BY MARK JARZOMBEK
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
BEFORE BUDDHA INVENTED RENUNCIATION; before Christians invented martyrdom; before Mohammed invented the jihad, before the Hebrews invented monotheism, before Plato invented the dreaded cave in which we supposedly live, blind to the presence of all that is Good, people talked to each other in freer ways. They talked to dead ancestors, to rocks, to trees, to animals, to spirits.
How does the new interblending of the organic and the inorganic, of living realities and anonymous algorithms, and of the human and the corporate shape the question of Being? If we exclude techno-optimists on the one hand and techno-despairers on the other hand, where then do we begin the conversation? My book Digital Stockholm Syndrome in the Post-Ontological Age argues that first we must challenge the lingering Enlightenment categories of biology, chemistry, and technology; we even have to move past the cyborgic, artificial intelligence imaginaries of the 1970s. The ultimate drift of the contemporary situation is to create not just a world of pixelated information, but a world that mobilizes information through a process akin to heat—the more heat the better. It is not data that is important in our world but data generation. Humans are the perfect data providers, they move and travel; they get sick, they commit crimes, they listen to music, they go to the gym, they eat, sleep, and walk, and drink and have friends and relatives; there are billions of them. It is the perfect algorithm-friendly environment, the world of Post-Ontology.
Its emergence was not simply the result of changes in technology, but as an unpredicted confluence of a series of historical trajectories: the civilianization of technologies like GPS, the legalization and corporatization of algorithmic know-how, the emergence of the data fabrication industry and finally the creation of a globally scaled, psycho-mediated, quasi-militarized, interdependency of human, corporations governments, and hackers in a grand multi-tiered exploitational system. This is not to say that the old ontology is dead and gone, but to argue that the old-fashioned sense of Being – as dependent on the integrity of the individual, itself a Modern construction – exists only in an ‘as if’ state. Being is now ‘produced’ only to enmesh us ever more deeply in a world of algorithmic clouds.
In the world of data excess, algorithms chop us into digestible/marketable/governable/hackable categories . . . The algorithm represents us, not as complete beings, but as slices through/across our Beings. These algorithmic slices operate on the individual to fulfill a sublimated desire for completion. They are created in our image, and thus the more, the better, as they, in their emerging cumulativeness, fulfill a range of needs from the narcissistic to the epistemological, from the masochistic to the liberational, and from the seductive to the performative.
If ontology and algorithms are no longer distinct, then the questions relating to The Human as well as to the Body and Technology all need a new foundation. Post-Ontology begins with the fusionism of today, rather than seeing some sort of future condition in the history of technology. It critiques the Onto-curmudgeons who try to hold on to the principle of an anthro-centric worldview.
The study of Being is now based on the study of a new type of science in which the human is being pushed to its corporeal / sensate / moral / physical / psychological / political / social / environmental / sexual / bacteriological / global limits. Instead of discussing capitalism as such we should see the data consuming entities to whom we are now beholden – i.e., the major corporations, governments and hackers – as all invested, along with each of us, globally, in the immanence of the new (in)human, a water-and-carbon-base surface that emits the life pulse of data. The glue that holds all this together is a finely constructed type of paranoia that is shared by humans, governments, and corporations. Unlike the modern distinction between health and paranoia, paranoia is the “new healthy.”
The data security industry produces insecurity in just the right doses for its self-perpetuation. The system is calculated and legalized in the form of upgrades and contract renewals, patches and defaults, that continuously remind the (in)human—often when they least expect it—of his/her precarious standing in the social fabric. I call it onto-torture.
If there is no fixed ‘outside’ to understand where the individual is to located, how do we then understand the circulatory system that produces the sense of Self? Because the purpose of algorithms is not to produce data, but to mobilize data, we need to change the terms of our understanding from technology and mathematics to thermodynamics. I argue that life in the Post-Ontological Age is governed by three laws.
The First Law:
The physical system (of data) = natural system = human system.
The Second Law:
“Data” = Data Surplus > Data Processing.
The Third Law:
The more the data gods capitalize on order, the more disorder is purposefully/‘accidentally’ produced.
Computation—if one can even use that antiquated word—involves at its core an analytic secrecy for which no external or internal analysis can account. Computation only works if there is more computation. It is a science (to use another strange-sounding word) that revolves around the calculation of instability—the calculation of a calculated instability—leading to the incalculable (but predictably unpredictable), calculation of instability.
In the world of Post-Ontology, my “I” is irrevocably dependent on and complicit in these productive and counterproductive layers of algorithmic activities. This means that the world is now not just fallible, but designed to be fallible – to break down, to be ‘hacked,’ and to need so-called ‘upgrades’ and ever more advanced ‘security measures.’ In the Post-Ontological world, we might be more human than ever before, which makes the promise of Artificial Intelligence ever more comic. Ultimately, the new human is a data-derivative, packaged, formatted, and ‘protected’ for the global stock market of information. It is not the end-point of our speculation, but the beginning point.
Mark Jarzombek is author of Digital Stockholm Syndrome in the Post-Ontological Age. He is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has been teaching since 1995. He specializes in the history and theory of architecture.
“A brief yet stylistically ironic and incisive interrogation into how recent iterations of post- or inhumanist theory have found a strange bedfellow in the rhetorical boosterism that accompanies the alleged affordances of digital technologies and big data.” —Boundary 2