Alan N. Shapiro, Hypermodernism, Hyperreality, Posthumanism

Blog and project archive about media theory, science fiction theory, and creative coding

From Sociology to Media Studies to Software Studies, part one

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Friedrich Kittler was the founder of German media theory and media archaeology. I disagree with Kittler’s statement that there is no software and his belief that the numerical logic of the low-level hardware that Alan Turing and John von Neumann conceptualized in the 1930s-1940s is determining and decisive. In my view, just because the kernel or center of computing is rational and computational and digital-binary does not mean that all the other layers, languages, and interfaces of the system, and which surround the kernel, must obey or follow that logic. The education of the persons we call programmers is wrong, since that training is based on the assumption that these persons must be oriented to logical ratiocination. The education of humanists is wrong too – since they are supposed to be the opposite of that. We need instead something hybrid or in-between, like a computational aesthetics.

The seminal thinkers Jacques Derrida, Vilém Flusser, and Marshall McLuhan all wrote (each in his own way) about the importance of writing for our philosophical understanding of what is going on now in Western society. If we do not have thinkers capable of philosophizing about what is happening today in Europe and North America, then we are truly lost as a civilization. Connecting the codes of software (which are also systems of notation) to the history and future of writing is an essential project. To look at software poetically is to diverge from the received view that software code is a formal, logical, numeric, combinatorial, and calculating notational system. It is to grasp instead the cultural, linguistic, poetic, aesthetic, resonant, musical, and semiotic aspects of software. To look at software poetically is both to see the history of software retrospectively in this light, and to consciously emphasize the cultural and human-language dimensions of software in future variants of informatics.

Thinking back to the 1970s and 1980s, Marxist-oriented sociologists continued to insist for a long time that economics and class relations (or antagonisms) between workers and capitalists in the sphere of production are the driving force or determining instance that explains society and the world. Marxists did not take seriously continental postmodernist thinkers like Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco, who prioritized the study of media, consumerism, cultural semiotics, and the power of images and rhetoric to destabilize modernist truths and core values like democracy, communication, and the public sphere. The golden age of sociology was the hegemony of the knowledge paradigm whose primary object of investigation was the social or society. Baudrillard deconstructed the epistemological model of the social in In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities… or the End of the Social. After the academic social science resistance to media that lasted for decades, we are now in the golden age of media studies. Today the size of media studies departments at universities dwarf sociology by an order of magnitude.

Philosophy, psychology, and literature are knowledge fields for understanding the I existence. For understanding we existence, the media have become the object of inquiry of the dominant knowledge paradigm in the social sciences, humanities, and art and design. But can media studies explain software? The intense emphasis on media is now starting to reveal itself as being a formidable resistance to a newer paradigm which is trying to emerge, indicating an inflection point analogous to how sociology resisted the emergence of media studies and media theory in the 1970s and 1980s. This third paradigm now coming into view after sociology and media studies has something to do with existence, experience, experiment, engagement, emotions and embodiment. It has to do with code grasped and appreciated in a transdisciplinary way and with the importance of posthuman agents. It deals with the street art of the construction of situations. It addresses the relation between philosophical morality and computer science algorithms. It deals with post-scarcity post-work, and with pragmatic-utopian visions of a better society, and with technological anarchism.

In the age that we are living in of new digital media technologies and the information society, we are in a new situation in our social and individual existence. I call this new historical era: hyper-modernism. I explain what I understand to be the three successive cultural-historical phases of modernism, postmodernism, and hyper-modernism.

Resisting the Media Paradigm

The study of the societal consequences and existential meanings of digital technologies has today merged with media studies: this is called the field of digital media. John M. Culkin brought his “Center for Understanding Media” from Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio to the New School for Social Research in New York City in 1975. Deep into the 1980s, there was still very little respect shown to the study of media in sociology departments at American universities. Academic sociology remained focused on areas such as social organization, social psychology, the family, gender, demographics, urban sociology, statistical and quantitative research, and criminology.

During the 1970s, American Marxist intellectual luminaries like Fredric Jameson and Mark Poster resisted the hyperreality and simulation thesis of Jean Baudrillard. Then, in the books Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) and The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context (1990), Jameson and Poster, respectively, suddenly changed course and confronted earnestly the Baudrillardian simulacra (copies without originals). They attempted to synthesize awareness of postmodern culture’s virtualizing detachment from stable references with the perennial Marxist assurances of the primacy of production, and the corollary privileged revolutionary cognitive-historical perspective of the proletariat (in various guises of the new working class).

Jameson claimed that aesthetic production had become an extension of the production and fetishism of commodities that Karl Marx had analyzed in the first chapter of Das Kapital. Poster swapped out the mode of production for the newer mode of information. For Baudrillard, on the contrary, the abstracting and nihilistic forces of ubiquitous advertising, linguistic signifiers without signifieds, and the visual simulacra of the culture of images have put an end to the era of production. They have thrown us into a situation of the disappearance of meaning and communication. This recognition of what is going on in postmodernism is a prerequisite to then theorizing and acting upon new radical and ironic reversals of the system.

For a long time, we contemplated and spoke about the information society. Then in the 1990s came the Internet and online existence. It is often said that Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian founder of worldwide media theory (who published mainly in the 1960s and 1970s), predicted the World Wide Web (a globalized hypertext-and-multimedia electronic network based logistically on the URL addressing system, HTML page layout language, and HTTP communications protocol invented by Tim Berners-Lee of the European physics research organization CERN).

By 1992, the “global village” Internet had expanded to more than one million connections, up from only the 213 computers which comprised it in 1980. 1995 was the breakthrough year for the Internet when it reached the scale of twenty million computers. In 1994, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, which would become the most important portal for online shopping. In 1995, online auctions and online buying-and-selling (to some degree “anarchistically” or peer-to-peer with an apparently limited institutional “middleman”) began resolutely with the establishing of eBay. The free online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which is infused with a democratic spirit since almost anyone is allowed to contribute or to edit articles, was launched in 2001. Facebook, which has become the world’s largest social media and social networking site, got started at Harvard College in 2004.

Now Science Fiction is Living Us

Now the next generation of digital technologies is upon us. We are exploring primarily three advanced digital technologies: Artificial Intelligence and moral algorithms, Virtual Reality and “Mixed Reality,” and the transformation of the economy in an anarchistic decentralized direction thanks to the blockchain and similar technologies. A discussion about contemporary and imminently approaching digital technologies and a discussion about science fiction are synonymous. Instead of saying that we are now living science fiction (that the previously imagined future has been realized), it makes even more sense to say that science fiction is living us (its ubiquity has thrown into doubt our assumptions about who we are).

Mobile Phones, Personal Digital Assistants, Smartphones

Martin Cooper was the leader of the engineering team at Motorola that designed the first cellular portable phone prototype (called DYNamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) in 1973. It was ten more years before Motorola’s portable phone was made available to the public. Cooper says that he was inspired by the handheld “communicators” of the Star Trek: The Original Series TV show of the 1960s. The communicators on Star Trek were compact units with a flip-up transceiver antenna grid. Opening the flip-antenna portion activated the communications device, which one could then speak into without dialing. The MicroTAC was introduced by Motorola in 1989 as the world’s first flip-phone design.

The first Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network was up-and-running in Finland in 1991. IBM’s Simon Communicator, introduced by BellSouth in 1994, was the first significant Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). It integrated a phone, fax machine, touchscreen and keyboard; and included applications software for calendar, appointment scheduler, address book, notepad, e-mail and games. 1999 saw the launch by Nokia of the 3210 mobile phone, which sold more than 160 million units, and the 7110 model, which was the first portable phone to incorporate World Wide Web Internet access, making it an important precursor of the “smartphone.” In the same year, GeoSentric brought out a phone with GPS and mapping features, and Kyocera released the Visual Phone with peer-to-peer video communication. In the year 2000, Sharp was the first to market with a camera phone (the J-SH04). In 2002, RIM sold its first popular multi-purpose BlackBerry combo phone and PDA, focusing on e-mail, text messaging, and Web browsing as applications. Later smartphones also became very adept as music players.

Microsoft introduced the Pocket PC in 2002, and Windows Mobile was available soon after that on many PDA devices. But it was Steve Jobs of Apple who really got the information transfer speed, and the usability of the direct-finger-input user interface of the capacitive touchscreen smartphone right with the iPhone in 2007. The iPhone abandoned the physical keyboard in favor of an on-screen keyboard simulation. Smartphones using Google’s Android look-and-feel and operating system started to appear in 2008. By 2013, there were more than two billion smartphones in the world. iPhone and Android-based smartphones now dominate the market, with their broadband network connections, and wireless Local Area Networking (Wi-Fi) capabilities.

Goodbye to the Social and to Media

The smartphone as the exemplary technology of our times brings forcefully to our attention the urgent requirement of inventing and defining a new knowledge paradigm beyond those which take as their object of inquiry society or the social (sociology) or media (media studies and media theory). This potential new field of study should exist at the border between theory and practice – bringing transdisciplinary knowledge from the arts, humanities, and social sciences (and computer sciences) to bear on questions of the active design of informatic technologies and interactive experiences. We need a field of study of the aesthetics and morality of the algorithmic design and control of the world by democratic participants.

In his seminal work Understanding Media (1964), McLuhan (the founder of media theory) defined a medium as being “any extension of ourselves” (for example, the wheel extends our running capabilities, and the hammer extends our arms). Our bodies and our senses (our sensoria) are extended in and by media. Even language is a medium, since it extends, in the communicational transfer, the thoughts in my head to the ears of the interlocutor.

There is something “human-centered” and Promethean about the McLuhanesque formulation, even though, in his prescient descriptions of the electronic age and the global village, McLuhan tends to depict the twilight of the democratic and individuating effects of the emblematic media of the “Gutenberg Galaxy” book as disseminator of knowledge. With advanced digital, informatic, and virtual technologies, we are well beyond “extending” who we are and what we can do (man the maker) into a continuous and hyper-accelerated “transformation” of who we are becoming, as executed by all the new systems and applications which merge with us in a “cyborg” way, the devices being by now co-determinant of the posthuman situation which we share with them. Additionally, the “new media” no longer serve the function of a “mediation” between two different “realities,” no longer enable a crossover from one to the other, as with the mediation between a story and an audience, or the mediation between a live performance and those who wish to hear it but are not physically present. With contemporary technological phenomena, algorithms and virtual-machine-states hold sway over us and govern us.

Sociologists always wanted to believe in something called the social. But this was only wishful-thinking on their parts – the masses always resisted being known or accounted for by the surveys and questionnaires of the market- and social researchers. This resistance often takes the form of a hyper-conformism to the questioners’ polls and expectations. Sociology’s idea that the social is an objective scientific reality that is always there is an a-historical myth. The social is a construct (as in Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s the social construction of reality – even though the word social in that phrase is somewhat of a contradiction).

Media studies/media theory was a promising candidate to succeed sociology. The idea of media studies that the media are an objective scientific reality that will always be around is also a myth. With the smartphone, as an illustration, there is no longer the mediation between two realities, or McLuhan’s extension of man. It is instead a combination of many technologies, an assemblage (a concept of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and of Manual DeLanda) or apparatus (or dispositif, see Giorgio Agamben) with the help of which the individual seeks to govern and control the world – or rather, his or her own (little) world. The user seeks interaction with and mastery over the world through informatics: algorithmic automatic coded procedures and the combinatorial state-altering manipulation of systems-and-applications options and properties (the settings). There are residual elements of the social in this posthuman condition, and major elements of the media too. But now we are (post-)human information processors designing our social, digital, virtual, and media existence through software.

In the 1980s, society or the social was still considered the dominant object of knowledge concept for understanding our collective we existence (just as philosophy, literature, and psychology can be considered the disciplines for understanding my individual I existence). In the 1980s, sociology departments at universities were still many times larger than media studies departments, which were still virtually non-existent. Today that situation is completely reversed: media studies has become hegemonic in cultural studies, with departments ten times larger than sociology. But are the days of this dominance by the paradigm of media numbered? The paradox is that media theory was born in the pre-digitalization era, so it is not at all clear that its core concepts are up to the task of – or are the appropriate paradigm for – explaining the impact on our lives of the digital and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies. Just as media studies replaced sociology around 1990, we are now on the verge of superseding the paradigm of media by a newer paradigm which will be software, code, or transdisciplinary informatics.

The smartphone is incredibly versatile and has many dimensions. I can do “anything” with it at any time, and from anywhere where my body physically and locally finds itself. My smartphone knows so much about the urban and geographical worlds, and about the locations of my “friends” at this instant, their comings and goings. I micro-manage the environmental conditions of my “smart home.” I chat with others, sometimes peer-to-peer, sometimes many-to-many or one-to-many, sometimes with virtual others in social networks. I hyper-connect, I play games, I browse photos, I snap photos, I photoshop-edit and upload my photos. I mashup videos, I read news, I schedule and control today’s activities. Thanks to the digital code which underlies all of this, I pass iteratively through all the states of the diagrammed software state-machines, as they project onto “reality” and devise new realities. I download the app. I configure the properties, permissions, and services of and for the app. I enable or disable notifications to the app. I peruse the contents of the app. Michel Foucault would call this an arena of the micro-physics of power, a machine for the governance of small things, the contested battle between surveillance by the databases of big corporations and the everyday life practices of my enjoyments and freedoms. The tug-of-war between power and anti-power.


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