at a debate between Thomas Hobbes and  Robert Boyle that took
place around 1660, the year when both the monarchy was restored in the
UK, but also the Royal Society was founded.

    • The debate concerned the question how facts could be asserted.
Boyle – having in mind the new experimental sciences – argued that
observations of individual men, when organized into a community of peers
and bound both by a strict adherence to impersonal methods and limiting
themselves to narrow domain – could agree upon facts in a peaceful
manner. This implied an ethos of disinterestedness and
inter-subjectivity, made all possible by the constructing the domain of
knowledge, nature, to lie outside of society.

    • Hobbes, on the other hand, doubted the idea of disinterestedness.
For him, all activity of men was political and knowledge beyond dispute
could only flow from absolute axioms.  His ideal was Euclidean geometry.

    • Both Boyle and Hobbes were fully aware that their positions had
immediate political applications. The last 30 years, with Civil War and
Republic, has shown that dispute over knowledge could lead to war and
social chaos – making life, as Hobbes had put it, “nasty brutish and
short” – giving questions of how to come to an agreement about facts of
great urgency.

    • Boyle’s notion of communities organized around their own methods
and rules but bounded to limited domains basically created different
scientific disciplines, but more importantly, separated science from
politics and religion. Questions from one domain, he maintained, had no
bearing on those in the other domains.

    • Each would follow its own rules, set by the community of peers,
and not impose them on the others.

    • Thus, in the last consequences – the state, church and science
would be separated, each with its own institutions, procedures to
ascertain facts and settle disputes.

    • This separation into domain allowed to manage the rapidly rising
social complexity in all three domains, driven by the proliferation of
religious sects following the reformation, the new encounters with the
non-European world during the colonization and the increase in social
dynamism through the growth of mercantile capitalism spurred by
primitive accumulation.

    • This settlement – which defined the modern-liberal era – is
breaking down.

    • Hobbes suspicious that knowledge is always political and that
disinterestedness is impossible is back with a vengeance.

    • Why?

    • For one, the increased complexity of society – caused as
mentioned, by the exponential increase in actors that comprise it –
makes the outside position, so crucial to disinterestedness and
inter-subjectivity, impossible. The observer is now inside the problem
and hence has only a partial view. This was the fundamental insight of
second-order cybernetics.

    • More importantly, the problems of the natural sciences no longer
concern the “other” – nature – but ourselves. Almost all scientific
problems now raise the question: how do we want do live? This breaks
down the separation between political and scientific questions.

    • This is not really new. Latour argued that we have never been
modern for 30 years now.

    • But we can also observe the rapid establishment of new ways of
organizing this increased complexity.

    • On a political level, one answer is to add another layer of
governance, namely, protocols. Protocol sets the rules of engagement,
but it does not give order, what to do, it doesn’t even mobilize
desires, telling people what to want. Anything goes, as long as agency
re-affirm the rule of the protocol that creates the conditions of agency
in the first place.

    • The contemporary technical protocols vastly increase the number of
actors that can interact.

    • IPv4,  created in the early 1980s, established space of some 4
billion actors, each identified by a unique number and everything within
that space could, in principle, be addressed and interacted with.

    • They are all used up by now.

    • IPv6 expands this number of several orders of magnitude, in fact
so many, that it’s theoretically possible to address every single atom
on the planet individually.

    • But it’s not just the number of actors that is rising, it’s also
their heterogeneity: people, machines, animals, plants, objects and
dynamic patterns. By putting sensors everywhere, they all can now speak
and the present in this space created by the protocols.

    • Epistemologically, it’s the jump from small data to big data.

    • Big data allows, so the promise, to take in everything, to avoid
reductionist modeling.

    • But data is not knowledge. That is generated through algorithmic
procedures, that run through that data until they find something that
“works”. So, the answers becomes directly related to the question and
the question is one of utility. Because it core issue turn from external
truth to internal use.

    • Both, protocols and machine analysis, promise a new unified space.
The separation of knowledge domains collapses.

    • It’s the same actors that drive both the expansion of protocols as
a way to organize a much higher number of actors,  as well as the new
epistemological procedures, to make sense out of this complexity. But
“making sense” means not to establish truth, but to able to interfere in
it. Not from the outside, but from within.

    • What I’m now interested in is what kind of questions can be
addressed, and by whom, and what kind of knowledge disappear within this
new unified space of planetary protocols and data driven analysis.


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