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

From Digital Culture to Quantum Culture, by Alan N. Shapiro

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From Digital Culture to Quantum Culture:

Parallelism to Paradox, and its implications for online/offline education and production

Alan N. Shapiro

These are a few excerpts from my upcoming lecture and e-book manuscript.

In our everyday discourse and even in our academic discourse, we very often use the term Digital Culture. Digital Culture means technology everywhere. Technology is reshaping every aspect of human and social existence. Digital Culture is the information society and online life. Digital Culture is social media like Facebook and mobile communications like smartphones. Degree programs in Digital Culture are now being taught at universities. In the United Kingdom alone, just to mention what is happening in one country, there are full study degree programs in Digital Culture, for example, at King’s College London, at the Glasgow School of Art, at the University of the West of England, at Goldsmiths, University of London, and at the University of Sussex. We assume that we are now living in a Digital Culture and that this is the end of the line, some sort of non plus ultra (‘nothing further beyond’) for the development of contemporary society. But according to my analysis of what is going on, and which future trends are emerging, this is actually not the case. Emerging out of the so-called Digital Culture, I believe, is what I call the Quantum Culture. What the heck is that?

What is most astonishing about the term Digital Culture is that we use it without doing very much thinking about what the word ‘digital’ actually means. ‘Digital’ has come to mean something rather empty. Something is called digital because it is based on computer technology, and we know that computer technology is so-called digital – whatever the heck that means. It is, in a certain sense, a tautological game of words, a vicious circle of non-understanding. I think that it is worthwhile to consider two different meanings of the word digital. One meaning is kind of a not-so-intelligent label, a ‘pure signifier’, to employ a term from semiotics. The other meaning is more what the word digital really means. What it actually means is what I would call the second meaning of the word digital. Digital actually means the logic of discrete values in variables or numbers which are discontinuous or distinctly different one from the other, the operation on or handling of or processing of data using the so-called universalist binary logic of 0s and 1s. What they call Digital Culture might better be called “Turing-compliant” culture – referring to Alan Turing, the mid-twentieth century British mathematician and principal inventor of the digital-binary computer.

To the extent that, in everyday language, we talk about what the word digital really means, we sometimes talk about the difference between the analog and the digital. We emphasize the difference between analog technologies and digital technologies. In analog technologies, there is the recording of a wave, or the use of the wave as it originally was formed. In analog music recording, for example, a signal goes directly from the recording device to the storage media as wave and only as wave. In digital technology, by contrast, the analog wave gets sampled and converted into Alan-Turing-computable-numbers of exactly the kind that Alan Turing hypothesized in his original 1936 academic paper.

The digital recording technology makes the music sound exactly the same every time that it is played. It is nothing but a bunch of numbers, and no degradation in quality can take place. The numbers can even get compressed into quantitatively fewer bits of 0s and 1s through the study of patterns found within very large sequences of numbers. Analog-to-Digital converters are devices which convert a physical quantity like voltage to a representative digital number. Fourier transforms are the mathematical tool employed to convert analog waves to binary streams, between the temporal or spatial domain and the frequency domain.

As Jean Baudrillard wrote in his book On Seduction: “We are all obsessed (and not only in music) with high fidelity, obsessed by the quality of the musical ‘rendering’…Where is the degree of technological sophistication, where is the threshold of ‘high fidelity’ beyond which music as it were disappears? For the problem of the disappearance of music is the same as that of [the disappearance of] history: it will not disappear for want of music, it will disappear in the perfection of its materiality: in its very own special effect. There is no longer judgment, nor aesthetic pleasure, it is the ecstasy of musicality.”

The particular discourse that we have contrasting the analog and the digital helps us a little bit to understand the meaning of the digital, but it does not help us very much. We are living in this so-called Digital Culture while having very little awareness of what it is, while having very little understanding of what is the digital, because we lack the appropriate perspective from which to ‘observe’ it. Just as in the period from the end of World War II until about 1984 or 1990, we had very little understanding that we were living in a society dominated by consumerism, media and information. The vast majority of sociologists and philosophers were happily concerned with other things.

The only way to really understand the digital, and to understand Digital Culture, would be to have a perspective beyond the digital. We would need to compare and contrast the digital to a third paradigm of technology, a third paradigm of culture, a third paradigm of everything: the Quantum. Quantum Physics, Quantum Computers, Quantum Technology, Quantum Sociology, Quantum Medicine, Quantum Consciousness, Quantum Music, Quantum Culture. By contrasting the digital with the quantum, we will see and learn a lot of things about what is going on in the so-called Digital Culture that we did not see before. By looking at it from the other side.

The main difference between the digital and the quantum consists in a difference between a logic of parallelism and a logic of paradox.

What is parallelism? Parallelism implies that two phenomena or processes have to be lined up next to each other, either literally or figuratively, in order to harmonize. Think of the model of parallel computing as a form or method of computation. Many calculations occur concurrently. Complex problems are broken down into smaller, more manageable parts, along the lines of the mechanistic relation between the whole and its parts in the archetypal legendary car engine. The smaller, more manageable problems are then solved ‘in parallel’. In so-called high-performance computing, parallel processing is carried out on the bit, instruction, data, or task level, using multi-core processors and based on parallel computer architectures. In ordinary language, parallelism means an agreement in direction or tendency, an easy consistency, an easy non-contradictoriness. In grammar, parallelism is the repetition of a syntactic construction or of similar phrases in a sequence of sentences for seductive effect, believed to make writing more readable. My claim is that the so-called Digital Culture is thoroughly pervaded by a logic of parallelisms.

What is paradox? It is impossible to apply the Cartesian Method of breaking down a complex problem into smaller, more manageable parts to quantum-mechanical generalized complementarities like the wave-particle duality or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Physics. Quantum Physics and Quantum Consciousness embrace a logic of paradoxes, freely and willfully contemplating two realities which seem to be in contradiction but which are not. But this is even a too weak formulation of the powerful idea of Quantum Paradox. Quantum Paradox is illustrated, for example, in the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat and in the experimentally verified physical reality of Quantum Entanglement. Schrödinger’s Cat exists in two realities at one time. There are two (or more) possible paths of a single event. The cat may be both alive and dead, existing in two paradoxical (not parallel, as we might previously have wrongly called it) states united by the causality which is not a causality of a random event.

Next I will speak about the ideas of the French existentialist-Marxist thinker André Gorz as being an important reflection on post-work and on changes in the sphere of production related to the hybrid deployment of online and offline technologies. André Gorz was one of the principal thinkers of the French New Left in the 1960s, 1970s and beyond, and he was a thinker of the New Working Class. Gorz tried to understand the ways in which technology workers are in fact members of the working class – experiencing alienation and exploitation – although they tend to not think of themselves as such and instead adopt a corporate and techie identity. According to the theory of the New Working Class, technology workers are involved in a sort of ‘false consciousness’ or ideology of believing themselves to have been liberated by technology from the proletarian condition. This is all paradoxically expressed by Gorz in books like Farewell to the Working Class (1980) and Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society (1997). Gorz wrote about liberation from work, liberation via the transformation of work both in the present and in the future, and liberation via technology and automation. Technology and automation have the potential to liberate work in the direction of creativity, but this has happened thus far only in partial ways under the current regime of how technology and automation are designed and implemented. Yet there is the beginning of a positive trend towards making work more meaningful and self-organizing that needs to be pushed through in a more conscious and concerted fashion.

The socio-economic-corporate system of ‘permanent jobs’ is not consistent with the blossoming social potentiality of new technologies. What would make much more sense and be consistent with the emancipatory promise of the information society would be something like a true freelancer economy. This is, of course, the opposite position about ‘the flexible man’ in the hyper-modern economy than the position taken by the prominent London School of Economics sociologist Richard Sennett – who turns out to be surprisingly conservative and nostalgic – in his book The Corrosion of Character (1998), which was translated into German under the title Der Flexible Mensch. Unlike Sennett, I regard the skills of flexibility and continuous reinvention of the self that one acquires in a true freelancer economy as being a positive advance for the life quality of workers. I also connect this practical flexibility that Sennett unfortunately views negatively to the extreme flexibility of consciousness that is recommended by much of Buddhism and Buddhist-inspired psychologies.

André Gorz is much more in agreement with my position, I think, and he suggests the adoption by society of an unconditional guaranteed minimal income as a support to the freelancer economy and a new positive flexibility, a new orientation towards a multi-activity mode of work, emphasis on free time, and investment by society in the formation of new interpersonal bonds and new social relationships. So someone like Richard Sennett appears to be merely a negative critic of the new capitalism, whereas André Gorz made concrete and positive proposals for improvements. Gorz is much more in tune with the younger generation of today who are enthusiastic about technology and its potentials for human liberation. One could make a project, in solidarity with Gorz, of promoting the situation of the high-tech freelancer to such an eminent position that, rather than freelancing being a condition that one reluctantly bears, it would unfold into a pattern of working and mode of life that one chooses and desires, a lifestyle that is regulated and valued by society, a lifestyle that is a source of new culture, freedoms and sociability, and which proceeds for those concerned without drastic discontinuities in income.

Now I return to the topic of the implementation of hybrid online-offline solutions in higher education. Why don’t we face the truth and start by admitting that the Internet and the information society are promoting the myth that knowledge is immediately accessible? It isn’t. Knowledge isn’t immediately accessible. We have more and more information and less and less knowledge.

In a sense, students must go freelance as well. They must take responsibility for their own education, and not leave it up to the university, to the education system as an institutional complex. Become something analogous to freelance workers practicing post-work. So this would be like post-education.

It is very worthwhile to consider the ideas of Sherry Turkle in this area.

In her book Simulation and its Discontents (2009), Sherry Turkle discusses a process of virtualisation: the consequences for the teaching of the sciences at MIT since the late 1980s of simulation technologies of the screen. Turkle focuses her research on psychoanalysis and human-technology interaction. She has written several books on the psychology of human relationships with technology, especially in the realm of how people relate to computational objects. So I think that, in order to fruitfully address the question of how hybrid online-offline technologies can be implemented for higher education, we need to turn to psychology rather than to sociology strictly speaking. Professor Turkle has written numerous articles on psychoanalysis and culture and on the ‘subjective side’ of people’s relationship with technology, especially computers.

The Real, the Virtual, the Digital, and the Quantum will all merge someday into a higher synthesis. But for now, media theory and cultural studies continue to focus obsessively on the idea of Digital Culture. This has been going on for 20 years, at least. Now they tell us that Facebook is utopia realized. The humanities scholars go on endlessly quoting Foucault and Deleuze. The techie programmers go on endlessly tweaking bits and bytes.

Once you start thinking in a Quantum way, the answer to almost every question becomes ‘yes and no’. And both sides contain huge truths which cannot be negated by the other.

Every intellectual (or spiritual, etc.) tradition that we respect has more or less operated independently from all the others. From the point of view of my Star Trek belief-system, the dream of a simultaneous top-down and bottom-up global culture, what we need now is a quantum leap forward to an epistemology where I have my own commitments, coming from my own biography and traditions, but I am also understanding of the value of other traditions which deserve my respect. We need a global thinking, one that is mindful of the singularities of each tradition.

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