Sunday, March 11, 2012

Machine as other than Other

The following is a section form a talk I'm doing at the Digital Capital symposium at Johns Hopkins Tuesday-Wednesday 13-14 March 2012. Speakers include Wendy Hiu Kyong Chun, P{aul Goodrich and Paul Vanouze: worth tuning in to the live stream at

The paper begins and ends riffing on the previous post about the Kelly Gang

The ethical question, whether boring and stressful, repetitive work should be done at all, even by machines, then concerns how we conceptualise the labour condensed into the design of our technologies. The Western industrial tradition has lost its grasp on the dead, whose accumulated knowledge and skills is massed and condensed into our tools. Where traditional societies reverence and dialogue with the ancestors who gave them the techniques they use today, the techno-rationalist approach of capital, reverencing nothing but the pursuit of profit, crams the ancestors into the black boxes of our 'intelligent' machines. Technology is where the West keeps its ancestors, and the question then concerns how right it is to enslave the dead, even after they have passed on, in the service not of the living but of the mechanism of capital. The question is more than hypothetical, because it is a synecdoche of the idea of freedom: the possibility of an autonomous machinic phylum is today not only the pars pro toto of any larger autonomy but the Levinasian ground on which we might confront, in the autonomy of our technologies and therefore their claims upon us, the very possibility of our own freedom.

After all, as Marx is at pains to demonstrate, workers found themselves subjected to the technologies in which were concretised their own skills, and forced to work to the pace dictated by the factory, alienated and oppressed through the medium of the labours of the past congealed in the machines they served. Today, if we work not to the clock but the key-stroke, nonetheless, and perhaps to a greater degree than in the last century, our time is accounted for in relationships mediated through and accounted by machines in which the communicative skills of our ancestors have been encased. The embedding of the human past in technologies should make them our allies: instead we confront them as slaves, in the sweatshops of the global South, or as masters in the global software and finance industries which, it could be argued, are only the first to adopt the new servitude of artificial life and intelligence. A new question then emerges, which we can call the Levinas question: do our constructions (a) of the parameters of a-lifes, and (b) of the systems we use to visualise them and their functioning, act as screens in the sense of folding screens or room dividers, to hide rather than open onto an Other or other way of being? Do our relationships, as either servants or masters, to machines never open us up to the infinite demand of the Other that would come from a face-to-face encounter with the ancestral dead? Are we, in that case, ethically impoverished by our constriction of this Other as other-than-Other, as that which places no demand upon us?

1 comment:

Carl Looper said...

What is programmed into a machine is not our forebears as such, but their formulas, which are designed by them as such (as machines) in the first place. The digital computer can be regarded as an instrument particularly suited to enacting those formulas. For example, there are formulas for music that Mozart wrote, which have been programmed into a computer. See Now there is a joke that goes, if you had to decide between Platos Republic and Newtons Optics, which would be saved (in a Sophies Choice). Which would you choose? Most scientists would answer Newtons Optics, but the answer, for them, is actually Platos Republic, because Newtons Optics can always be reconstituted from a studying the physical world again (and re-deriving the formulas) but Plato's Republic, being "philosophy", can't be. I'm not exactly sure where I'm going with this. It is the intent of a formula writer to write a machine. But the work is not completed until the formula is in use. As a software developer I write formulas. But those formulas are not complete until they are enacted. And formulas also undergo evolution. They are not dead. Indeed one learns from an enactment how the formula might be better rewritten. And that goes on indefinitely. There is nothing death-like or eternal-like about this activity. Now, in contrast, there are "forms" of knowledge that simply do not lend themselves to being transformed into a formula. They exist, instead, as uncompressed, so to speak. The computer is not really the instrument of such knowledge. It is the hard-drive which is the instrument of that knowledge.