I wrote this text in November 2010. A different version will be published soon in a book publication of the NABA Design University of Milan, Italy.
Transforming Computer Science into a Humanities Subject
Alan N. Shapiro
Recently I bought a copy at the St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City of an interesting book by Edward Slingerland called What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture. Slingerland argues persuasively that the “French theory” which has dominated university humanities studies in recent decades has serious flaws – like disembodiment and cultural relativism – that need to be corrected by infusions from the cognitive and natural sciences. Postmodernism emphasizes cultural discourse, claims that culture determines perception, and “assumes that humans are fundamentally linguistic-cultural beings.” Scientific fields like Artificial Intelligence, semantics, cognitive linguistics, behavioral neuroscience, and developmental psychology teach us that the human person is “an integrated mind-body system.” Knowledge and action are embodied. Slingerland, however, has such a vested interest in carrying out his academic culture war against those who wielded power during the era of the “postmodern turn” that he forgets what is of lasting value in the writings of the deconstructionist thinkers. Regardless of what one may think of the social constructivism of the early Bruno Latour, or of the feminist “science studies” of Sandra Harding, the fact remains that France has since 1960 contributed four great philosophers to world intellectual culture: Baudrillard, Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault. It is the primary source texts from which we must learn about that Gallic contributory stream to human knowledge, and not from second-hand versions of so-called “French theory.” Slingerland seems to simply want to swap out the era where postmodernism commanded the humanities, and swap in a new era where cognitive science commands.
Slingerland’s stated goal of bridging the gap between the humanities and the sciences is an important and noble one, an objective with which almost all of us agree. As he states: “It is becoming increasingly evident that the traditionally sharp divide between the humanities and natural sciences is no longer viable.” But – and this is the point that I wish to underscore – it is not possible to make any headway in unifying the sciences and the humanities if one is observing the situation from hundreds of meters in the air. To initiate the project of bringing together the sciences and the humanities, we must be experientially and practically very squarely on the ground, and in the trenches, like in the infantry. Theoretical academics are not in a position to do this. Those who make abstract intellectual approaches will just fall down between the two chairs of the humanities and the sciences, rejected by both sides. We can take a different approach. The approach of embodiment. Embodiment is what Slingerland wants, in his advocacy of the science of “bodily-based cognitive processes,” and the philosophy of consciousness. Our epistemology must be recursive. We must be in our being what we plead for. We ourselves must be embodied. We can make real Geisteswissenschaften-Naturwissenschaften interdisciplinarity happen, not make commentaries about interdisciplinarity from the bird’s eye view, looking down at reality as at a map.
My psychotherapist Jerry Kogan recommended to me that I read Fritz Perls’ autobiography In and Out the Garbage Pail. Fritz Perls was the founder of Gestalt Therapy. In this amazing book, Perls makes a fascinating remark about Wilhelm Reich and where Reich went wrong in his efforts to bring together Marxism and psychoanalysis. I don’t want to give the impression that I am dismissing Reich, because I think that Reich and Reich-inspired mind-body therapies are very important. But Perls zeroes in on the nature of Reich’s failure to synthesize two previously divided intellectual worldviews: “He made the mistake of attempting to get the two Weltanschauungen to relate to each other on a high level of abstraction instead of on the gut level. The result was rejection and name-calling. The Communists rejected him because he was an analyst, and the analysts rejected him because he was a Communist. Instead of a chair with a broader base, he found himself falling between two chairs. He got into trouble through relating two systems before relating his own subsistence and his own sex.” This last sentence is awesome. The Marx-Freud dialogue or encounter is very important. Marx is about economics and Freud is about sexuality. To merge Marx and Freud is not about the elaboration of abstract intellectual talk in a seminar. It is about answering the question of what is my relationship to making money? And it is about answering the question of what is my sexuality?
So the individuals most qualified to conduct research into the possible Marx-Freud fusion would be prostitutes, not cultural theory post-graduate students. This assertion is not so far-fetched as it sounds. Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, Charles Dickens, Charles Bukowski, and Jean Genet were all very interested in prostitutes. I did some sociological field-work in September 2009, living among prostitutes in Zurich, Switzerland. In the hotel lobbies where they and their protectors spend their time, I was accepted with trust into their conversations. I believe that they felt the existential connection of someone who has dealt honestly with his own multi-faceted sexuality and who has often survived economically “living on his wits” through jobbing, gambling, and long periods of sitting all hunched-up in a chair [as a computer programmer-software developer!].
Who are the individuals who are going to be the best qualified to build the bridge between the sciences and the humanities? Not the scholars who write books about the subject or teach seminars on the subject. Because the subject does not yet exist. Seeing the gap has very little to do with assembling the right structure to traverse the gap. It is first necessary to create the subject. The subject to be created is called: Computer Science. Computer Science does not yet exist. Despite its name, Computer Science is so far only an engineering discipline. Computer Science excluded art and sociology at its foundation, making itself into a strictly technical engineering practice, the tweaking of bits and bytes. We need a New Computer Science that integrates art and sociology at a fundamental level. To become a science, Computer Science must integrate what it previously excluded. To become a science, it must become the apparent opposite of that: a humanities subject. This sounds like a paradox, and it is. The way forward out of the conundrum of the Divided Self (R.D. Laing) of the Western Mind is to embark on an adventure of reinventing knowledge as interdisciplinary in the specific pragmatic context of the work of the Humanities Informatics Laboratory.
In books engrossed in the science vs. “French-theory-inspired” humanities culture wars, Computer Science is never mentioned. In Fashionable Nonsense, Sokal and Bricmont don’t say one word about it. Slingerland mentions Artificial Intelligence, but AI is a small and segregated sub-specialty within Computer Science. AI is rather set apart from the educational instruction and industrial practice of the field of Computer Science as a whole.
Invent a new humanities subject. What is a humanities subject? According to Wikipedia, the humanities are those academic disciplines – like literature and sociology – which study the human condition. As I said in my recent lecture on robots and androids at Ars Electronica, we need to expand our understanding of what is human to include an emerging future of humans and androids together. Man as the sole object of inquiry of the human sciences is the obsolete paradigm of anthropocentrism. We need to establish a double-system of humans and androids, a relationship with someone who understands our experience and predicament, yet has a different perspective on things.
We need a New Computer Science that starts to build the hardware and software and wetware for Artificial Life and androids, and for more powerful applications today. We need a practical knowledge project, which I propose to call the Humanities Informatics Laboratory. As an enlightened humanities, the project will be very much informed by science.
I will mention six aspects of what the Humanities Informatics Laboratory will do.
First, the Humanities Informatics Laboratory will integrate the perspectives of cybernetics and systems theory into its work. Cybernetics was big in the 1950s. It preceded the reduction of Computer Science to mere engineering which began to take hold in the 1960s. Cybernetics is the interdisciplinary science of control, command and communication first devised by Norbert Wiener. I think that Gregory Bateson, Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana, and Heinz von Foerster were all momentous figures in the history of cybernetics. I am also interested in the systems theory of sociologists like Niklas Luhmann and Talcott Parsons.
Second, the viewpoint of the Laboratory includes looking upon computer hardware and software as being alive. This is what differentiates my axiomatic position from that of other Computer Scientists. Technology is not an inert thing. Once we respect technology as being alive, then we can no longer be engaged in just the engineering of a machine.
Third, the work of the Laboratory will inscribe art – or rather, what I call the radical illusion beyond art – into the heart of Computer Science. I have written about the radical illusion beyond art in the context of cars, architecture, dance, virtual reality, and software. Jean Baudrillard wrote about it in the context of photography. Alan Cholodenko wrote about it in the context of animated films. To inscribe this objective illusion of the world into Computer Science is to work out the mathematics of quantum computing that goes beyond the binary or digital programming of the explicitly setted on/off switch, the logic of either/or or the one-to-one correspondence between the signifier and the meaning of a word-term at the base of identity in the semiological reduction practiced by Western science after Plato and Aristotle up until the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce. The software that derives from this reductionist binary logic is mechanistic. No real emergence or autonomy is possible. Software as it is enables a simulation of democracy. Either we get something like Wikipedia, where a power structure hides behind the façade of participation. Or we get computer games where the possibilities of play are limited by the recombinant permutations of what has been pre-programmed in the executing code’s flow control. But technology wants to play for real.
Fourth, the work of the Humanities Informatics Laboratory will inscribe sociology – or rather a quantum physics sociology that is a synthesis of ideas of Jean Baudrillard and Robert K. Merton – into the heart of Computer Science. Software in the prevailing object-oriented paradigm is all about objects and their instantiation from blueprint software classes. But these objects are understood as simulating processes and phenomena in the world which is assumed to be “real.” Baudrillard’s first book, published in 1968, is also about objects. It is called The System of Objects. Baudrillard studied the “directly experienced psychological and sociological reality of objects.” This quantum physics sociology describes a world of aleatory and wily objects. We need to upgrade object-oriented software development’s alleged “simulation of real” objects into the creation of radically uncertain objects, taking into account the twentieth-century sciences of quantum physics, relativity, and chaos/complexity theory. Baudrillard’s quantum physics sociology stands in the same relation to classical sociological reality that our New Computer Science stands in relation to the current object-oriented paradigm. Classical sociologists assume a world of docile objects waiting to be “objectively” investigated, a social world strictly rationally ordered by the exclusively rational subject of social science who is in control. Baudrillardian sociology considers stranger objects in an unmasterable social field governed by incompleteness.
To discharge the integration of sociology into Computer Science, we will also need a very pragmatic and American variant of sociology. Robert K. Merton’s idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy provides support to Baudrillard’s concepts of simulation and the redundancy of abundance at their inception (he mentions it in The Consumer Society, his second book, published in 1970). Merton’s ideas about the role model and social roles and expected behaviors – cornerstones of his theory of social groups – are the counterpart to what Baudrillard said about no one in the established social structure being free to say the truth. Most important for the project of the Humanities Informatics Laboratory is the fact that Merton was the founder of the sociology of science. We want to take the sociology of science one step further: to bring sociology into science, into Computer Science becoming a humanities subject.
Fifth, the Humanities Informatics Laboratory will write advanced code for Artificial Life, and for more powerful systems and applications in business, education, and social networks. There are many individuals, projects, organizations, and enterprises in the “art and technology,” cyberculture, computer gaming, ALife, new media, open source, and biopolitical activism communities who are not just “engineers” or techie programmers. These people are our friends and allies. However, they are working two levels removed from the core of Computer Science. So they cannot carry out an effective computing and cultural revolution. The core of Computer Science is the digital-binary computer and the object-oriented paradigm of programming languages like C++ and Java. I have written about how to get beyond digital-binary computing, and about how to extend object-orientation to include patterns and samples of similarity/resemblance in the part-whole or database element-software instance relationship.
The primary basis of the New Computer Science is the original works of two thinkers: Alexis Clancy and Jacques Derrida. Clancy’s work in mathematics references seminal ideas of Kurt Gödel, Erwin Schrödinger, Bernhard Riemann, David Bohm, and Carl Friedrich Gauss.
Jacques Derrida’s best known book is Of Grammatology, published in 1967. That early work is an important root of the New Computer Science. Derrida’s concept of Différance is elaborated in detail in the essay “Différance.” Différance encompasses a number of polysemous features governing the production of textual meaning. Words and signs can never fully conjure what their authors intend them to mean, but can only make appeals to additional words. As the Wikipedia article on Différance says, “meaning is forever ‘deferred’ or postponed through an endless chain of signifiers.” Différance is a theory of the liveliness of language. Différance can give life to software. We will program poetic signifying chains of meaning in language games, sequences of associations, and sounds which foster vitality. Autonomous, self-evolving, self-learning ALife is energized by languages.
Sixth, the Humanities Informatics Laboratory will consult to industry about workflow processes and creativity, harnessing the practices of the new field of social choreography. The chief originators of social choreography are Steve Valk, Michael Klien, and Jeffrey Gormly. Social choreography takes conceptions that come from the dance world – especially William Forsythe’s “postmodern” choreography of the plasticity of the body – and radicalizes and “applies” them to more and more areas of social life. What the predominant “body movement paradigm” in our society relegates to the status of autistic or nonfunctional behavior attains a space of legitimacy in Forsythe’s remaking of the dancer’s body. The ambition of social choreography is to extend this from the dancer’s body to a radical flexibility of the social body. Social choreography is also influenced by ideas and practices of the Situationist International, especially those of filmmaker Guy Debord, painter Asger Jorn, and urban planner Constant Nieuwenhuys.