nature

From inter-subjectivity to multi-subjectivity: knowledge claims and the digital condition

Beautiful and open accessAbstract: One of the consequences of digitization is a deepening crisis of epistemology, caused by the proliferation of social, biological and machinic actors that overwhelm established methods of generating and organizing knowledge. Machine-driven analysis of large data sets is introducing a new way of doing science. In this, it is answering to this crisis while, at the same time, deepening it. Continuing to claim ‘scientific objectivity’ is becoming ever more impossible and in practice is likely to serve as a way to abdicate responsibility for the actual research and its consequences. Rather, we should seek to highlight the positionality and partiality of any claim, also and in particular in data science, thus rendering more obvious the need to combine competing claims into an understanding of the world that is not so much inter- but rather multi-subjective.

Keywords: epistemology, digitality, data science, reproducibility crisis, multi-subjectivity

One of the consequences of digitization is a deepening crisis of epistemology, caused by the proliferation of social, biological and machinic actors that overwhelm established methods of generating and organizing knowledge (Stalder 2018). And, since there is a close relationship between epistemology and politics, between ways of knowing and ways of managing the world, we are also in a deep political crisis. This manifest itself not the least in a populist rejection of ‘science’ and ‘facts’ (Manjoo 2008). This crisis of the established – let’s call it modern-liberal – epistemic-political order has created a space for the establishment of a new one, which doesn’t yet have a name, even if its outlines are already visible.

We Are All Bruno! From Unease with Technology to Empathy with Nature


Guerilla Girls, 1989

Monkey Selfie, 2011

It’s no good. The horse has bolted. The tipping point has been reached. The digital condition now shapes our lives. In the early 1960s Marshall McLuhan noted the demise of the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’, which is to say, that epoch of (Western) culture decisively shaped by the printed word; and there is no mistaking, now, what has taken its place: a new condition – i.e. ‘forms of experience, philosophical viewpoint, and expression’– defined by the ubiquitous presence and inherent potential of networked communications and control. It is thereby incidental whether, or how, one uses these technologies oneself, for they have become part and parcel of everyday infrastructure, in similarity to other networks, such as power and water supply, or transport systems. Were any one of these to suddenly break down, our lives would change in a flash – and not for the better.

Wir alle sind Bruno! Vom Unbehagen mit der Technologie zur Empathie mit der Natur.

Es hilft nichts. Der Zug ist abgefahren, der Kipppunkt überschritten. Die Kultur der Digitalität ist die Form unseres Lebens. Nachdem Marshall McLuhan bereits Anfang der 1960er Jahre das Ende der ‹Gutenberg Galaxis› – also jener kulturellen Epoche (des Westens), die vom Buchdruck massgeblich mitgeprägt war – festgestellt hat, ist heute recht deutlich, was denn an ihre Stelle tritt. Eine Kultur, ‹Formen der Erfahrung, der geistigen Anschauungsweise und des Ausdrucks›, die geprägt ist von der Allgegenwart und den damit einhergehenden Möglichkeiten vernetzter Kommunikation und Steuerung. Dabei spielt es keine entscheidende Rolle ob, oder wie man selbst diese Technologien nützt. Sie sind zur Infrastruktur des täglichen Lebens geworden, ähnlich wie andere Netze: Strom, Wasser oder Strassen. Würde eines davon plötzlich ausfallen, unser Leben würde sich schlagartig verändern. Und nicht zum Guten.

Information Ecology (1997)

This is a very old text. In fact, one of the first I've ever written, from 1997. I re-post it here because it has now been included in the new MIT Publication "Information" (edited by Sarah Cook), which is "one of a series documenting major themes and ideas in contemporary art." Unfortunately, there was a mistake in editing and now it appears erroneously as "information economy". Similar, but not quite the same :)

It's still a good text, even if the McLuhanite language feels a heavy. But as a historic document I'm happy to see it re-published, particularly now that "ecological approaches" to media are once again becoming popular.

Information Ecology

A position paper (version 1.0) McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, FIS, UofT, 1997

"New media are not bridges between man and nature: they are nature." Marshall McLuhan, 1969

Media build an integrated environment based on flows of information. Increasingly, this environment provides the primary setting for human agency. Information ecology aims at understanding the properties of this environment in order to use its potential, avoid its dangers and influence its development positively.

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