UBIQUITOUS KINGDOM: Musings on Witness Your World, the contemporary artist as a social network – by TOM DE METTE

Some drafts on Witness Your World

When exactly Witness Your World was born, no one knows. It took some time conceiving the platform, as for all offsprings of this age… that’s the digital age. In a way its evolution will probably never stop. As long as it gets input, it will be sure to keep on creating. In a way Witness Your World is the quintessence of the contemporary artist in postmodern times. It’s got artworks but its existence is virtual.

We can visualize Witness Your World by drawing a diagram. It’s a system of processes, of information going back and forth, data being collected from users and manipulated through a range of computations that finally result in a physical work of art. Coming up with a similar diagram of the human mind being creative in the process of making a work of art is a whole other ball game. It would take a pretty impressive computer system to unravel the creativity of an artist. Things like the phenomenal consciousness would have to be envisioned, for example. To put it plainly, rather than being a technological problem, it’s more likely to be a philosophical issue: the Mind-Body problem. In the case of Witness Your World, we need not go far beyond the realms of experimental philosophy. The mechanics of the system can easily be imagined. Witness Your World is social software, its workflow is a computer program and reality is shaped in the same way as that of a network existing virtually. The artistry is a whole community. The creative existence, the core of the system’s imagination as an artist, is a cultural interface.

Finally, sketching drafts on Witness Your World should include the statement that it has been conceived by artists, programmed by computer scientists and reflected on by philosophers. But most of all, it is a wild bunch of random people… meaning: it could be you.

Psycho ex machina

Philosophy has quite the archive of X-Files. One of them surely is the Mind-Body problem. It’s a problem probably as old as philosophy itself. From early on, philosophy was involved in the search for some kind of focal point. This focal point is actually a principle: the first principle. This point is both beginning and end and could be considered the high point of man’s ability to think up reality with a structure that makes sense. Culture, the sense of nature as a means of structure, its phenomena and man himself, are all part of the core of being. Furthermore, it’s the fuel for our human strive. This point is supernatural in a way that it throws humans back to their paradoxical divinity.

The idea of cosmic structure presupposes a world as a design that is subject to human reason. This limited reason evokes a world of boundaries and possibilities. It’s an almost perfect world, this idea: it’s a non-existing city where perfection is imagined through man’s ability to understand and to exist. It’s like Kosmopolis or the Matrix. The first principle is the seed that procreates with human wisdom and the idea of Kosmopolis functions as a uterus for our human, schizophrenic nature. The human way of being-in-the-world is at its most sublime when pictured in a world that is most human and wherein man can put the best of himself. The human strive is set on achieving the realization of this ideal. This and the following, I believe, is important to understand the goal of a project like Witness your World. We will explain in short the philosophy and evolution of how the idea of striving to know things around us as they are, to know them as objectively as humanly possible without however dismissing subjective possibilities, takes shape. .

In ancient Greek philosophy the idea of Kosmopolis, the Greek city state, is actually the conceptual blueprint of an urban civilization. This civilization is merely an appearance. It’s metaphysical. It’s a statement of man’s ideological dependence of nature. It’s aesthetics transcending ethics through a quest for the first principle. As Aristotle (2002) put it: we know the nature of each thing if we are able to get its first principle. Aristotle was convinced man can grasp the identity of what is real. Identity points out the coherence of reality and is therefore inherent to the realization of man in the world. What ‘is’, is ‘this thing here’. To be is, in a Aristotelian sense, a natural goal, a means to achieve completion as a human being. It’s shear potentiality or to put it in metaphysical terms: it’s transcendence in immanence. .

In contemporary philosophy the idea of Kosmopolis is considered the hidden agenda of Modernity. Modern times basically revolved around the policy of certainty. At the epiphany of great uncertainty through war, religious crisis and moral decay, modern man sought out universal, eternal knowledge in science, art and religion, obtained by human reason. Whatever was thinkable, should also be knowledgeable. The scientific findings of Kepler, Galilei and Newton needed to be placed in a general project of developing methods that would provide absolute knowledge of the world. Science and philosophy at that era were no doubt partners involved in the project of Modernity. Philosophers like Descartes (1990) attempted to fundamentally doubt all synthetic truth claims in order to grasp their analytic fundament: God. The principle of ‘cogito ergo sum’ is an onto-theological update of the quest for the first principle. Cartesianism was mainly concerned with the theater of the mind as the ideal realization of the Modern Kosmopolis. .

Finally, in our times, Kosmopolis reached the realm of technology: the Technopolis. Uncertainty made way for future utopianism, the non-stop accumulation of knowledge to control the world and reality. Digital media and virtual reality provide us with new truth claims of imagination becoming known factuality. Technopolis is the sublimation of technology, of the Absolute Substance in which man sees a medium of ultimate transcendence to the epicenter of his being. In a way, Witness your World is that sublimation. It’s a world made possible out of the paradox in human nature, of wanting to think about and work out a possible world, in this case the world of the artists and the artistic process, whilst being eager to find out the first principle behind that creative process and artistry. Internet, cyberspace, online networks, micro- and nanotechnology; they all seem to reveal our fascination with the Digital Sublime (Mosco, 2000). This new set of technological innovations keeps our long standing expectation of the idea of Kosmopolis intact. We are now overruled by an industry of our own making, set to control and compute and thereby creating a cybermyth that tricks human beings into a factual and virtual Uebermensch-condition. It’s post-humanity hyper-ventilating.

The evidence is there, well… at least in our mindful imagination. Thought-experiments like the movie THE MATRIX express the notion of a ‘philosophical machine’ (Badiou, ed., 2004). Looking at the system driving the website and digital world of Witness Your World, we could suggest that it is also some sort of philosophical machine. I mean, it desires to reach beyond producing art.

As we return to the problem at hand, the Mind-Body problem shows us just how complex the immersion of both knowledge and thought ability is in human nature. It requires a reflection on the natural human divide. There are a lot of perspectives from which to examine the Mind-Body problem: logics, neural science and even philosophical mysticism are among them. Logically, the Mind-Body problem is discarded as a question that is logical conceivable, but that not necessarily provides us with new knowledge. As a scientific challenge, the Mind-Body problem is often reduced to the field of physicalism, materialism and functionalism. These three theories mainly reduce all that is mental to the realm of all that physical, which – in simple terms – is matter, functionality and processes. The other end of the stick is phenomenalism. Phenomenalism denies anything real existing beyond the mind, or our consciousness. Elaborating on the Cartesian Theater or the theater of the mind, Ryle (2000) unveiled the dualistic theory of Descartes as the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine. The dichotomy between mind and body is brought back to the level of human behavior. Dennett (1991) in turn, proclaimed that there is no divine director of the Cartesian Theater: the notion of perfection, whereby everything in our mind falls into place and consciousness suddenly arises, is no more than a myth. For Searle (1992) the idea of objectivity, when viewed as a part of the notion of perfection, is an unachievable epistemological ideal. Perhaps the natural world is the only one objectively knowledgeable, but it’s not the only world we can possibly think. Aside from objective biological entities, there are certain phenomena of consciousness that are just as real, but that stretch underneath the biological. They are subjective entities, which Searle regards as social relations. A key feature in this notion is intentionality, which when considered linguistically, is human, all too human. Human language is subjective.

To a certain extent, Witness your World discards Cartesianism. It’s almost completely non-physical. We know Witness Your World is a digital fantasy, a creation sprung from the mind of real people and made with digital matter, namely bits and pixels. But it’s hard not to talk about Witness Your Worldresults as not being real, genuine artworks. This brings on the challenge, I guess, of dealing with wanting to materialize what is virtual.

No boring borg

Wiener (1961) described cybernetics as a study of control systems that generate automatic processes through feedback mechanisms and are thereby capable to a certain degree of self-regulation. We should note that information and communication, forming the fundaments of these feedback mechanisms, were entirely understood as strictly instrumentalist notions. This type of cybernetics was called first-order cybernetics. Consequently, second-order cybernetics elaborated on Wiener’s mathematical theory and added a fundamental question to the research of cyborgs: to what level can this degree of self-regulation through feedback by control systems be considered as an actual form of artificial intelligence or even some sort of consciousness? The main difference between first-order and second-order cybernetics is that these control systems were no longer viewed as mere passive designs or mechanics but as living, social organisms.

In our digital age, the age of information and communication technology, we might suggest yet another stage in cybernetics, called third-order cybernetics. We can hardly deny that there’s wear and tear on the hermeneutics of the cyborg. The notion of cyborg is suffering from a burn-out. It’s time to give the cyborg a face-lift and to upgrade its etymology. We propose to change a few letters in the hybrid term ‘cyborg’ and would rather talk about iborgs (information borgs) and ciborgs (communicative information borgs).

The implementation of internet and the domestication of digital media in informatics, robotics and domotics implicate a rapid and powerful popularization and commercialization of these new technologies in our everyday lives. While the first version of the World Wide Web was pretty much an example of the philosophy behind first-order cybernetics, Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 can be seen as digital technology systems becoming more humanized and therefore good practices of the idea behind second-order and third-order cybernetics. We can still speak of cybernetics when talking about the internet, because the internet remains a control system that is capable of generating processes and regulating itself through feedback mechanisms. But instead of putting the stress on control and regulation, the current and upcoming versions of the internet are much more about interaction and social relations. The philosophy behind new digital technologies is that they are in fact media, means to inform and communicate. Producing information and communicating it, is kind of the core business of human beings, is it not? Man is taking back what rightfully belongs to him: we don’t really need to control and dominate through technology; at least not as much as we are eager to make technology as human as is humanly possible. After all, that’s our ticket to godliness.

And what about Witness Your World in all this? Well, I think that’s pretty obvious. Witness Your World is online. It’s part of the internet that takes people seriously. It needs people pretty badly in order to stay alive. Witness Your World is an art project that aims to realize the philosophy behind Web 2.0 and 3.0 and third-order cybernetics. Social relations, interaction of creative processes are the main input for a system like it. Hence, it is existentialism that is now starting to overrule strict instrumentalism. Man seems to be in search of capturing the human side of computers and digital media. Technology is considered non-human but not necessarily without thinking the possibility of co-existence. Not only do we become friends with the ‘Alien’ or the ‘Other’ that is technology, we also make a lot of new friends along the way among each other. We become networks, communities.

Axel King is such a network or community. He might well be one of the most social, amicable artists around. He’s no longer the image of the artist-genius locked inside his workshop and living out his creative fantasies solitarily before sharing it with the rest of the world by exhibiting his art work. Axel King is out there! We simply surf his website, register ourselves and instantly become part of his creative mind. His brain is a sort of hive-mind where pretty much anyone with half a decent brain (the right side of the human brain, that is) can become a creator of art work made by Axel King. Axel King is a feast of friends, a nexus of human creativity and social technology. .

So much for the ‘practical’ side of Witness Your World. The theorems behind it consist predominantly of the Actor Network Theory and the idea of Ubiquitous Computing. In brief, the Actor Network Theory as developed by Callon (1991) and Latour (2005) focuses on the probability of negotiations between human and non-human elements functioning as ‘actants’ in a network and mediated through social relations and processes. Ubiquitous Computing should be understood as an ideal of making use of technology in such a way that we don’t even notice the technology being there. It’s in the woodwork. By designing digital devices that are so well-integrated in our human existence and social practices, man is attempting to make technology invisible, ubiquitous. Why? Well, if we would be unaware of technology being there, there’s no threshold between us and the ‘Alien’ or the ‘Other’. We would silently have become one, without ontologically being one and the same all together. At least, not for a while, …

An interface with a face

Personally, I think Witness your World might be one of the first to be crowned in this new territory. If his network of creativity, both online and in real life, succeeds in making people work out their aspirations through a community of creators that co-produce works of art that can be seen all around the world, wherever, whenever and however… a new movementmight arise. This social network or engaged community under the name of the brand Leroy Brotherswould have a world of people being part of a creative genius and enjoying the social profit of their common visibility.

What these people all share is in fact a new language, the language of new media. They not only share content but also values. Witness your World is what Manovich (1997) calls a cultural interface. Being part of Witness your World means for people to become artists themselves, which among other things means to understand the medium of art, its language or semiotics whilst also getting in touch with their own creativity, being able to opening up their artistic vain and finally, wanting to share, interact and mix this ‘blood’ with that of others. We should bare in mind that we humans share a fundamental quality with digital technology, namely: hybridity. Just like digital media, human beings are hybrids too.

The platform is therefore a womb, a uterus, procreating naturally born hybrids, by using and integrating all kinds of non-human actants from our culture. Witness Your World is available for all of us who want to explore their own creative subjectivity, while also researching the objective core of Leroy Brothers which could come down to the metaphysical level of knowing what it is to be an artist or what the first principle behind human creativity could be.

This almost makes technology in its initial notion disappear. Seeing that it is natural to man to paradoxically set borders and defy boundaries, to subjectively think further from that which can be known objectively, we can unveil the irrefutable parallel between nature, culture and technology. In this perspective, Manovich’s notion of the cultural interface has about the same effect as the zombie-argument had in the debate on phenomenal consciousness. It’s not because we cannot produce definitive objective proof, let alone physical evidence of the existence of phenomenal consciousness that it is therefore impossible. We can think it, so it must be fundamentally and naturally human. In a similar way, we don’t even need to know whether the artist is actually a real, living and breeding human being or a system scaled and modeled from a human blueprint. We can think of Witness Your World as a new kind of artist on the scene. The artworksare ultimately proof of life.

 

This text was initially written for Axel King in 2009 and adapted for Witness Your World.

On the author

Tom DE METTE (Ghent, 1974) is philosopher with the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences (Department of Adult Education Sciences) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Brussels – Belgium). He also collaborates in research in the field of photography and film, conducted at the Department of Art Sciences at the same university. He is currently working on a doctoral dissertation (PhD) on E-culture and Creativity. He publishes on topics like Cultural Policy, E-Culture, Citizenship, Film and New Media, Multiple Literacy, Arts and Adult Education.

References

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Badiou, A., Bénatouïl, T. (eds.). (2004). Matrix. Machine Philosophique. Paris: Ellipses.

Callon, Michel (1991). Techno-economic networks and irreversibility. In Law, J., ed. A sociology of monsters: Essays on power, technology and domination, pp. 132–61. London: Routledge.

Chalmers, D. J. (1996). The Conscious Mind: In search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. London: Penguin Books.
Descartes, R. (1991). Méditations métaphysiques. Paris: Librairie Générale Française.

Haraway, D. J. (1991). A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In: Haraway, D. J. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, pp. 149-181. New York: Routledge.

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