March 2011


Three of the central claims of my onticology are 1) that objects are always composed of other objects, 2) that objects exist at all levels of scale, and 3) that objects are negentropic in that they both resist dissolution and perpetually face the problem of dissolution or entropy. I draw the first two claims from Graham’s thought. The second claim is the thesis that corporations such as the Coca Cola corporation, for example, are no less objects than quarks, acorns, or stars, and that electrons are no less objects than rocks. These claims commit me to the thesis that objects are emergent or self-organizing. If it is true that objects are always composed of other objects, then it follows that I need some account of self-organization or emergence that allows us to think the transition from a mere aggregate, to a genuine object. This boundary, of course, will be fuzzy (all of the paradoxes that the Greeks encountered surrounding questions of when a pile becomes a hill will arise because there will be, drawing on Husserl’s concept, fuzzy essences).

Questions of self-organization, in their turn, will be deeply related to questions of entropy because the formation of an object will refer to the emergence of order in the world. It will be recalled that entropy is a measure of probability. The more probable it is that a particle (or other object) is located in any particular place in, for example, a chamber, the higher the degree of entropy a system possesses. The less probable it is that particles will be found in a particular place in the chamber, the lower the entropy of the system. The video below provides a nice visual illustration of entropy:

As time passes the entropy of the system increases because it become equally probable that particles of the system will be located at any particular place in the chamber. In other words, there’s a high probability that the particles will be located at any particular place in the chamber.

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The other day my friend Carl– a very talented rhetorician –drew my attention to an article on NPR describing “gamification” as a new social technology. As Gabe Zichermann, one of the pioneers of gamification describes this social technology,

Gamification “is the process of using game thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems”

One of these techniques is currently being experimented with in Sweden with respect to speeding. Using cameras to monitor drivers, this technique places people who drive at or under the speed limit in a lottery. If their name is chosen, they then win the money that drivers who speed have had to pay into the system. Gamification thus strives to regulate human behavior by turning it into a game. Rather than merely disciplining people or regulating their behavior through the threat of negative sanctions, people are here motivated to engage in certain sorts of behavior through the transformation of this behavior into a type of competition.

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Someone just tried to link to my blog from a post that asked the following (I won’t link back):

Why is big business considered evil by the left but big government is considered wonderful?

Big business produces a product, creates job and creates wealth. Big government creates large inefficient agencies, gobbles up wealth, creates waste and is corrupt. Big business needs to be watched and when found corrupt the corrupt need to go to jail. Small business is just as corrupt as big business. It just doesn’t make the national news.

So why is big business demonized by the left but big government loved? Our founding fathers didn’t trust government at all so why does the left love it?

I’m often amazed by the things that grown adults believe, finding myself exclaiming “really? you believe that?”, and this would be a perfect example of such an instance. First, the argument is clearly a straw man. No one, as far as I can tell, likes inefficient, wasteful, and corrupt government; so I’ll set this false dilemma aside. Second, government doesn’t “gobble up wealth”, but devours concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few, preventing the formation of oligarchies, plutocracies, and the rise of fascisms (did any of you guys notice that fascism arose in times of tremendous economic turmoil produced as a result of unregulated markets like we witness today?). The real jaw dropper is this person’s proposals about the benefits of big business: Big business creates products, jobs, and wealth. How can anyone who has watched the last fifty plus years of deregulation believe this? What fantasy world are they living in? Under deregulation we’ve seen the massive disappearance of jobs as they’re shipped elsewhere where production is far cheaper (meaning that it is of little help to either the people who take over those jobs nor, obviously, to those that lose them). In the United States we have seen massive wage stagnation for decades. We have also seen a significant growth in unemployment. We have also seen a massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Finally, we have witnessed recurrent unstable markets that endlessly go through boom and bust cycles. All of these phenomena are a direct consequence of “pro-business” policies premised on the idea of trickle down economics where it is assumed that deregulation, lower taxes, etc., will produce jobs and wealth for all. The exact opposite is true. How anyone can continue to believe this nonsense is beyond me. I can only conclude that people who believe such things are either a) monumentally stupid and uninformed, b) evil and lying about the truth to promote their own self-interest, or c) possessed of a head so far up their ass as a result of being filled by ideology that they can’t see the true national and international result of these policies (hey guys, have you noticed these austerity measures across the world lately? did you wonder if that had something to do with tax cuts and failing markets?). I guess there’s a fourth possibility: The people who believe such things are actually doing well and thereby say, as Joseph Goodson might put it, “I got mine suckas, the rest of you can go to hell!” We don’t “hate” big business but merely want justice and equity. A good place to start, for example, would be to enact an international law where workers have 50% voting power in hiring and firing decisions decisions for management and CEO’s and where all raises for management and CEO’s also involve worker votes. Such voting rights would similarly include votes over whether to outsource, close down factories, etc., etc., etc. A new “Rights of Man” needs to be written that includes such capital rights and also ecological rights. Oh, and for all you Americans that believe you’re going to be million or billionaires one of these days, your chances of breaking out of the income bracket you were born into are probably about 2% (I can hear folks saying right now “I like those odds!” *Forehead slap*). Maybe you should start making political decisions that enhance your possibilities of mobility, opportunity, and that benefit you within your economic bracket: Yanno, support good education that creates opportunity for your kids, support policies that enhance your bargaining rights with your employers and increase your security, support better services, and support higher taxes for the wealthiest segment of the population (that disproportionately benefits from government welfare and which is a greater drain on the environment) so as to fund these things. Stop thinking in terms of your future, fictional, billionaire self.

A lot of exciting discussions have been unfolding around the blogosphere of late. In his usual role as the Dark Horse, Pirate, Philip K. Dick theorist of digital humanities (i.e., the theorist that critically resists the sometimes effusive optimism found in digital humanities), Ian Bogost has an outstanding post up raising questions about the limitations of blogging and how we should conceive philosophy in a digital world. Alex Reid has a terrific follow up expanding on these questions, as does Adam Robberts. Morton has a nice post up providing a primer for OOO (though I’m miffed he didn’t list “The Ontic Principle” in The Speculative Turn… It’s free online yanno!).

Graham has a nice post up on his differences from Heidegger as well as what he owes Heidegger, that also discusses Badiou. He also weighs in on the blogging discussion. Over at Algorithm and Contingency, Robert Jackson also jumps in on the blogging discussion. Paul Ennis’s book What is Speculative Realism? has now been released. I eagerly look forward to reading it. Steven Shaviro’s interview is now up over at New Apps. There is also Eileen Joy’s talk where she argues that texts are sentient objects. Finally, elsewhere, Craig of Dark Chemistry has written some wonderful posts on Luhmann, riffing on some of my recent posts and Ian Bogost’s unit operations.

Faced with all these vibrant (and verdant?) discussions– and I’m sure I’m missing a lot –the cybernetician in me is inclined to say that it’s thinking. If you want to get a sense of what this might mean, read this post and the books it references. Graham has spawned a monster and it’s alive!

Eileen Joy’s talk for the “Animal, Mineral, Vegetable” conference is now posted. I haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet (hopefully this weekend if my Little Bean, Lizzie the four year-old, permits), but I’m especially intrigued by her concept of “texts as sentient objects”. Here it seems that she goes one further than me. Where I argue that texts aren’t simply about something, but also are something (and are therefore objects), Joy argues that they’re sentient objects. You had me at hello! As an aside, why are animals, minerals, and vegetables suddenly all the rage in Medieval studies? Eleanor Kaufman has recently been doing all sorts of fascinating stuff with Medieval thought as well and at the last talk I heard by her (the UCLA “Hello Everything!” symposium) she spoke a great deal about these things as well.

H/T to Melanie Doherty for turning me on to this book (her judgment never steers me wrong). If you haven’t come across it already, go out and get yourself a copy of John Johnston’s Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI immediately. This is quite simply the most exciting book I’ve read in recent memory and one I wish I’d come across when I was writing The Democracy of Objects (certain aspects of Johnston’s book are what I wish I’d written). I consider my version of object-oriented ontology “cybernetic-OOO”. That is, I conceive my objects as cybernetic machines in a continuous interplay with their environment. For those of you not familiar with cybernetics– and I’m always amazed that people aren’t screaming cybernetics from rooftops everywhere –wikipedia gives a somewhat accurate definition of what it’s all about:

The term cybernetics stems from the Greek κυβερνήτης (kybernētēs, steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder — the same root as government). Cybernetics is a broad field of study, but the essential goal of cybernetics is to understand and define the functions and processes of systems that have goals and that participate in circular, causal chains that move from action to sensing to comparison with desired goal, and again to action. Studies in cybernetics provide a means for examining the design and function of any system, including social systems such as business management and organizational learning, including for the purpose of making them more efficient and effective.

Cybernetics was defined by Norbert Wiener, in his book of that title, as the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine. Stafford Beer called it the science of effective organization and Gordon Pask extended it to include information flows “in all media” from stars to brains. It includes the study of feedback, black boxes and derived concepts such as communication and control in living organisms, machines and organizations including self-organization. Its focus is how anything (digital, mechanical or biological) processes information, reacts to information, and changes or can be changed to better accomplish the first two tasks. A more philosophical definition, suggested in 1956 by Louis Couffignal, one of the pioneers of cybernetics, characterizes cybernetics as “the art of ensuring the efficacy of action”. The most recent definition has been proposed by Louis Kauffman, President of the American Society for Cybernetics, “Cybernetics is the study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves”.

Concepts studied by cyberneticists (or, as some prefer, cyberneticians) include, but are not limited to: learning, cognition, adaption, social control, emergence, communication, efficiency, efficacy and interconnectivity. These concepts are studied by other subjects such as engineering and biology, but in cybernetics these are removed from the context of the individual organism or device.

Other fields of study which have influenced or been influenced by cybernetics include game theory; system theory (a mathematical counterpart to cybernetics); psychology, especially neuropsychology, behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology; philosophy; anthropology; and even theology, telematic art, and architecture.

There’s a lot more to the wiki, so read the rest of the article here if you’re curious. Principia Cybernetica Web is also an excellent resource.

John Johnston’s rich and beautifully written book gives an excellent discussion of the basic concepts of cybernetics, it’s history, the basic concepts of information theory, and an analysis of how these concepts have evolved in fields like artificial life, artificial intelligence, as well as their importance for social and political theory, as well as psychoanalysis. Along the way he has amazing discussions of Lacanian psychoanalysis and the machinic life of Deleuze and Guattari. From the back of the book:

In The Allure of Machinic Life, John Johnston examines new forms of nascent life that emerge through technical interactions within human-constructed environments—”machinic life”—in the sciences of cybernetics, artificial life, and artificial intelligence. With the development of such research initiatives as the evolution of digital organisms, computer immune systems, artificial protocells, evolutionary robotics, and swarm systems, Johnston argues, machinic life has achieved a complexity and autonomy worthy of study in its own right.

Drawing on the publications of scientists as well as a range of work in contemporary philosophy and cultural theory, but always with the primary focus on the “objects at hand”—the machines, programs, and processes that constitute machinic life—Johnston shows how they come about, how they operate, and how they are already changing. This understanding is a necessary first step, he further argues, that must precede speculation about the meaning and cultural implications of these new forms of life.

Developing the concept of the “computational assemblage” (a machine and its associated discourse) as a framework to identify both resemblances and differences in form and function, Johnston offers a conceptual history of each of the three sciences. He considers the new theory of machines proposed by cybernetics from several perspectives, including Lacanian psychoanalysis and “machinic philosophy.” He examines the history of the new science of artificial life and its relation to theories of evolution, emergence, and complex adaptive systems (as illustrated by a series of experiments carried out on various software platforms). He describes the history of artificial intelligence as a series of unfolding conceptual conflicts—decodings and recodings—leading to a “new AI” that is strongly influenced by artificial life. Finally, in examining the role played by neuroscience in several contemporary research initiatives, he shows how further success in the building of intelligent machines will most likely result from progress in our understanding of how the human brain actually works.

The book, however, is so much more than what this blurb suggests. I would also recommend reading this alongside Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. I am not ordinarily one to gush, but as someone whose thought has been deeply influenced by cybernetics and systems theory for over ten years I genuinely believe that it is no exaggeration to say that cybernetics and systems theory changes your understanding of just about everything. Johnston’s book is a tremendous contribution to this tradition and deserves wide readership and discussion.

Graham has a disturbing statistic up, stating that The top 400 families control as much wealth as the bottom 60%. Here are a few other disturbing statistics:

The wealthiest 5% of Americans control 72% of America’s financial wealth.  The bottom 80% control only 7% of the nation’s financial wealth.  The richest 400 Americans have more combined wealth than the poorer HALF of all Americans.  That means 400 people have more wealth than 150,000,000 people combined.  American corporations saw record profits in 2010.  Nearly 80% of all economic gains made in the past thirty years have gone to the richest 1%.  In the 1970s, the average CEO made 30 times what an hourly worker made.  Today, a CEO makes 300 times what an hourly worker makes.

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