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

The Revolution will not be Televised, it will be led by Radical Software

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Laura Mitchell interviews Alan N. Shapiro

Do you play video games?

A little, not so much. There’s a blackjack machine that I play a lot, in an offtrack betting parlor where a bunch of semi-addicted male gamblers hang out. I never lose more than 5 Euros at a time, and sometimes I win. On Jean Baudrillard’s last birthday, I won a lot of money. His spirit was around.

You mention roulette quite a bit in your writings. What is it about roulette that you like?

There are many things I love about roulette. I’ll just mention a couple of them. In American casinos, everything is unfairly stacked against the players. The house advantage is massive in every game. The chances of leaving a casino as a winner are slim. In the case of roulette, this is manifest in the fact that the American roulette wheel has a 0 and a double-0. If you bet on red or black, odd or even, 1 to 18, or 19 to 36 (the so-called outside bets), your chance of winning is 18 out of 38, which is 47.4%. This is not good. The house is beating you 53% – 47%. In European roulette, there is only the single 0. You chance of winning an outside bet is 18 out of 37, or 48.6%. This is much better. When I gamble in a European casino, I emerge from the casino a winner at least one-third of the time. You feel like you really have a chance to win. In American casinos, you pretty much know that you are going to lose. That’s sort of like the American business-consumerist-work-money system as a whole. You’re bound to lose. Unless you went to an Ivy League school. But then you owe a symbolic debt to Daddy for paying your tuition. So you lose anyway. Or, in the corporate world, you can win by selling your soul. So you lose anyway. Without a soul, you’re not human.

Ah, so it’s the challenge?

Maybe… I’d say my gut motivation is not so different from many other gamblers. It’s the attraction of getting a bunch of money without working for it, plus the excitement (especially of watching the ball spin around the wheel just prior to exiting the quantum reality of potentialities and wave-collapsing into the real-world event of falling into a specific slot), plus some kind of deep desire to beat the system.

I think that your motivation to stick it to the system is deeper than the something for (almost)nothing aspect.

My deep desire to beat capitalism at its own game, and to change the world for the better making a cultural revolution, comes from a baseball board game that I had when I was about 8 or 10 years old. It was called “Challenge the Yankees.” The Yankees were a dynasty in baseball at that time, having won, for example, 5 AL pennants in a row from 1960-1964. The Yankees were the established power, and the name of this board game kind of says it all.


According to Alexis’ mathematics, standard probability and statistics science is only an approximate understanding of sequences of outcomes of random events like spins of the roulette wheel or flipping a coin. According to standard probability and statistics science, each spin of the wheel or coin flip is an independent event, totally unrelated to prior and subsequent events. We believe, on the contrary, that outcomes come in waves. If a wave of “reds”, say 4 or 5 in a row, comes, then I believe that it is possible, given a very advanced sensitivity to such things, to know if the wave of reds is going to continue, or flip over into blacks. The same with betting on patterns of numbers within sequences. I actually believe that, at some point in the future, I will be able to beat the house at roulette. Or blackjack. I need to develop a very advanced sensitivity for flows/waves of events and outcomes. I am just at the beginning of cultivating this skill.

So, what many people take for luck, is just plain probability. What I like about you is that you observe before you play, to get a feel for what’s going on.

Is that all that you like about me? Very good, Laura, I see that you have read my story “Betting on Longshots,” where I describe how I won $3000 in the casino on the Lido in Venice, Italy when I was 24 years old, starting from nearly nothing. I sensed back then a new mathematics that is very much related to “getting a feel.” If I had not won that money, maybe my European wanderings would have come to an end, and I would have gone back to New York and become a dentist, instead of a philosopher-sociologist-post-Heideggerian-technologist. This would have no doubt pleased some people who knew me in America, because then they would not have to think about how to relate to me in the reality of who I am: a singularity, an individual. I would just belong to a category of suburban New York upper-middle class dentists. And look I have excellent teeth anyway… I turned out OK.

Okay, so now explain Object-Oriented Programming.

I explain this in my essay “Society of the Instance.” But here’s an update.

Standard programming, which was invented in the 60s-70s, and is known as procedural or functional programming, involves code that is the execution of a sequence of instructions to the computer. The programmer is a Cartesian abstract disembodied mind acting in an instrumental way upon the computer treated as dumb passive instrument or slave-machine that is treated as just dumb enough to carry out the orders that I give it.

So, this was things like COBOL and Fortran? The basic garbage in, garbage out?

Yes. Object-oriented programming was invented in the 80s (that’s a simplification, the progamming language Simula was invented already in the 60s), and the software becomes a simulation of some so-called “real-world process.” The programmer is essentially replaced by a modeler. She models some so-called “real-world process” (like the transferring of money between bank accounts) and then reproduces this workflow in software. The software is now significantly more alive. It is not just a slave-machine carrying out my instructions. It is now part of the “late capitalist” landscape of consumerist-business culture, more or less on the same level of mediocre intelligence as “American culture” as a whole, which is to say, a simulated hyper-pseudo-reality where all experiences and processes are pre-programmed according to a known-in-advance set of behavorial and commodified codes, models, and formulae; nothing is spontaneous, creative, original, truly alive, truly existential or authentic.

This last flow of words out of my mouth is the essence of Baudrillard, the essence of his key concept of simulation: the model precedes the real. But all the books on object-oriented programming written by non-Baudrillardians naively and wrongly say that OO “is simulating real-world processes.” What this leaves out is that the consumer-business culture of Amerika that is being simulated is itself not a “real world.” It is itself a simulation. So OO is a simulation of a simulation.

So, what is commonly referred to as “real-world,” is really a physical representation of a conceptual model?

That’s getting close. It’s a conceptual model (or set of symbols) of what is already a conceptual model. So it intensifies and extends the process of the virtualization of everything. Although its advocates naively believe that it is a conceptual model of something “real.”

So is the “concept” a hybrid of the abstract and the concrete? Purely abstract? Or just a bunch of bullshit?

I’d say a hybrid of the abstract and the concrete.

Sometimes more abstract, sometimes more concrete?

From the perspective of the cultural and cognitive consequences of object technology (rather than from a strictly vocational perspective), the greater efficacy enabled by the new paradigm of object-orientation is a double movement (of reversibility) concurrently both closer to and away from “the real.” Object-orientation’s true merit is relative: it is a great thing for computers, whose serviceability it enhances considerably in comparison with what computers were before. Object-orientation is, however, not necessarily such a great thing for reality, since its spiraling appeal and potency cause more and more aspects of life to be brought daemonically under the sway of instantiating computers and the reign of the multimedia instance. The gesture “towards the real” within the double reverse movement of object-orientation is perceptibly self-contradictory and self-sabotaging, even though it appears at first glance only to be ambivalent. On the one hand, this directional vector “towards the real” is partly and frequently dressed up as a matter-of-fact claim about increased apperception and faithful representation of reality. It is a duplicitous gambit which continues to cash in on the still-paying dividends or rhetorical remainders of the self-evident “scientific real” left over from the very rationalist-empiricist epistème which the partner motion “away from the real” (exemplified in the concept of the “software class”) seeks to subvert.

This is why I resent the hell out of the lot of the clinical documentation technology that supposed to “help us,” when in point of fact, it’s driving us farther and farther away from the reason we became nurses, therapists, etc: the patient.

This would be related to your idea of starting to work on the New Medicine or New Biology in parallel to the invention of the New Computer Science. Look, I have two books on my shelf called “The Biology of Star Trek.” Wanna borrow them?

Did object-orientation refine the algorithmic process? If a, then b; if c, then d; if a+b, the e?

No. It was much more than that. It was an important revolution (initiating the practice of making technical simulations of cultural simulations). Analogously, if you genetically cloned an average American, who is already a cultural clone based on pre-programmed cultural codes and models, you’d have a technical clone of a cultural clone. This is why I love the film “Moon” – it shows another positive possibility for cloning. I’m against cloning if the person being cloned is already a cultural clone of two hundred million other drones. If the person being cloned is truly an individual, let’s say in Nietzsche’s sense, he has chosen his own destiny and has also accepted the destiny that was chosen for him, in an impossible exchange or pact of lucidity, then I am in favour of cloning. To clone a person who is truly an individual is a good thing. That individual will be honoured and his valuable life projects continued on.

So, your view of American hyper-reality is that our so-called reality would walk like a duck, quack like a duck, but not necessarily meet some of intrinsic qualities of a duck?

Yes, exactly, because the duck of consumer society is already a plastic fake duck. You would be hard-pressed to find a real duck.

Quack! quack!

The New Computer Science is a radicalization of object-orientation into Artificial Life. The software becomes alive. It is significantly more alive than us… we the cultural citizens of late capitalist consumer-business society. Being more alive than us, the software becomes in effect the revolutionary subject that will transform “American” culture. This is my version of the Marxian revolutionary subject. I hope that Douglas Kellner will like it and agree.

Only something more alive than we the televised cultural clones of our Truman-Show-like simulacrum-world can lead the revolution.

As you explained to me, and since I know you love numbers, so I’ll say it in this way, you are 53, and you have lived 33 years in America, 16 years in Germany, 2 in Italy, 1 in France, and 1 in Switzerland. So do you feel that you are American or German? And what about Jewish?

I feel American and European, certainly not German. I couldn’t live in America, the workaholism there is unliveable for me. But I love the playfulness of baseball, and other American sports, American TV and film, Las Vegas, the desert, the giant mosquitoes in the summer in upstate New York. Star Trek is just example of the great American imagination and creativity that I call the reservoir of symbolic exchange that can transform American culture.

I lived in Frankfurt am Main for 16 years and became zero German. I’m probably moving to Berlin soon, so maybe I’ll develop a little more of a German identity there. You know, I’m not especially fond of the so-called leftist, feminist, and critical theory-sociology scenes in FFM, it has been very stagnant here since the 70s in terms of ideas. Intellectuals over 50 are just negative. In Berlin, I meet a lot of interesting young people, say in their 30s, who are savvy in media and technology, and who also really know something about philosophy, art, sociology. This is very hopeful. Of course, these young people in Berlin are from all over the world. And you can get a Doner Kebap and a coke there for 3 Euros 30.

[Update:  Today, January 15, 2010, i received the keys to my new apartment… in Frankfurt! So after seriously considering Berlin, I decided to stay in Frankfurt after all. Hopefully this is a good omen for the Jets beating San Diego on Sunday… What?]

Jewish we’ll get into another time.

And Ireland is starting to seriously grow on me.

Would you want different seats for each game of a baseball doubleheader? There are still doubleheaders in Spring Training, like the Red Sox playing Northeastern, followed by the Red Sox playing Boston College.

For a doubleheader, it is proper and desirable to stay in the same seats for both games. Between games, I’d either go for a walk with you or sit in my seat reading the Baseball Encyclopedia. Flaubert made fun of encyclopedic knowledge projects, but he would like the Baseball Encyclopedia. Did I tell you about the Yankees Sunday doubleheader that I attended with my Dad and Fred in 1965? In the first game, Tom Tresh (the Yankees’ third outfielder besides Mantle and Maris) homered in each of his first three at-bats. When he came up for the fourth time, the crowd went berserk. I can still see the beer from the slob sitting next to me spilling in my lap. Tresh laced a single to center field. And did you know I was at Shea when the Montreal Expos played their first game ever in 1969…

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