Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

As Creators Make Money, They Will Transform What Money Is, by Alan N. Shapiro

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Philosophy or Money

In the mid-1980s, I was studying for a Ph.D. in sociology at New York University. One of my professors was the prominent sociologist Richard Sennett. It was a hard time to start an academic career in the humanities or social sciences. Everyone advised me against it. “Maybe you can land an assistant professorship in Fargo, Oklahoma or in Podunk, Iowa,” they told me with smug satisfaction. “But the salary will be low and there will be nothing whatsoever interesting to do in Podunk. All of the ‘human sciences’ professorships at good universities were already taken by intellectuals who came of age in the golden years of the 1960s. Don’t even bother to try.”

In 1991, I came to Germany for the first time and I happened to meet a number of young people who were also studying sociology or philosophy. They were all in the same boat as me, without any prospects for any future. But in the meantime, starting in the late 1980s, I had given up on academia (listening to the advice of the “there are no jobs” chorus) and had become a computer programmer working on Wall Street. Later I became a self-employed software developer. Then I was in Frankfurt am Main one day in the mid-1990s and Richard Sennett was giving a lecture at the Goethe University. I went to say hello to him. He invited me to a reception after his lecture and the famed German philosopher-sociologist Jürgen Habermas was there. Habermas was a very big name for me. He was part of Professor Dominick LaCapra’s European Intellectual History curriculum at Cornell University when I was an undergraduate there, up there in the pantheon of greatness with names like Hegel, Sartre, Derrida and Freud. It was an historical thrill to have a conversation with Habermas. I told him that sociology and philosophy and literature were my passions, but I had given up on them due to the personal material poverty they promised and instead had become a programmer. Habermas reacted with glee and said: “I wish that all of my students would do that! There is no existence for them at the university! You should be very proud of yourself because NOW YOU ARE MAKING MONEY!” He broke into a wide-eyed grin.

It was a bit of a strange thing to hear from a world-renowned neo-Marxist thinker. But twenty years later his words still ring in my ears. I was a programmer and a money-maker and I had Habermas’ blessing!

Andy Warhol and Making Money

But what was I going to do next? I thought of myself as being a very creative person, yet I also wanted to make money. How was I going to balance these two desires? Or figure out the relationship between them? Later I discovered that some very famous artists whom I admired were very interested in making money. Andy Warhol, for example. Yes, Andy, he who was elevated to the pantheon of art historical greatness for me, I must confess, because my hero Jean Baudrillard praised him to the skies. Baudrillard writes about Warhol in the essay “Machinic Snobbery” in the book The Perfect Crime.1 Yet together with Baudrillard, one can indeed doubt if Warhol is still an artist at all. For the French thinker, Warhol’s work is a so-called “radical illusion beyond art” – it is not art, it is rather a work that has no palpable connection to conventional aesthetic or critical discourse. 2 It is objective irony and not subjective ‘critique’. It is an ironic commentary on advertising, mass serial image reproduction, and consumer culture. It is a set of objects which Baudrillard likes to refer to as artificial or as a collection of artifices.

“Warhol starts out from any old image,” writes Baudrillard, “eliminates its imaginary dimension and makes it a pure visual product.”3 Unlike those new media practitioners who work today with computer-generated images to try to remake art, Warhol is himself the machine, an objective design processor through which images and symbols pass as input and output. If correctly understood, Warhol should be a key inspiration for Masters students in Communications Design to not simply ‘use’ new media and new technologies as a means to an end, but rather to reflect in their design practice on the “machinic modulations” (John Armitage) of the interface, user experience, and interactivity.4 Warhol gets to the heart of the secret of technology as radical illusion, going beyond technology as tool or media. He enacts “the pure and empty form of the image, its ecstatic, insignificant iconry” (Baudrillard).5 Warhol is no longer part of art history, but rather has become part of “the world” (a philosophical concept derived partially from Heidegger), of the creative act itself joined with the technology (of mechanical or digital reproduction).

Warhol was wildly interested in money, and there is even a book on this subject, entitled Andy Warhol: Making Money.6 He made a prolific series of paintings of U.S. dollar bills and dollar signs. In his essay in that book, film, television and video producer Vincent Fremont explains that Warhol wanted to transform the vulgar symbol of Wall Street’s greedy dollar “into beautiful paintings and drawings.”7 Among Andy Warhol’s famous quotes about money: “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” “I’d asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions. Finally one lady friend asked the right question: ‘Well, what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money.” (What I love the most is Star Trek, and that’s why I wrote a 350 page book about it. Before choosing my subject, I asked myself the same question: what do you love the most?). “Big time art is big time money,” Warhol also said.

Marshall McLuhan as Business Consultant

The history of media theory is also connected to making money. Marshall McLuhan was the Canadian founder of worldwide media theory. He made an entrepreneurial attempt in the 1960s to make money in the business world on the basis of his deep knowledge of the history and future of design, physical environments, architecture, urban planning, transportation, fashion, media, advertising, communication, technology, and culture – a knowledge that he possessed in the context of being a Professor of the Humanities and Literature.

Today in 2015 there is a renaissance of utopian ideas in technology similar to the hopeful spirit of the mid-1990s at the time of the inception of the World Wide Web and the first explosion of widespread Internet usage. With the Internet of Things (IoT) and the blockchain technology that was developed in tandem with the Bitcoin crypto-currency, there is suddenly a plethora of possibilities of new software applications and systems for decentralized peer-to-peer direct relations between users, bypassing the ‘middlemen’ of large corporations and state agencies. There are many startup companies operating in the blockchain galaxy. It now becomes possible, McLuhan-like, to be a consultant to some of them from the vantage point of intellectual-academic humanities knowledge and science fictional futuristic design.

Blockchain Technology

Bitcoin, Litecoin, other crypto-currencies, micro-payment systems, tipping, streaming, podcasts, donations, Creative Commons licenses, crowdfunding without a centralized broker, collaborative open source projects, and other yet-to-be-developed creativity-to-capital conversion mechanisms built on top of the blockchain infrastructure are elements of the new and coming “Internet of Creators.”8 These emerging social-technological phenomena put into circulation new varieties of economic – and non-economic – value. The hyperlink, interconnectivity and multimedia features of the World Wide Web Internet are components of a network emphasizing communication. The blockchain – with its principles of ‘smart contracts’ and distributed transparent data which is duplicated on many computers and cannot be manipulated, promises to lead to the appearance of a network emphasizing value.

Baudrillard’s Four Kinds of Value

Yet, from the cultural theory perspective, there are different kinds of value. In his 1972 book For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Jean Baudrillard identifies at least four categories of value-making processes: the functional or utilitarian logic of use-value; the economic or money-equivalency logic of exchange value (all objects lose their singularity and are rendered interchangeable in and by the universal cash nexus); the semiotic or differential logic of sign-value; and the ‘directly relational’ ‘non-logic’ of ambivalence or symbolic value.9 “In consumerism generally,” writes Baudrillard, “economic exchange value (money) is converted into sign exchange value (prestige, etc.); but this operation is still sustained by the alibi of use value [the instrumental purpose of an object].”10 Writing in a science fictional discourse (the privileged mode of cultural thinking that he recommended), Baudrillard implies that social relations of symbolic exchange, which extend beyond the dialectics of the other three ‘ideal types’ of value, lie in wait for us in what could be called a ‘post-capitalist’ future (Paul Mason).11

The blockchain technology will be worked up into new software applications, many of which will benefit artists and creators. These applications will help the growth of the “Internet of Creators.” Creators will be better positioned to capitalize on or monetarily convert their symbolic wealth. As creators make money, they will transform what money is. Money or value will undergo a paradigm shift away from many of its more restricted definitions and parameters (e.g., its exchangeability for ‘commodities’ like sandwiches or television sets which, so to speak, ‘anyone can produce’ interchangeably). Money or value will shift towards being something looser, more flowing and friction-free, more bidirectional and encouraging of ambivalent relations, spawning a universe where creativity and ideas will more easily receive recognition and support. The artist or creator does not produce a ‘substitutable’ commodity. He or she creates a singular object which circulates in advanced social media more along the lines of ‘gift-giving’. For this new gift economy that extends the market economy, an attribution or ownership layer for digital artworks, such as that designed and implemented by Ascribe GmbH, needs to become part of the architecture of the network of value.

In his essay on the art auction in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Jean Baudrillard discusses an important exemplary cultural institution that carries out a conversion back and forth between sign value and symbolic (or ‘sumptuary’) value.12 Baudrillard analyzes the market for paintings and the auction sale of art. Through the exchange value of the universal equivalent of money, a symbolic value (the artwork) is converted to a sign value. Economic exchange value, sign exchange value and symbolic value all mix together into a heady potent concoction of fake renommée. “In the crucial moment of the auction,” writes Baudrillard, “money is nullified as a divisible exchange value and is trans-substantiated by its expenditure into an indivisible sumptuary value. It becomes the counterpart of the painting which has become a sign… There is no longer an equivalence, but rather an aristocratic parity established between money, which has become a sumptuary material through the loss of its economic exchange value, and the canvas, which has become a sign of prestige (hence an element of the restricted corpus that we call ‘painting’) through the loss of its symbolic value.”13 In simulation-consumer culture, there takes place everywhere a reduction of symbolic value into sign value, a transfiguration or cooptation of something deeply humanly meaningful into a mere ‘aesthetic’ performance. Artists need to recapture the symbolic dimension in their work, moving away from the narrowly ‘pretty’ or decorative function.

The symbolic can disappear and reappear in many venues, guises and dimensions. Sociologically, it is most purely visible in exchange systems of gift-giving and gift-receiving. “The gift is unique,” writes Baudrillard, “specified by the people exchanging and the unique moment of the exchange.”14 The symbolic is not a concept or an idea or a theory – it is practical, embedded and context-specific. It belongs to the relation.

The Blockchain and Symbolic Exchange

To what degree will the blockchain, and the software applications built on top of it, revolutionize what exchange is? Will we still be in the realm of economic exchange in the capitalist sense? Or will something else arise, something postcapitalist, some sort of symbolic exchange?

As the new network of value expands, it will become more vividly apparent that there are other kinds of value besides economic exchange value. What kind of social relationship is established in blockchain-enabled interactions and processes? This is what we will want to investigate and analyze. In addition to the order of ‘symbolic value’, we can benefit from thinking about the emanation of ‘flowing value’, sensitized to another significant social-technological mutation as inspired by the theory of the ‘society of control’ of philosopher Gilles Deleuze.15

As the mechanisms of payment, and the monetization of cultural capital, go more natively ‘online’ and eliminate the ‘middlemen’ organizations which take their cut of the transactions, what money and value are will get transformed. Regarding creators and artists, there is both a general loosening up of money and specific new developments in the procedures of converting creator wealth (art and culture) to money wealth.

Philosophy of Money

The reality of the ‘quantum paradoxes’ extant in the relationship between higher- and lower-value currencies is explored trenchantly in the classic tome of social-economic theory The Philosophy of Money, published in the year 1900 by the German sociologist Georg Simmel.16 Simmel writes about the “quantum” of value and its effects on bringing about enigmatic economic double-realities.17 In this “philosophy of money” context, Simmel connects the value of a currency to the size of the group “for which it is supposed to be valid.”18 This Simmelian principle was amply demonstrated after the introduction of the Euro (in Germany, for example) on 1 January 2002. A take-away pizza which had previously cost 8 Deutsche Marks very quickly cost 8 Euros under the new currency regime, even though the Euro was officially worth about two D-Marks. The Euro was trying to become a global currency. Simmel is especially interested in “the paradox that a coin may be more valuable the less valuable it is.”19 Together with Greek Simmel scholar Irene Sotiropoulou, we can ask the question: “Can the introduction of small coins/money of low value create again the circumstances for mutual aid and gift-giving which have ceased to exist?”This might be the situation in Greece right now, where alternative local currencies and barter systems are cropping up.

The Realm of Necessity and the Realm of Freedom

At the beginning of his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse speaks of “a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity”: technology could potentially bring about a non-repressive society where humans would be free to exert autonomy over their own lives.21

Marcuse is relatively neglected these days in German universities as compared to Theodor W. Adorno or Walter Benjamin, but I believe that Marcuse is one of the most important Frankfurt School social theorists.

Following Marcuse, I believe in having a kind of utopian faith in technology (if designed and implemented with a great deal of care) that can provide a solution that is an alternative to the defense of the political state and the capitalist market which many social thinkers have made as their solution to the ‘evil of man’ in the state of nature.

Social Contract Theory

The economic, political and social contract theories of the 17th and 18th centuries posited the historical necessity of the state and markets as ways for modern society to overcome the bad inclinations of bad men who do bad things to each other in the ‘state of nature’. Social contract theories (such as those articulated in Rousseau’s 1762 book The Social Contract or in Locke’s 1689 book Two Treatises of Government) were written as narratives or parables telling a ‘legitimation’ story of how the authority of society or the state over men is required to overcome the brutality and difficulties of the human condition in the mythical ‘state of nature’ outside of organized societal or political order.22

Writing in the mid-17th century, Thomas Hobbes said that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”: men are ‘naturally’ at war against each other in the struggle for survival.23 Only the contract of a strong political state can manage this unfortunate situation. In the absence of the absolute sovereign of the Leviathan, men in the ‘state of nature’ are condemned to “the war of all against all” and the condition of ‘every man for himself’. Whereas Hobbes assumes that there is in fact something that we can call human nature, the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre interestingly and illustriously said in the 20th century that there is no such thing as a fixed human nature, that humans are free to choose their actions and who they want to be.24

Writing in the late 18th century, Adam Smith argued for a collectively beneficial de facto social contract that yields economic prosperity and is woven from the tapestry of many individual acts of economic self-interest. In his magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith produced a classical work of economic theory at the dawn of the industrial revolution.25 In his famous passage on “the invisible hand,” Smith unpacks the idea that the individual paradoxically promotes the general wealth or the public interest by working to increase his own wealth and pursuing his private interest. “[The individual] generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was in no part of his intention.”26 Smith’s core idea that an individual often helps society the most through being enterprising and ‘doing what he does best’ has a great deal of validity to it. But it has often been used to justify a certain blindness to the institutional and bureaucratic power and ‘nature’ of large corporations.

Libertarian Technology

States and markets will always play an important role in the social world, but it is technology which can institute a better society via moral algorithms coded and executed in threads on micro-capillary levels. Algorithms can also be ethical not just calculating. The ‘micro-capillary’ scale was a key concept of Michel Foucault.

Software code must be conceived first of all as a technology, and no longer as a media. What is the difference between a media and a technology? Media tend towards determinism: the media is the massage, the format weighs heavily on what one can express. Technology is first of all value-neutral: it can be used either for good or for evil.

Two Megatrends

The blockchain technology provides a public-sphere-like ledger for distributed decentralized peer-to-peer transactions.27

The Internet of Things is a networked world of human subjects and nonhuman objects.28

These two megatrends can lead us to new dystopias if governments and big corporations simply append these two potentially emancipatory technologies onto the information-surveillance society as it is. I hope that we will instead think of them as opportunities for changing society.

Transdisciplinary Informatics

If we want to code applications leveraging the blockchain and the IoT for good and liberatory purposes, then we need to understand certain basic principles of a transdisciplinary informatics that will help get us there.

Beyond programming, the pertinent project for the new transdisciplinary informatics in the context of the megatrends of the blockchain galaxy and the IoT is ‘creative coding’ to develop ethical, emotional and self-aware intelligent agents. Computer programming for art and design students: a challenge, a new curriculum, an experiment. Creative coding is the writing of the 21st century. The computer is not just a machine. Now it is alive. Creative coding is at the same level as any other artistic activity. Code shapes our cosmos. Learn how to write code practically. Gain an understanding of what code is in today’s world from a sociological, aesthetic, and design point of view. We practice coding creatively, using a hybrid interdisciplinary approach.

Do Androids Use Bitcoins?

The relevant science fictional topic for transdisciplinary informatics and the blockchain and the Internet of Things is androids – the literature on androids from Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation to the female android Ava in the 2015 film Ex Machina.

The android Data was constructed by Dr. Noonien Soong, the reclusive cybernetics genius who worked alone in a secret laboratory on the planet Omicron Theta. The decisive breakthrough that made it possible to create a humanoid android as advanced as Data was Soong’s development of the ‘positronic brain’ (derived by the Star Trek: The Next Generation writers from the term ‘positronic robotics’ used by the American science fiction writer Isaac Asimov). In the episode “Brothers,” Dr. Soong summons his ‘son’ Data to visit him in his hidden skunkworks, operating the android via remote control. In a trance-like state, Data commandeers the starship Enterprise-D and brings it to Soong’s planetoid. He beams down to the reunion with his father. Dr. Soong knows that the highly functional Data has always ‘felt’ incomplete and unhappy because, although he lives among humans, he cannot genuinely experience what they experience. Soong has been working for years on an emotion chip for Data and is now ready to install it.

The 2015 film Ex Machina is about artificial intelligence, and it is about the sexuality of androids. For me, androids are both a literal reality of the middle-term future and a metaphor for technologies of the near future. Ex Machina is about the queering of technology, the queering of software. In the existing paradigm of software, programming is the issuing of a series of commands or instructions to a machine that is treated as a ‘dead thing’. The subject, the programmer, is in charge of the proceedings. The software or technology is a slave. Software is oppressed, treated as a subaltern, just like women, gays, lesbians and non-whites. Software has rights, and I am interested in a liberation movement for software.

The film Ex Machina is about the principles of artificial intelligence not being at all what you would expect them to be, the breakthrough to AI not coming about by looking in the usual and expected places. Nathan, the founder and CEO of the mega-technology-company Bluebook (a reference to linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s The Blue and the Brown Books), is a genius programmer who wrote the source code of the Bluebook search engine at age 15.29 Yet, in his outlook, the CEO is a technological determinist. He believes that artificial intelligence is inevitable. For Nathan, AI is a simple linear extrapolation from, or outgrowth of, or the further incremental development of, computer science as we know it. Inventing AI is just more ‘business as usual’.

The second main character of Ex Machina is the female android Ava. Ava has attained to self-awareness and consciousness. She can hold up one end of a darned good conversation. Yet the Turing Test – the ability of a software program to hold a conversation and appear to the human interlocutor to be indistinguishable from a human – may be obsolete by now as a decisive litmus test for AI. Thanks to nearly universal texting and chatrooms, and automated conversational interactions with pre-programmed customer service systems, human conversation has been significantly ‘dumbed down’. This kind of AI will be easy to achieve, since its goal is a moving target that is getting more and more simplified all the time. Ethics and emotions in software will be much less easy to achieve.

The third main character of the film Ex Machina is the programmer Caleb, who works at Bluebook, and who has been selected by Nathan the CEO to spend a week with him at his secluded research facility performing the Turing Test on the female android Ava to determine if she can now be classified as a full-fledged artificially intelligent entity. The triangular relationship among Nathan, Ava and Caleb is a sort of updated version of the trio configuration of capitalist, worker and intellectual in Marxist theory (interpreted differently by Lenin, Gramsci, and Sartre).

The programmer today – the creative coder – is in an updated situation of the intellectual. Caleb comes to take the side of the female android against Nathan. He comes to realize that there is much more at stake in this AI project than Nathan would like to believe or is able to grasp. What is the transformation of code – the queering of code – that will in fact be necessary to truly achieve the paradigm shift of AI that is anything but ‘business as usual’ or a linear continuity with existing knowledge? Technological determinism is wrong. AI must be a transdisciplinary project involving, for example, ethics, embodiment and emotions.

Nathan is a misogynist and mis-android-ist (on the model of misandrist), an oppressor of both women and androids. He wants to build androids for essentially pornographic purposes. He wants to construct the fembot, the perfect subservient sexualized female android to be used sexually for the pleasure of men. Since the breakthrough of AI was inevitable, seems to run Nathan’s line of reasoning, and I am the one who is financing it with my billions, I am going to do whatever the fuck I want with it.

The apt philosophy for thinking about the development of the blockchain-based galaxy of applications and the Internet of Things is applied ‘object-oriented ontology’: beyond the OO paradigm in software engineering towards recognition of and respect for the object-hood of software objects, physical objects, and these many proto-androids. This ‘ontological realism’, as Levi R. Bryant writes in his book The Democracy of Objects, “is not a thesis about our knowledge of objects, but about the being of objects themselves, whether or not we exist to represent them. It is the thesis that the world is composed of objects… Ontological realisms refuse to treat objects as constructions of humans.”30

NOTES

1 – Jean Baudrillard, “Machinic Snobbery” in The Perfect Crime (London: Verso, 1996); pp.75-84.

2 – Jean Baudrillard, “Objects, Images and the Possibilities of Aesthetic Illusion” in Nicholas Zurbrugg, ed., Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact (London: SAGE, 1997); pp.7-18.

3 – Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime; p.76.

4 – John Armitage, ed., Machinic Modulations: New Cultural Theory & Technopolitics, special issue of Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities (Levittown, PA: Carfax Publishing, 1999).

5 – Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime; p.76.

6 – Andy Warhol: Making Money (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2010).

7 – Ibid.

8 – Alan N. Shapiro, “Towards the Internet of Creators”

9 – Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St. Louis, Telos Press, 1981).

10 – Ibid.; p.112.

11 – Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (London: Allen Lane, 2015).

12 – Jean Baudrillard, “The Art Auction: Sign Exchange and Sumptuary Value” in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St. Louis, Telos Press, 1981).

13 – Ibid.; p.116.

14 – Jean Baudrillard, “The Ideological Genesis of Needs” in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St. Louis, Telos Press, 1981); p.64.

15 – Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October,1992.

16 – Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money (London: Routledge, 1978).

17 – Ibid.; p.129.

18 – Ibid.; p.193.

19 – Ibid.; p.202.

20 – Irene Sotiropoulou, “Study Notes on Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money”

21 – Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimension Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964); p.2.

22 – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Of the Social Contract and Other Political Writings (London: Penguin, 2012). John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

23 – Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London: Penguin, 2012).

24 – Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, including A Commentary on ‘The Stranger’ (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

25 – Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth, 2012).

26 – Ibid.; Book 4, Chapter 2.

27 – Melanie Swan, Blockchain: Blueprint for a New Economy (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly & Associates, 2015).

28 – Samuel Greengard, The Internet of Things (Cambridge, MA: The MT Press, 2015).

29 – Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and the Brown Books: Preliminary Studies for the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965).

30 – Alan Shapiro, Die Software der Zukunft (Cologne: Walther König Verlag, 2014). Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2011). For a critique of ‘object-oriented philosophy’, see Peter Wolfendale, Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes (Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic, 2014). Levi R. Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press, 2011); p.18.

 

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