History as Machine Log

This is sort of a spiritual response to Reza Negarestani’s talk at the Guggenheim.   It just sparked in me the notion of history from a Hegelian Marxist framework and the notion of history from a computer’s perspective. As a log file?

What is history for Hegel? It is an anthropocentric process. It is the history of human consciousness. It is not for example the history of life on earth -that is the natural science. So, there was a moment when history did not exist, and then when humans became conscious – history began.  And of course if you have a beginning, you also have an end (I guess we could argue about this). But I will not talk too much about the end of history and what that means for Hegel.

I have been reading a lot of Flusser, and the relationship between the line and history, between writing and history.  A technology that moves from left to right, that has a beginning a middle and an end creates a historical context, which has these same properties.  A visual culture, that relies on pictures, does not have this. There is no beginning, middle, or end to a painting.  It does not create a history.

We are now living in the age of the techno-image. While the images may seem no different from the images on the cave of lascaux, they are.  Because our techno-images arer created and displayed by uniform bits they can be infinitely combined into different experiences of the image. I can apply a photoshop filter to an image, I can cut and paste other content into the image, I can string a few images together and create an animated gif or a movie.  For Flusser, this means that we are ahistorical in a different sense, there is no beginning middle or end, there is on the creation of the system or context for the image.  This is something like infinite, or different, types of worlding or world building – competing ontologies or metaphysics.

Lets return to the computer log.   What is this? When I create a computer log I can flag different types of statements or errors to be logged depending on its severity such as : debug, info, warning, error and critical. In fact I just pulled these from Django debugging documentation. These different errors then can be handled in different ways – I create a error handler. They can be emailed or sent via sms, or posted to facebook, or recorded into a log (or a multiple of these things).

The error is the techno-image and the log is the echo or reflection of this image in writing, in the historical world. As a log, it is no longer a techno-image but the written word.   How is the computer log different from the Akkadian tablets recording wheat donations to the temple, or similar ancient records? Where as the Akkadian tablet is a record or proof of something that happened, the log is an epiphenomena of the EVENT of the error.    Although it exists in the historical record, this is not its final state.  There is the possibility through further manipulation and transformation it can be USEFUL again -that is it can be used to make decisions or to drive decision making, or to educate a knowledge set.  I can use the log file in a business intelligence software to help diagnose issues, I can aggregate it with other data and make predictions. All the user behavior on facebook is logged as information into a machine log and then further manipulated into preferences that are packaged as commodities and sold to advertisers.

The Machine Log is nowhen, as Reza says. It is not a calendar record, but an EVENT record which is outside the sphere of time.

from http://crumbsofcode.com/turning-images-into-ascii-art-python/

Code as Art

I had a fantastic conversation with Dan of Esoteric Codes.   Esoteric codes explores code as a creative medium and posts projects and writings that approach code from this perspective.

Dan is incredibly knowledgable about the history of code as art and the different communities of hackers, artist, academics who contribute to this field.

I have been interested in this field for years, but one of my concerns is the fetishization of code. When we talk about code as art, is it analogous to a doctor praising a beautiful suture (which I would find difficult to elevate to art).

But Dan has a notion about individuality. In professional software development, the goal is to make your code as generic as possible.  This is so it is as maintainable and readable as possible.   In this context, good software as a craft, would be different from software as art.  Software as art would be something like software that elevates personal expression. What about personal expression in something like a suture? Well perhaps that would be knitting or weaving and no longer medicine. So when you you are writing your code, not to improve some sort of corporate infrastructure but to express something deep inside your being – what is that?

What about Cities

I read a book and listened to a podcast about cities yesterday. I have lived almost my entire life in cities and I have not really thought much about it. What is the purpose of a city? What is a city versus a town? How do humans organize themselves?

Is a human city like a ant hill or a bee hive – a mechanism for communal work? Lets think about what sorts of things that a city presupposes?

A government bureaucracy:  When you have a functioning city you need to coordinate at least waste removal and road repair as well as things like a professional police and fire fighter force, then you need a support layer to support these functions. In a village, perhaps you can get away with a volunteer force rather than a professional force. There seems something more of the gift economy than the market economy.

The economy in general:  Do people do different things in a city versus a village versus the country?  At first people aggregated in cities to work at factories since factories needed a large concentrated labor force, and this is what a city does – it concentrates people in a small area. As economies have shifted towards service jobs, and as transportation has made it easier to locate factories (and workers) outside of cities – cities have transformed to centers of commerce – one big market. In cities, then, most people engage in some sort of service work ( even knowledge work  I would call service work) – and this leads to the customer service complex which all urban denizens suffer from. Each person, no matter where they are in the hierarchy, are a utility for someone else. A famous musician is a utility for a wealthy lawyer who wants to throw a party, a wealthy lawyer is a utility for a corporation who is suing another corporation, and so forth.  Humanity is stripped away and becomes a series of inputs and outputs to provide help to other people in the city.

The Money economy: A City is impersonal. You do not know most of the people in the city, you may not even know your neighbors.  You cannot transact based on trust – enter the money economy. You must work for money, and then spend money.  In general you spend money on taxes to support the bureaucracy  (point 1). So not only do you have to work for the goods you need to survive, but you have to work to support the city itself.

Why would cities exist? Is this a good thing? There was the notion that now that people can work anywhere cities may disappear or become less important. Instead the opposite is happening. We see an increase concentration of people living in cities. Why is this? My guess is that it allows humans to focus on one particular thing- while outsourcing all other needs to other members of the community. It is almost an instrument for the individualization of a human – if you think that each human should specialize. If you think humans should be generalists – then the city works actively against that aim,

The Line vs The Surface


I have been reading the works of Vilem Flusser. Like many technology thinkers worth their salt, like Simondon, his analyses are prescient.   I am particularly taken with his analysis of the line versus the surface image, vs the techno-image of today.  Although his ideas evolve and change throughout his writings, roughly speaking, the image, such as the image of a cave painting, or a fresco, or a Renaissance portrait, has a different relation to concepts than text (the line) does, and a different relation to history.

The original image was a representation of the world, or a means to control the world (magic).  Text, or criticism, is introduced to explicate the image – to tie it to particular concepts.  Today with the introduction of the techno-image, images are expressions of concepts.  So there is a reversal in the beginning was the image or The Word, and today the beginning is The Concept or the The Idea. We could expand this to be The Algorithm or The Process, and it reminds me of Manuel DeLanda’s analysis of the primacy of logistic and operations research in warfare.

Text is read in a particular way. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And the introduction of text is the introduction of History, which also has a beginning, a middle, and perhaps an end.  Our modern conception of reasoning is based on this linear logic.  The judgements True/False, Good/Bad, Beautiful/Ugly are about the mapping of words from their original images to their mental concepts.

Images do not include this sort of logic and notion of history. Images are not read in a linear fashion, they cannot be reasoned or proved with a syllogism.

Techno-Images, which starts with the introduction of photography, is about the representation of the world but the representation of a concept.  There is the primacy of preproduction.  The rational exercise, rather than taking place after the image is made, as an analysis of the image, is done before the image is made through the process of preproduction.   There is also a discussion about how this judgement is made when the image is moved from the private sphere to the public sphere – ie the market.  (This makes me think of Elie Ayache and the ontology of the market).

This leads to all other questions like how can you have criticism, which is rational analysis of an image on a techno-image, which itself starts with a rational analysis (the answer is no).   What are the new values of judgement that we should now use now that we can no longer use True/False, Good/Bad, Beautiful/Ugly? What is the logic of a techno-image.  What is the logic of an immaterial surface image (this is a image that is not dependent upon the medium where the image is made – think a computer graphic vs an oil painting on canvas)?

There is a discussion about frames of reference and world building. That techno-images can be ‘read’ in reference to the concepts that initially created them.  (Here I think of carnap and modern philosophers of science)  This is not entirely satisfying for me. It seems like a tautology and does not contribute anything new, like the criticism of a piece of art – which ideally clarifies.  Instead it becomes an exercise in translation.

I am interested, in particular, in code art. If writing was first introduced to count the ears of corn donated to the temple, and then expanded to explanations of the universe  (myth, science) and flights of fancy (fiction) and appreciated aesthetically (ie judged on these 3 levels enumerated above)  Computer code, the language of the techno-image, can also be apprehended aesthetically.

Lets say computer code, which is the techno-image, can be judged (and this is what it would be to be aestheticized).  What are the criterion for judgement? I believe we must look to Theory of Computation and Complexity for the answer.  The judgement is the expressiveness of the algorithm (universe of problems it can solve or things it can create), the speed of the algorithm, and material requirements of its execution.

There is also the fourth notion of probability and the relation of the counterfactual to the techno-image. The techno-image, like Schrodinger’s cat, does not exist in a particular state until it is viewed (or executed or compiled). It exists over a range of probabilities. So there is something about probability in the expression of an aesthetic judgement- perhaps the shape of the distribution.

There is some talk these days about contingency. A sort of neurotic hold over from Kant.  Some people say we are living in a era of radical contingency, nothing is necessary except for contingency.   But how can we talk about contingency and necessity when everything can be ‘exist’, when all the possibilities of the techno-image exist.  The conditional is no longer a tool for our abilities to judge about these things.  So we have to leave these antiquated notions of the categories of mind and talk about the shape of worlding.

River Lethe

Days of Awe: Forgetting

In Judaism there is fixation on memory, perhaps we could call this a memory complex.  There is an admonition to never forget, for example, the horrors of the Holocaust. The passover seder is repeated every year to remember how the Jewish people were released from bondage in Egypt.

Much of the talk about memory, is not just about the past, but about reliving the memory in the presence. Something similar to imitation dei deus. It is as if each individual at the Seder was themselves released from bondage. This is not just a memory but a reenactment in some respects.

The term forget comes from the old english and roughly is a compound of for and get – miss and grasp. So forget roughly translates to lose grasp and is a modifier of a basic term to grasp. Contrasting this with the ancient greek we have lethe- forget. This is personified by the river Lethe that all souls pass on their way to the underworld. The opposite of this is alethe – or truth.  So in English we start with a state of knowing and lose that, and in Greek we start with a state of forgetfulness and the lack of forgetfulness is memory or truth.  Or to put it another way, we can find and lose things in English and in Greek the memory is always there it is just covered (forgotten).

What does it mean to remember and what does it mean to know? Is memory a burden or a  blessing? Does it prevent us from acting or help us act correctly?

Jonah and the Whale

Days of Awe: Sin

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish New Year. I spent part of it at the insight meditation center in downtown NYC. It was a mix of liturgy, exercises, meditation, and lecture.  One of the lectures discussed the notion of sin.  On Yom Kippur we ask God and our fellow human beings to forgive us for our sins, we ask ourselves to forgive ourselves for our sins.

What is a Sin? The western tradition treats sin as a binary opposite to holiness or goodness. The devil is in opposition to god, sin is an evil and opposite to good.  But, the notion of sin in Judaism, to translate it from the Hebrew, means missing the mark.  So imagine you are an archer and you dont hit the bullseye, you miss the mark, you err. This is not opposite to the mark, it is a distance away from the mark.  Darkness is not the opposite of light but it is just a distance away from the light.

Sometimes it is difficult to square this away with the accounting/bookkeeping rhetoric of the traditional Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah liturgy.  There is a Book of Life, that we all want to be inscribed into. This is ostensibly the book of all the people who will live the following year.  The notion of a book and book keeping brings to mind debits and credits. A sin would be thought of as a debit, and this is our common conception of sin in Judeo-Christian tradition, and a a good deed is a credit.

But maybe we should think of the book as the blockchain, as a record of action, a record of transaction and movement. Not negative, not positive not something that needs to be reconciles on the day of judgement but perhaps having a consensus proof. The recording into the book of life is the reconciliation of the blockchain not a settling of accounts.