Lecture Notes from Age/ism: The Future of Software and Queering technology

I participated last week at the Age/ism conference , organized by Elise van Mourik  from the Dirty Art Department at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. Elise and her team did a wonderful job with the curatorial work of the program!

I co-lectured a talk about the future of software, together with Alan N. Shapiro.

Silke Briel, aka Franck and Me, made a beautiful animation for us, which visualized the discussed concepts. This was also the first time for me to talk about my project Queering Technology, which is an open and ongoing research and art project. More info can be found here: http://queeringtechnology.net

Here is the summary of the talk, including notes by Alan and me that weren’t mentioned due to the limited time, but which have been most interesting and inspiring to me. Alan concentrated more on cultural codes, and my focus lay in the description of aesthetics, on how aesthetics of the binary comes to materialize in culture, namely in fashion and commodity culture. So this summary presents more technical aspects.

More info on Alan N. Shapiro’s work can be found at his website. He has published many articles on Computer Science 2.0. And I want to mention that we are looking for brave investors for funding. These ideas are not written down for pure entertainment, we would like to put them into practice. So, yes, we want your money to make the world a better place!

 

Animation still

 

Software of the Future, or The Model precedes the Real
An approach to radical object-orientation infused with desire
(Alan N. Shapiro and Anja Wiesinger)

 

Alan:

The argument that I will present today is that, in order to progress further, software development or computer science must begin to concern itself with cultural codes as well as with software codes. Computer science must transform itself into a hybrid engineering and humanities discipline.

Our goal is the further development of computer science, informatics, software development, software code, programming, whatever one wants to call it. Our position is that, paradoxically, computer science will further develop by stopping to be what it has been until now, only a technical discipline. Computer science must become transdisciplinary. What this specifically means is that the concern of computer science will in the future become software codes and cultural codes, instead of only software codes.

Having understood this, we will now have two major focuses in our presentation. First, we will stay within the terminology and concepts of the profession of software developer. We will explain what was the procedural paradigm of programming which dominated in the period from about the 1960s to the 1980s. Then we will explain what is the object-oriented paradigm of programming, which has dominated since about 1990. We will explain what is the shift between the two. We will explain the next paradigm of software that is to come, but still using only the terminology and concepts of software development. We consider the topics of object spaces and the radicalisation of object-orientation for “power to the objects” and autonomous thinking software.

The “science” that we will explain that is the necessary supplement to software development comes from cultural theory. It comes from the French thinker Jean Baudrillard. It is the idea that “the model precedes the real.” It is the science of “the object” that Baudrillard initiated. We are not especially interested in the scholarly exercise of understanding Baudrillard’s positions per se, we are talking about the area of science that Baudrillard initiated and which needs to be developed further.

What is Object-Oriented programming?

Alan N. Shapiro begins with historicizing computer science, which has, over the past 50 years, developed from procedural programming to object-orientation.

Object-orientation, which is less static and linear as compared to procedural programming, has helped code and programming to become more dynamic, hence better in simulating processes of the “real world”. Why is that?

With object-orientation, a different concept, one could say more platonic in nature, was introduced. Instead of having code that had to be rewritten for each iteration of  its usage, software classes and software instances are able (in object-orientation) to globally define objects. This led to the ability to build libraries of software objects (anything can be an object, from a variable to a method). The software classes can be compared to the blueprint idea of an object and the software instance to its actual unique appearance in the “real world”.

Alan:

The instantiated, distributed software object has achieved a state of existence which is finally beyond the logical Cartesian or classical, mathematical physics dualism between the “is” and the “is not” (or even beyond the discriminative categorization of the “this” and the “that” – the modernist, Saussurian, proto-linguistic system of arbitrary, positive differences among phonemes). A given instantiated software object both “is” and “is not” like another short-lived software object instantiated from the same abstract parent classes. The same particular transient software instance both “is” and “is not” like the specification of attributes and operations coded and maintained in each stratified, abstract class from which this software instance gathers its behavior and conjoins its evanescent appearance.

[…]

The software instance, as the basic (de)compositional unit of this new (post)simulative system, enacts data- and context-specific performances of its ancestor classes, at last unifying data and the operations on that data into a single, self-contained entity. Initialized in real time, and in precise circumstances of seduction for each new occurrence, the distributed object coalesces its parameters of existence “on the fly” from coded and maintained, detailing and specifying, (de)constituting parts. Unlike binary bits, which were the elementary particles of earlier, classical computing, these latter-day class layered “elementary particles” are undecidable and non-discrete to the core. The express characteristics conferred on the software object at the moment of its virtual inception include the instance’s attributes, operations, memory state, inter-object messaging or event protocols, and associative and aggregational relationships with other distributed objects. With object-orientation, the problem of code reusability has been rethought in an ingenious and much more pliable way.

What is the radicalization of object-orientation?

 However, with the current object-orientation, we still experience the Cartesian divide of data and code, because writing code is (still) subjected to the programmer and the execution to the program. In the words of Shapiro, there is a Cartesian dichotomy at work, in which data is treated as part of an external world, on which the programmer exercises his rational intelligence.

This lies in the fundamental roots of the computer. I often call the computer a metaphysical machine. According to the philosopher of technology, Hans Blumenberg, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz invented the universal binary number system of zero and one. In his worldview of a finite universe, the 1 represented God. Although a great invention, the strict binary logic of 1 and 0 (something is or is not) leads to reductive logical inferences and deductions, because it assumes the completeness and harmony of a system. But we know since Kurt Gödel and other important mathematicians of the past 200 years, that this doesn’t accurately represent the “real world”.

 According to Alan N. Shapiro, and I agree with him on this (as I also argued in my Masters thesis on Digital Image Archives), the next step is to take software code and software design more seriously in a critical reflection on New Technologies. We need to understand better that social and cultural codes are already designed into software. Software is not a neutral instance. It is programmed by human beings, who inscribe their own values and anxieties into the information design.

As modeled simulations of the “real world” become more complex, there should also be a conscious reflection on the cultural codes that are inscribed into the model (rather than this being unconscious, as it is now). We want to introduce cultural codes to create a next generation of software development that is closer to the “real world”.

The goal is then to, “Make a livelier and more powerful software instance. Change the software instance at its inception, and you will have a New Computer Science. Change the software instance at its inception, and you will have radically pragmatic Artificial Life, not some fanciful pie in the sky. In extant Object-Orientation, the characteristics conferred on the software object at the moment of its inception include the instance’s attributes, operations, memory state, inter-object messaging or event protocols, and associative and aggregational relationships with other distributed objects. In extant Object-Orientation, software instantiation institutes a temporary relationship between an ordered ranking of software classes and the created software object, which is a parameter- and data-specified instance of those determining classes. This is a productive software instance. But the software instance wants to be creative, not just productive. Forget the binary oppositions production/creation, productivity/creativity.” (Alan N. Shapiro)

Binary divisions in Computer Science and Culture

If we break down the wall between the technical and the cultural, we will see how they are not so different after all. In fact, they have one thing in common: they are both binary coded.

Digital technology is constituted by the binary code of one and zero. The consequential binary logic of if and /or if not, of calculation of data that result in either equation or non-equation, essentially something is or is not, some truth is identified or not. That’s why I call the computer a technology of the age of metaphysics. (Heidegger and Derrida first used the term “metaphysics” in this way.)

By the way, see this very interesting post by Alan’s New York friend Tom Moody about the difference between the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce and the semiotics of Jacques Derrida:

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/29/alan-n-shapiros-diary-of-a-young-wikipedian-internet-rant/

It would be much more interesting to create an Internet 2.0 based on the ideas of Peirce (which emphasize meaning and the referent) than a “Derridean” Internet 1.0 (the one that we already have) that is sort of lost in the nihilistic delirium of endless chains (i.e., links) of signifiers and emptied signifieds. It is amazing and incredible that the Brown University semiotics department and luminary academic thinkers like J. David Bolter and George Landow (and, as Tom Moody points out, many art theoreticians) are all over the French thinker Derrida, whereas Peirce was an American, he was the best semiotician of all time, the founder of semiotics, and he has been completely ignored in reflections about semiotics and the Internet. (Alan Shapiro)

Furthermore, the Cartesian mind-body split is constitutive for the rational machine, as I will explain further down. A critical reflection of Computer Science should repeat and apply a critical approach, stemming from feminist theory, which has been very important in the humanities and cultural theory. This includes also a gendered perspective on technology. We will see, in fact, that the binary divide in Computer Science is a gendered one.

Western culture is coded in Hetero-Normativity. There are dichotomies between public and private, mind and body, rationality and emotions, and so on. These binaries are gendered. They exist to remind you of certain notions of what female or male is supposed to be. These notions are socially constructed.

This observation is the stepping stone for a further analysis and practice of queering technology and future software. If we take Baudrillard’s claim seriously that the model precedes the real, this is really to make a bold claim for radically changing the preceding model. It is the model of binary logic that has to change:

We want critical thought, affections, emotional memory and reflection. We want alternate outcomes of calculations, not an equation with an expected outcome. We want software objects which are not to be treated as passive and dead things.

Alan:

The software objects must be in control of themselves, without the programmer. That is then the direct way to autonomous software.

 

Power to the objects

 

Binary Software and the user-computer relationship

Prominent speakers about technology, like Kevin Kelly and James Bridle, have asked this question: What does technology want? But I think that the question is being asked in a wrong way. The formulation of the question remains within the current computing paradigm, which is a determinist and limited logic within data processing.

The way that the question is formulated doesn’t take into account that information design and architecture are only tools for an efficient and rational management of the data that we have produced. We feed this system with data, based on some algorithms, and the outcome is an equation, some reductive truth.

This is something that annoys me also in discussions by non-techies. Computer users, not well informed about information technology, have a single metonym for this: algorithms. Some time ago it replaced binary numbers, which was the placeholder then for new technologies or anything digital. The algorithm serves here as sort of a black box. The sad thing about it is that it leads to a very reactive and passive point of view. One can only react, to whatever Google or other companies of new technologies sell as innovation to us. In fact, they quickly take steps to convert small developments in information technology into monetary gain.

Currently the question is: What does the programmer want? What do the CEOs of a coded product want? But this doesn’t take into account, what I, the user, want. It is almost even impossible to pose the question of what the user wants at all. Only in recent years has the importance of user experience been picked up in software development. But that is also more a practice of ensuring that the user finds the desired information on the interface level. Famous example: Facebook’s Like button and the status update and reply as comment functionality. This is the only way to communicate with friends in my profile.

The reason for this I see as being a fake interaction on two levels, when looking at the relationship of the user with the computer. First, there is a binary divide between the computer and the user. In this interaction, the computer gets to be the bottom (like in sex). It is programmed to function, to work. We command and control the machine in our work. Let’s make a bold claim here: for the transference of our human self-recognition, the desires of technology are suppressed. Second, the user gets to be the bottom in his relationship to the programmer. As explained above, even if the user commands the computer, every possible interaction has been preprogrammed. It is man made. The user is then subjected to the software design, which channels desire by reducing choices.

Simulated systems of objects in the real and the virtual

Alan:

But this real is only the world as the impresarios of simulation would like us to preceive it. Present-day simulators try to make the real coincide with their simulation models. A more subtle analysis reveals the third term of fiction of which Baudrillard will become a staunch proponent. This is the real of seduction. Among the objects of media culture and technology, there exists opportunities for metamorphosis, reversibility, challenge, artifice and symbolic exchange. Just as technologies of the screen and the network have dispersed control, surveillance and micro-power relations to every instant of our daily lives, so fiction – or the gap between a thing and its identity – reappears in scattered shards of lucid intelligence, popping into and out of existence. The authors of these diffused fictions are objects — and they write in tropes of irony, parody and viral defiance.

[…]

The work of the Humanities Informatics Laboratory will inscribe sociology – or rather a quantum physics sociology that is a synthesis of ideas of Jean Baudrillard and Robert K. Merton – into the heart of Computer Science. Software in the prevailing object-oriented paradigm is all about objects and their instantiation from blueprint software classes. But these objects are understood as simulating processes and phenomena in the world which is assumed to be “real.” Baudrillard’s first book, published in 1968, is also about objects. It is called The System of Objects. Baudrillard studied the “directly experienced psychological and sociological reality of objects.” This quantum physics sociology describes a world of aleatory and wily objects. We need to upgrade object-oriented software development’s alleged “simulation of real” objects into the creation of radically uncertain objects, taking into account the twentieth-century sciences of quantum physics, relativity, and chaos/complexity theory. Baudrillard’s quantum physics sociology stands in the same relation to classical sociological reality that our New Computer Science stands in relation to the current object-oriented paradigm. Classical sociologists assume a world of docile objects waiting to be “objectively” investigated, a social world strictly rationally ordered by the exclusively rational subject of social science who is in control. Baudrillardian sociology considers stranger objects in an unmasterable social field governed by incompleteness.

 

Animation still

Queering technology

Queer practices have proved to be powerful in the arts and culture to make visible hetero-normative order and mechanisms. So why not apply this to Software Design? The idea of queering technology circles around the dominant paradigms in programming and the dominant social structures in the production of code, as well as the binary division of programmer/user, computer/programmer. Queer promises a critical reflection and practice of software design, shaping the communication between software objects and the interaction between user and computer. Queer can destabilize binary constructions and identities on the code level to go beyond the binary and reductive logics of zero and one, if/if-not, identity/difference.

I would like to develop a queering practice that not only draws from camp, but also from failure, as described in Judith Halberstam’s recent and wonderful publication “The Queer Art of Failure”. With queering technology, we could infuse uncertainty, errors, and therefore surprise and fun into software.

In the excellent paper “Automating Gender” from 1991, Judith Halberstam recalls the biography of the computing pioneer Alan Turing. Well known for his concept of the universal machine, and celebrated for his work during the Second World War against the German Nazis, less known is that Turing was gay.

When this became public, he was faced with the choice between going to prison or undergoing a hormone treatment. He took hormones for over 6 months, thereby growing breasts. Turing committed suicide a few years later.

Alan N. Shapiro adds:

“Turing’s troubles with the reactionary sodomy laws and the legal authorities in Great Britain began when he made the mistake of reporting to a constable the theft of 20 pounds from his wallet by a young man who had spent the night with Turing in his house. The constable replied that he would regrettably now have to arrest Turing for violation of the sodomy laws.

“Turing’s life was destroyed by the homophobic British society, just as Oscar Wilde’s life had previously been destroyed for similar reasons. That these men made contributions to human culture at the highest possible level did not protect them from the barbarism and philistinism of the contemporary variant of human beings. The horrific treatment by society of Turing and Wilde (and other great creators like Artaud and Van Gogh and even Nietzsche) has always struck me as being the deepest meaning of Charlton Heston’s famous line in the first original “Planet of the Apes” movie when Heston, having finally regained the use of his voice after getting shot in the throat, says: “GET YOUR HANDS OFF OF ME, YOU BLOODY APES!”

[end of Alan’s comment]

Turing is for me a tragic figure in the history of computer technology and for the self-image of computer science, deeply rooted in western rational thinking. In his life-story, the mind-body split becomes most obvious. While Turing was charged for his (bodily) homosexuality, he was rewarded with an important British Award for his intellectual achievement.

Halberstam writes also in her essay that Turing, in dreaming about an autonomous machine, imagined a kind of autonomous potential for the machine to think, reason, and even make errors. He compared the electrical brain of the computer to that of a child.

“We must not expect, he suggested, that the computer will be infallible, nor will it always act rationally or logically; indeed, the machine’s very fallibility is necessary to its definition as “intelligent.” (p. 3)

In other words, Artificial Intelligence won’t be truly intelligent as long as it is organized by programming algorithms for the data the machine was fed with. Instead it needs some “random interference”, something unexpected, that is autonomous from the programmer. Halberstam suggests that desire can provide the random element necessary to a technology’s definition as intelligent. Desire remains as interference running across a binary techno-logic.

In other words desire is the missing link for machines to become truly intelligent.

Alan adds:

And desire must become much more a part of the human being. We can’t achieve Artificial Intelligence until we ourselves are intelligent. And this must be an intelligence of desire, not a narrow logical intelligence. To dream of AI without first making this change ourselves is anthropocentric arrogance and blindness.

[end of comment by Alan Turing-Shapiro (ha ha)]

One way towards a more complex Artificial Life could then be the implementation of Turing-Shapiro’s radical object-orientation. These autonomous software objects are the basis for a redesign of the interaction between the user and the computer. We need to talk about how we communicate with the computer. Currently this relationship is termed user-machine. In drug language, a heroin addict is called a user. It connotes dependency. We want to design a communication where both the computer and the user get to be the top and the bottom. Where role switching is possible. The desired outcome is a more mature user and computer, one with a sensual apparatus that is involved in making intelligent decisions, one which has a desire by inaugurating choice and the discretion to act.

We want to build an intelligent system that is able to communicate not only information, but knowledge. Not solely rational, but with an archive of emotional memory. An archive of knowledge and emotions, resisting taught behavior of dominant desires.

From user to seducer

Shapiro employs Baudrillard’s concept of seduction on a programming level. It describes the communication between software objects “on the fly”.

Queering technology applies seduction on the interaction level: Make the user a seducer (and the computer, too), by implementing desire in the interaction between user and computer.

To seduce, there needs to be the Other ready to seduce you in return.

Seduction needs two equally independent, autonomous subjects/objects.

Seduction implies sense and sensitivity, emotions, affects, and touch.

Seduction is mutual recognition and respect.

Seduction is the building of an equitable and reciprocal relationship.

Queer seduction is more fun with role play. It is also a good way to unfold empathy.

We want to build software able to seduce the user, and be seduced by the user in turn, for a more intimate and therefore informed exchange of information that is closer to a definition of what we call epistemology, or the theory and practice of knowledge. We need to integrate the body in the computational model.

Glass Metaphor – from screen to environment

Alan:

In the first part of The System of Objects, Baudrillard mentions a certain material substance – out of which a plethora of contemporary objects is made – that catalyzes the transformation of the object from physical and vigorously singular to virtual and merely a signifier: Glass. A French advertising campaign of the sixties designates glass as the “material of the future” – and this same future is touted by businessmen, politicians and intellectuals alike as “transparent” and “value neutral.” Glass exists at a “zero level of matter” and embodies a “universal function in the modern environment.” It is “the material used and the ideal to be achieved, both ends and means.” But what glass actually effects is the opposite of what is promised and intended. The promotional discourse of the glass window claims that this aperture enables us to see more objects, thereby extending our horizons. What the window pane really does is to introduce more objects – including nature and landscapes – into the systemic unity of our own self-contained environment. Although it appears to be an opening up to the outside or onto the world, the glass window in fact diminishes the world by bringing it into our closed-circuit atmosphere or system of ambient signs as a mere component. In an analogous way, media technologies assure through their transactions that all of reality gets “integrated as spectacle into the domestic universe.” In the high-tech era, the pictures imported into the subject’s ambient network are computer-generated, as the interface to her surroundings is upgraded from glass panes to monitor screens.

Embodied interaction

Again, people like James Bridle want technical devices to become more aware. The computer should see the world, like humans see the world. But such statements also stay within the current binary computing paradigm and user-machine interaction.

We should first become more aware of how we perceive the world with new technologies.

The entrepreneur Kevin Slavin impressed me with his presentation “Reality is plenty, thanks”, in Amsterdam 2009. He gave a very well researched and critical talk (for me as an art historian) about Augmented Reality applications for mobile technologies. Slavin’s core argument: AR assumes that the eye is the center of thought and perception.  Augmented Reality currently means to add an additional layer between the user’s eye and the object. This makes clear, once again, how the mind-body split in Computer Science is the basis for all concepts and models of our “real world”.

The information layer presents the data in designed lists, just like on a screen interface. We actually introduce more things onto the plane, generating a system of relationships of their own and a “real world” experience flattened to the eye.

Slavin suggests a positive example of Augmented Reality, less diagrammatic and flat like google maps, but more haptic. An Augmented Reality that means to locate an object by the body. The world is all around me, and not in front of a screen that is directly in front of me.

Positive outlook for Augmented Reality technology: Make the world feel different by seeing things in new ways, not by introducing new things to look at.

This leads to the second suggestion made by Slavin. We should start to simulate real behavior. “Reality is augmented, when it feels different, not when it looks different.”

He drew from the example of the Tamagotchi toys, which were extremely popular and successful in the 1990s. The success wasn’t due to any realistic looking mimesis of animals, but by simulation of real behavior.

Software development should take account of the human body.

It must understand that information and data are products of computers. Due to how they currently handle input and output. We need to understand that thinking and vision don’t only happen with the eye, but that other senses are involved, and that thinking needs a body. Embodiment.

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