[-empyre-] ambiguous artistic strategies & critical engineering

Lasse Scherffig lscherff at khm.de
Wed Feb 15 23:18:24 EST 2012

Hi empyre,

although we are already in week 2 of the in/compatible discussion, I 
briefly want to get back last week's question of "honesty":

 > 1. What does honesty/transparency mean in the context of so many layers
 > of abstraction? Is there any honesty in there, or is a computational
 > system a simulacrum? No matter how much you expose to the user, there
 > will always be something hidden.

The problem here is the one highlighted by Magnus Lawrie quoting 
Andersen and Pold. However, it is not just Sutherland's separation of 
data processing and visual representation creating that problem but it 
directly follows from digital computation: While in analog computing, 
movement, voltages or whatever have a direct causal and indexical (in 
terms of Peirceian semiotics) relation of processing and representation, 
digital computation is different. You cannot read a digital memory by 
merely looking at it (as Pias has for example shown for the William's 
Tube [1]), whereas computation of the analog differential analyzer by 
Vannevar Bush was described as giving "the man who studies it a grasp of 
the innate meaning of the differential equation" [2]. The only way to 
read a digital representation is to use an interface attaching signs to 
it. And because the relation of these signs to the digital is arbitrary, 
they are Peirceian symbols.

It is because of this problematic (symbolic) relation of computation and 
representation in the digital realm that computation today not only 
presupposes an abstraction reducing phenomena to descriptions, 
descriptions to formalisms and formalisms to algorithms [3] (which is a 
huge problem in itself). But at the same time it entails a concretion of 
digital processes that by necessity is symbolic and thus "dishonest". 
That's why I use the term "Feedback Machine" to denote the combination 
of "worldless" digital computation with a Cybernetic coupling to the 
world the digital is devoid of [4]. Critical engineering thus cannot 
stop at understanding some essential "inner workings" of computing 
machinery (which is important but of course yields the problem of where 
to stop -- do you need to know logics, programming or building a 
computer from raw materials?) but also an understanding of the processes 
of abstraction and concretion that constantly couple the phenomenal and 
formal world -- or signs and signals (a concept originally by Frieder 
Nake [3]) -- is much needed.


[1] Claus Pias, Computer Spiel Welten, Dissertation: Weimar, 2000, 
http://e-pub.uni-weimar.de/opus4/frontdoor/index/index/docId/35 p. 55
[2] Claus Pias, Computer Spiel Welten, p. 45
[3] Frieder Nake and Susanne Grabowski, Human-computer interaction 
viewed as pseudo-communication. Knowledge Based Systems 14 (2001), 441-447
[4] e.g. p. 4 on "(ping) pong" in the in/compatible world of the news

Academy of Media Arts Cologne http://www.khm.de
Laboratory for Experimental Computer Science http://interface.khm.de

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