Toward an Interality-Oriented Philosophy (IOP) of the Digital.
A man coins not a new word without some peril; for if it happens to be received, the praise is but moderate; if refused, the scorn is assured.--Ben Jonson [T]hinking is not a continuous, discursive process--thinking "quantizes."--Vilem Flusser
The digital is something we use and are used by on a daily basis but do not quite comprehend. This familiar stranger has become our constitutive other, our new dwelling. We have since been taken on a giddy journey of becoming with neither destination nor return. Myriad signs around us indicate that the digital has been and will continue to be a formidable agent of transformation. The world itself as we knew it once upon a time has been pulverized and become one with the digital sandstorm. At this post-historical, neo-nomadic moment, "know thyself" immediately entails knowing the digital. We are challenged to grasp something discursive prose made up of strings of letters is not adequate to precisely because it has rendered this means of knowing obsolescent. We have reached a point where we cannot but let go of our rational bearing because everything rational is mere content in this new medium. Literal (i.e., letter-based), linear, logical thinking has to give way to statistical, probabilistic, cybernetic, programmatic, game-theoretic, quantum-theoretic, neo-atomistic, pointillistic thinking. Ontological thinking will be overthrown, overcome, dissolved, and absorbed by interological thinking.
The digital transforms our mode of existence, reconfigures our patterns of consciousness, and reshapes our collective unconscious. As members of a community of inquiry, our cause resides and proceeds in between questions and dialogues, experiments and lucky finds. We are faced with a project without precedent. To try to construct a neat system is to betray our cause. We have to own up to the fact that we simply don't know, and present our findings in a form that reveals our sense of no knowledge. The state of no knowledge, and no mind, is precisely where we want to be. It means the overcoming and overtaking of our knowledge through intuition, immediate perception, and a new mode of thinking the nature of which we are yet to grasp. All is to suggest that we are better off by being nomadic in our mode of investigation and style of presentation. The report below is composed of spurts of nomad thought in the raw, and is offered in the spirit of the power of falsity. To try to find in it a bourgeois-style unified perspective is to miss the point entirely. (1) Pragmatically speaking, this kind of project is more useful and provocative without a pseudo sense of closure. Supreme integrity leaves the impression of unfinishedness, so Laozi teaches us. Laozi's point gives us the license to write in a "cool," experimental, mosaic-like, or pointillistic style, so to speak. Visual connectedness is far less important than acoustic resonance and energic throughness.
The idea of interality has been out in the air for quite a few years now. Like all polysemous neologisms, it has attracted its fair share of reservations, accusations, and projections, especially from the dogmatic, some more vicious than others. On the other hand, the term is also susceptible to appropriation by intellectual impostors and profiteers. It delights us, though, to see that somewhere in between the two poles, a coterie of free-spirited, open-minded co-explorers has coalesced around the term. Their engagement and enthusiasm have be-spirited it, enriched its meaning, expanded its applicability, revealed its latent, unsuspected potentials as a heuristic. This project continues the exploration in a sorely needed direction, and constitutes an initial encounter between interality studies and digital studies. It has been motivated by the realization that digital technology has created a new existential ground, a new real, that demands a new understanding, a new conceptual matrix to serve as our existential gyroscope, and by the intuition that interality may well be the pivotal, paradigmatic term that captures the spirit and tonality of this emerging conceptual matrix.
Digital media are a great retriever and accelerator that affords an ecological, interological sensibility. (2) The alphanumeric code, which has been the foundation of Western civilization, is being displaced by the new dot-interval code. The Democritian rain will supersede the Heraclitian flux as the root metaphor to inform our imagination. Traditional Western ontology, which is obsessed with being, substance, and entities, will be overcome and subsumed by "interology," which sees the generative void, the constitutive khora, the relational field, the motivating niche, the resonant interval, the differentiating and difference-inducing virtuality, and the principles of codependent origination and interbeing as more fundamental. What we once mis-took for entities are merely a function of our illusion-prone bodily constitution and our literacy-induced predilection for definability, the intrinsic propensity of all "things" for mutation notwithstanding. (3) At a micro level, all solid things are mosaic-like, full of intervals or empty spaces, just like technical images, which are "mosaics assembled from particles" (Flusser, 2011b, p. 6).
Like the human brain, which "is an apparatus that lends meaning to the quantum leaps that occur in it," there is something quantum-theoretic about the digital (Flusser, 2011a, p. 145). In a sense, zero is the ground from which one emerges and to which one returns. Neurophysiologically speaking, one is the statistical summary of the number of quantum leaps which has crossed the pessimal threshold of perception. Prior to that, the brain registers nothing. This threshold can be modulated by chemicals or through spiritual practice. Tea, for example, lowers it whereas alcohol raises it. Zen meditation supposedly enables microperceptions. Once the number of leaps has gone beyond the optimal threshold of perception, one flips back into zero. A highly improbable outcome of this scenario would be some kind of permanent brain change, for good or for ill, such as satori or, in a worst-case scenario, a blown mind. In a sense, zero is a stand-in for the beginner's mind (chuxin/shoshin)--pure attention (without preconception or expectation), which is the precondition for percipience and responsive virtuosity. The above understanding insinuates to us that the seeming stability of so-called stable entities is merely a function of our thresholds of perception, and that apparently stable entities are actually metastable events or transient permutations subject to the principles of uncertainty and improbability and to the influence of a virtual, vital double.
A lot more can be said about one and zero. Together, they constitute the lingua franca of the digital age. As zero-dimensional bits, they can simulate everything and carry all sorts of information. To restate the point made earlier, zero stands for the primordial nothingness from which emerges the improbable one, which eventually dissolves back into the all-absorbing nil, like a snowflake dissolving in the pure air. To use Flusser's formulation, "everything is based on chance and necessarily results in nothing" (Flusser, 2000, p. 79). (4) One is finite. Zero is pure virtuality and infinite. As one emerges out of zero, so form grows out of chaos. (5) The play between the negentropic (one-willing) and entropic (zero-willing) impulses lies at the origin of, and manifests the very life of, the chaosmos. As such, it is the source, and implies the destination, of all "things." Nirvana is immanent in, and resides in total reconciliation with, samsara. It means nothing else and cannot be found elsewhere. The Buddhist understanding that form is no different than emptiness and vice versa reveals a spiritual truth that defies material falsification. In the final analysis, matter is simply densely enfolded energy; so-called substance is more formal than substantial. The essence of it all is informed energy subject to deformation and reformation, which is to say, there is no abiding essence. As the Yijing implies, all is in flux; it is as simple as that; this is an immutable truth.
One and zero are simply two modes of a single unending process. One arises from and returns to zero, which gives birth to and eventually reclaims one. Zero is one's way of making more ones. Returning to zero ensures the rebirth, permutation, and indestructibility of one. To let go of form is to affirm re-formability; to cling to form is to obstruct the natural course of transformation. Life does not reside in immutable form but in the oscillation between form and emptiness. As such, Buddhism is fundamentally vitalistic rather than nihilistic. Its frame of reference is chaosmic. So is its time consciousness, as indicated by the four kalpas (i.e., the kalpa of formation, that of existence, that of decay, and that of emptiness). To intuit Buddhism is to come to terms with relativity. A tiny mustard seed not only encompasses Mount Sumeru, but also the entire cosmos, just like Leibniz's monad. (6) By the same token, a ksana also enfolds all kalpas. It bears noting that digital technology is predicated upon a much narrower, far more technical understanding of one and zero, as indicated by the following formulation of Flusser's: "the new codes are digital--and, in fact, usually binary, of the type 1-0. We are dealing with apparatuses that--like the telegraph--either let streams of electrons through (1) or interrupt them (0)" (2011a, p. 145). To reiterate the point, the digital involves a reductive appropriation and masking of the primordial senses of one and zero.
The numerological coincidence between the Fuxi hexagrams (which starts with the Kun hexagram--the equivalent of zero, and ends with the Qian hexagram--the equivalent of sixty-three) and Leibniz's binary number system distracts us from a philosophical disparity. Arguably, there is more philofolly than philosophy behind the seductive analogy, one is to zero as yang is to yin. For yin and yang are both born of one (the one qi or elan vital), which in turn is born of zero. The Fuxi hexagrams imply a peculiarly Chinese practical philosophy characterized by an awareness of the capriciousness of fortune. As such, they coach propriety and prudential wisdom. Yin and yang, the two modes of qi (elan vital) represented by broken and unbroken lines making up the hexagrams, are mutually inclusive, interdependent, cor-responding, interplaying, inter-transforming, and interanimating. The binary code was born of a numerological motive but has since gone far beyond the motive in its practical applications. It is more abstract than the alphabetic code and more versatile than the decimal code. (7) There is something that is at once sophisticated and neo-primitive about the way the binary code is used to make apparently concrete technical images.
The phonetic alphabet was invented to visually encode speech and is capable of transcribing all natural languages. The numeric code is meant for counting and arithmetic operations. The digital is not only good for calculation (the reduction of whole things into zero-dimensional calculi/dots and intervals, presences and absences, ones and zeroes) and computation (the integration of dots and intervals into the apparition of whole things), but also for simulation, remediation, command, control, and communication. It is a meta-code capable of re-codifying all previous codes and dissolving the Schopenhauerian distinction between music (the world as will) and images (the world as representation). It is the operational language of cybernetic systems. It is worth mentioning that as far as chips are concerned, zero is not nothing but something that can load chips down, just like one. Perhaps chips do crave reformatting, in the same way the human brain craves satori.
The digital constitutes "natural" interologists, for whom the term "relational ontology" feels like a step in the right direction but is nevertheless inadequate since it is not thoroughgoing. Like Heidegger, who put forward the notion of "fundamental ontology," Flusser was just another thinker who made a specific case for interology but settled for a casuistic stretching of the term "ontology" by adding a modifier ("relational") before it (2013, p. 152). The observation, "Digital codes lead to calculatory, computational, and relational ways of thinking and acting," is loaded with significance, which cannot but be revealed one layer at a time. (Flusser, 2003, p. 72). In the digital environment in general and in cyberspace in particular, the self is no more than a node in an interactive rhizome of communication, or a virtuality actualizing itself transiently, emergently, and perishably encounter by encounter, pulse by pulse, ksana by ksana. Present orientation and probabilistic thinking are becoming increasingly relevant. Tibetan Buddhists have it right: "Don't invite the future. Don't prolong the past. Don't alter the present." The acceleration of reality has helped us to realize the ephemerality of everything, us included, and the profundity of Buddhism, which is permeated with an interological sensibility. To recapitulate the point here, "We are fleeting potentials that approach one another so that we may experience each other as a concrete 'I' and a concrete 'you'" (Flusser, 2003, p. 51).
In the digital age, mass communication, broadcasting, and the whole idea of dissemination have been rendered obsolescent. Information no longer irrigates the social field in a fascistic, unidirectional way, which is to say, from the center to the peripheries. Communication proliferates but proceeds in a rhizomatic, dialogic, reciprocal way. Being as interbeing has become an at once mediated and immediate sensation. Every node in the rhizome is simultaneously a searcher, interceptor, processor, producer, narrowcaster, and addressee of information, supplied with a continuous flow of digitized texts, images, and sounds from everywhere and nowhere in particular since cyberspace is an atopia.
A mythic structure that epitomizes the human condition in the digital age can be found inside the Royal Botanic Gardens not far from central London. It is called the Hive, which is shaped like a khora (i.e., uterus) if experienced from the inside. The Hive is a far cry from conventional sculptures as we know them. It is not really meant for the eye, nor for the hand, but for the ear. It is not intended as an object to be scrutinized from a privileged vantage point, but an environment (i.e., medium, milieu) to be experienced from the inside. As such, the Hive is an interological artifact par excellence. One has to sacrifice one's rational bearing in order to get a sense of what it is all about. Once in there, one inhabits an acoustic space, surrounded by a constant murmur or chorus of composite sounds coming from no particular direction, and gets worked over by the total surround, which feels like an echo chamber. Whether one experiences a spiritual rebirth or not upon exiting is a whole different story.
On a related note, people walking with earbuds in their ears create a mobile khora, a virtual bubble, around themselves. Like saints with halos around their heads in medieval art, digital natives experience space as multi-centered or centerless. Each person, using the magic power of their gadget, creates their own space bubble, so that their discarnate self can have an out-of-body experience within cyberspace without getting distracted or bothered. This intangible, psychological space bubble or khora calls to mind the Buddhist notion of kekkai [phrase omitted] (sima-bandha in Sanskrit)--a protective spiritual or magical force field. In Pre-Platonic Greece, Athena's khora was precisely a kekkai that protected Athens, the polis. This train of thought creates a series of questions. For one thing, did the solar system take shape within a protective bubble--its khora or kekkai? For our purposes, the more immediate question to ask would be: is the digital a khora or kekkai in which a new civilization will take shape? If so, how should we reorient ourselves? What if this khora turns out to be an abyss--the programming abyss of apparatus, as Flusser has it (2013, p. 70)?
For those with a technical imagination, the Hive looks as if it were a structure designed for electromagnetic shielding. In a sense, the digital infosphere that envelops us feels precisely like a shield, insulating us from nature and the real, showing us an alternate reality made up of bits, which is veritably our collective hallucination. No longer do we perceive. Rather, we simply receive. We progressed and progressed. Finally, as if by way of a strange loop, we are back in Plato's cave. It feels as if the global superbrain is conjuring up a continuous, fantastic dream, keeping itself in a passionate state of mind. To repurpose a Deleuzean notion, the superbrain is the screen, in the double sense that it simultaneously shows and blocks from view. The entire world has now become an opium den. A third opium war is underway--this time against humanity at large. It is also smoke-free, in a double sense. The drug and the ammunition have fused into one and assumed a pointillistic guise this time around. An immense hive mind has come into being.
The digital breeds a cult of speed and a religion of information. The concept of information is often used in a loose, confused sense, without regard to redundancy and superfluity, as if more is necessarily better. Nothing is gained without a loss, though. A mind loaded down by a continuous flow of petty bits has a skinny chance of being great. A surfeit of information leads more readily to information-weariness than true wisdom. Real time interactivity preempts reflection. Instantaneous availability of answers and solutions discourages musing and deprives us of the joy of figuring things out on our own. As excessive speed eliminates the temporal interval necessary for digestion and reflection, so a deluge of information exhausts the mental space indispensable for receptivity and responsiveness. The mind's virtue resides in its emptiness and capaciousness. A busy mind is most likely a stupid mind. Laozi has it right: "Economy is gain, excess is confusion" (Cleary, 2003, p. 20). The Tibetan mind training texts state over and over again that any kind of gap, break, or interval in our daily routines is to be treasured as an opportunity to realize the actual nature of our own mind and to be present again. In the digital age, anything that gives us a break from screen time is to be cherished. Mind the gap.
In studying digital media, content analysis is totally insufficient. Instead, we need to conduct code analysis, interface analysis, platform analysis, apparatus (dispositif) analysis, program analysis, assemblage analysis, pattern recognition, and so on, and look into the worldview shift and dispositional change induced by the media per se. Digital codes bridge and negotiate the gap between Occidental and Oriental civilizations. The alphanumeric code and the ideographic code, which have served as the foundations of the two civilizations, respectively, are being absorbed by and transcoded into digital codes and turned into mere contents. Like calculus, the pixel-filled screen resorts to discontinuity to approximate and create the semblance of continuity. The computed image, made up of dots and intervals, has a pointillist texture, which captures our attention and demands our contribution. Its apparent integrity is predicated upon our will to Gestalt. Minecraft, with its low-definition, pixellated images, is simply a game that makes a virtue of necessity. Its popularity betrays the cool taste of the digital age.
The keyboard has been a taken-for-granted interface between humans and digital devices. As a simulation of the part of the typewriter contrapuntal to our fingertips, it has given the literate sensibility a second breath. As such, it has played a part in keeping us from envisioning the true use of the computer and other digital devices, making a difference in kind feel somewhat like a difference in degree. The functional equivalence between the keyboard and the virtual keyboard shouldn't blind us to the phenomenological difference. Typing on a real keyboard is more physical. One doesn't look at the keyboard much because the fingers are coded and have developed muscle memory. Each finger has its own jurisdiction. One punctuates the flow of one's thoughts with a tap of the thumb, as if to take a breath. Out of the interval emerges another spurt of thought, which is transcribed with nimble, infallible finger work. A cluster of sounds is generated organically, immediately, and rhythmically, as if one were playing a precision percussion instrument. Typing on the touch screen is a different story entirely. One is literally all thumbs and nervously staring at the virtual keyboard. Each time one touches a virtual key, a synthetic, simulated sound is generated as feedback for the brain, so it could register the progression of the error-prone process. With handheld gadgets, we regain bodily mobility at the price of assuming a bent-head posture, which is here to stay until voice-based or smart interfaces take over on a massive scale.
In the digital age, the socius as we knew it has been fractalized. As the flow of information motivates and facilitates the flow of other economic factors, including people, so the digital has furthered globalization. Virilio (2012) points out, "The more economic and social dimensions are global, the more the organization of society becomes fractal, and the chances of cracks and breakdowns increase" (pp. 50-51). The coexistence of mutually exclusive pockets of society means not diversity but segregation. Instead of interdependence, reciprocity, and symbiosis, we get self-righteousness, fundamentalism, and conflict. Digital platforms of communication can easily lead to the formation of closed feedback loops to reinforce cliquism instead of understanding across difference.
In the eyes of digital natives, however, a surrogate, virtual socius has taken shape in erehwon, which seems to matter significantly more to them. This virtual socius has little to do with virtual reality, which is a sheer simulacrum in its current permutation. (8) This is not to deny the serviceability of virtual reality in education, training, science, medicine, and other fields, as evidenced by Jaron Lanier's 2017 book, Dawn of the New Everything. A notable problematic in the virtual socius is sociality with bots these days and with artificial intelligences in the immediate future. A symbiotic relationship of co-functioning, mutual training, mutual shaping, mutual adaptation, and co-evolution is taking shape, especially because the bots on the back end are developing the capacity for learning.
If artificial intelligence is a simulation, modeling, augmentation, offloading, and obsolescence of some aspects of human intelligence, then how we understand the latter becomes a crucial question. Otherwise, it is unclear what is being simulated. Behind this yet-to-emerge technology as figure, there is a composite, multi-layered ground, which comprises everything from neurophysiology to anthropology, ethics, philosophy, and theology. As far as philosophy is concerned, the choice between ontology and interology makes a huge difference. It bears mentioning that Buddhism, which is an atheism, has a unique understanding of humans and human intelligence. It also has an idiosyncratic logical system. Humanity will be doing itself a profound disservice if this singular understanding is ignored or dismissed as irrelevant in the development of artificial intelligence. Like all technologies, artificial intelligence has embedded values and biases. Its development should be brought under philosophical, ethical, and spiritual oversight. As Flusser (2011b) puts it, "Technology has become too serious a matter to be left to technicians" (p. 65). Artificial intelligence may outperform humans in speed, logical operations, and many other aspects, but it can never become indistinguishable from humans (the story of the pseudo Monkey King in Journey to the West immediately comes to mind), since it does not have a human body and the kind of intelligence or wisdom that is visceral and indissociable from the body. There is something about all creatures of nature, be it a plant, an ant, or a human being, that is wondrous and unsurpassable. Not only do they have a rhythmic connection with the world, the entire world is enfolded, enveloped, and encompassed in the vital processes of their lives.
Digital technologies have the potential of optimizing the distribution of resources, including human resources, and unleashing society's creative energy. As electromagnetic waves turn the walls of our houses into Swiss cheese, so the digital perforates the boundaries of organizations and creates openings and liminal spaces for fluid arrangements or assemblages to take shape. As such, the digital precipitates the flow of factors. In a sense, the digital helps to turn the entire globe into a smooth space for capitalism. Digital means of communication situate people in a sea of pratyaya [phrase omitted], and, if used in a disciplined, strategic way, increase the probability of serendipitous encounters. Remote collaboration platforms like Mural are experimental ways of actualizing Flusser's notion of chamber music, which is a metaphor for telematic dialogue. One obvious effect of such platforms is the obsolescence of linear, causal, process-oriented habits of the mind, and the displacement of logocentrism. Note that such displacement is effected not ideologically but mediumistically. A rhapsodic, poietic, playful sensibility is being retrieved and revived. It feels as if engrained, deep-seated partitions in the brain are melting away, turning the brain itself into a smooth space, a quantum leap-prone ensemble of intervals. In this sense, digital media have a psychedelic effect. (9) Western philosophy went through a linguistic turn during the early twentieth century. It is yet to go through a mediumistic turn. The time is ripe. Besides McLuhan and Flusser, we need to reexamine art history and art theory for insights. Pointillism, for example, preceded and prophesized pre-digital TV and digital images alike. The mediumistic turn will allow us to see why interology now.
Now, let us remember that Flusser invites us to think this way: as with the brain, so with society. (10) Both are mosaic-like. To use a Deleuzean image, the brain is a rhizome that affords the improbable. (11) An awakened mind is one that has intuited its own nature, and self-consciously enables itself to do what it is capable of doing--to create the improbable. By the same token, an intelligent society is one that self-consciously maximizes its fabulating function. In the digital age, the Flusserian metaphor, society as a superbrain, almost gets literalized. The entire social body (i.e., the socius) has the potential to turn into a Deleuzean body without organs (BwO), which is characterized by "throughness" or the free flow of cerebral and affective energy. When people collaborate, remotely or face to face, and get transported to a liminal spacetime or a zone of proximity, a creative intermind emerges, subjectivity gets dissolved, the ego is suspended, overcome, and left behind. More precisely, the intermind as a virtuality gets actualized but the virtuality itself is indifferent to and inexhaustible by specific instances of actualization. The coming into being of the intermind as a virtuality is a Deleuzean event, so to speak. The digital holds the promise of precipitating such events.
To be sure, the intermind relies neither on physical co-presence nor on digital interconnectivity for its existence. It may come into being when another person, dead or alive, has an absent presence in one's consciousness. When Deleuze felt he was populated, he was operating with an intermind, which was a vital multiplicity in its own right. A piece of music or calligraphy may jolt one outside of one's habitual mind and create an intermind, especially if one contemplates it and wonders what kind of mind it would take to create such a piece. What is peculiar about the digital age is that it puts us in a position of co-creating an intermind with a multitude of physically absent collaborators, most of whom we might know only by their pseudonyms. We all become cerebrally promiscuous, physically discarnate, and emotionally synchronized. Insofar as we see humans as a negentropic creature par excellence, we are only being human in craving a mental collaborator or a soul mate--one that would help us to overcome our psychological blind spots and put us in a passionate, euphoric, rapturous state of mind. Flusser envisions that with telematics, a continuous cerebral orgasm can be realized on a global scale, which is to say the supermind or the global intermind can be kept in a passionate state perpetually if we use telematics dialogically rather than fascistically. In the immediate future, many of the inter-cerebral "subject positions" will be occupied by bots and AIs. As a result, the Batesonian ecology of mind will be a ginormous open system qualitatively different from what was conceivable in Bateson's lifetime. We will be soft pressed to stay alert and keep up with all the inter-cerebral transportations and transfigurations.
In the final analysis, information is energy. Insofar as we see information exchange as energy work (i.e., qigong), a degree of caution in us is called for. Prudent qigong practitioners are fairly selective about when and where to practice, for the Spinozan reason that not all energy suits one's nature. "Things with the same tonality resonate together; things with the same qi seek out one another," so the Yijing teaches. A little energy from kindred spirits benefits us far more than some random energy. In the digital environment, each time we share an inchoate thought on the spur of the moment, seemingly we get a superabundance of responses at no cost to ourselves. But really? Aren't we also pestered by pointless, petty-minded micro-engagements? Digital platforms of communication tend to take us farther and farther away from an unoccupied, alert state of mind. We need to create vacuoles of noncommunication so real thinking can occur. What is at issue is not only the relevance and quality of information but also freedom from so-called information. The digerati tend to hold a different attitude toward this. Their predilection is to maximize the amount of information available so as to artificially accelerate innovation. Hence their interest in creating an intelligent meeting environment where a virtual assistant automatically presents relevant information as the discussion unfolds so as to facilitate problem posing and problem solving.
The digital age is one in which the validity and relevance of certain Deleuzean concepts, such as deterritorialization, rhizome, the virtual, and voyage in situ, become obvious. It is also an age in which these same concepts get reified and risk losing their ethical connotations. The virtual, for example, is a crucial concept in Deleuze's work. It means that which becomes in the case of the undifferentiated and that which allows for becoming in the case of the actualized. In the latter case, becoming precisely resides in the becoming of the virtual double, which reacts upon the actual and keeps it vital. The virtual always comes first and is far more significant than the actual. It is precisely the emphasis of East Asian philosophy, art, martial arts, and so on, and the soul of interality studies. The best philosophical elucidation of the virtual can be found in Laozi and Zhuangzi. Francois Jullien's book, The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject through Painting, is just another piece of evidence which shows that the emphasis of traditional Chinese art is on the virtual. In the digital age, however, with the rise of cloud computing, the whole notion of the virtual double gets trivialized, technicized, literalized, and petrified. Eventually, everything, us included, will have a virtual double, a digital doppelganger, in the cloud. Rather than affording becoming, this virtual double mainly serves the purpose of control. It is a dividual par excellence. In the eyes of the all but omniscient system, people are mere dividuals. The title of Deleuze's 1990 interview with Toni Negri, "Control and Becoming," captures the central problematic of an entire era.
The digital bribes us with lots of convenience, allows us to be tele-present and tele-active, but also reduces us to stationary voyagers or travelers in situ--in a literal rather than a Deleuzean sense. If orators in the good old days had a full-bodied presence, as inforgs (i.e., informational organisms), we only have an apparitional presence. As far as the infosphere is concerned, we are as good as our attention (eyeballs) and intention (expressed through our fingertips for the time being). It is highly probable, though, that in the near future, the spoken word, codified facial expressions, gestures, and postures will, at least to some extent, supersede the keyboard and the touch screen as means of communicating with our technological counterparts. The body, after a fairly long period of atrophy, will be remobilized and reanimated as a means of communication. Its movements, however, will be largely choreographed and semioticized in accordance with artificial protocols to ensure legibility. To avoid being misread, spontaneous, creative, idiosyncratic bodily expressions will be held in check when the body is in an "on" mode, which is most probably all the time in an era when ambient intelligence defines our habitat. (12) A Neo-Foucaultian discipline will set in to regulate our movements and rests. Plain walls, ceilings, floors, doors, windows, and furniture may well become a luxury, if not an art form. When we realize that our environment is being programmed to program us, the idea of resistance will stir at least in some of us.
A few words need to be said about the cloud, which has a diffused, interological mode of existence. The cloud literally exists in between servers. If there were servers only but no betweeness or interality, the cloud wouldn't exist. Thanks to the existence of superpowerful search engines, the cloud is quickly becoming humanity's collective "instant access memory," for lack of a better term. Such an unfailing memory sounds like a great service to humanity. It is nevertheless a disservice at the same time. As Nietzsche points out, "Many a man fails as an original thinker simply because his memory is too good." Moreover, there is something Faustian and demonic about the impulse to know it all. This is more of an ethical observation than a moralistic one.
Why create a digital twin for everything? Why boil everything down to ones and zeroes, which are the mode of existence of everything in cyberspace or in the cloud? Why not leave things alone so they stay in an analog mode only? Well, in the digital age, in the control society, nothing will be left alone, at least not for long. The cloud wants to know it all, to be omniscient, to be ubiquitous, to be God-like. The digital twin is not only infinitely replicable and sharable, it is also searchable, and lends itself to remote access, recontextualization, and recombination with the digital twins of other things. Everything, information included, will have a double mode of existence. To be is to be simultaneously material and digital. Not having a digital double means nonexistence as far as the cloud is concerned. The material version is impermanent, in becoming, and subject to the entropic process of decay or deterioration whereas the digital double seems to be immortal since it persists when the material version has perished. (13) Let's remember, however, that perishability is precisely the sign of life.
To create a digital twin for everything means to create an apparitional, metaphysical double for the physical world. The relation between the two worlds is not unproblematic. If humans care more about the meaning of things than the things per se, then the apparitional world matters even more than the physical world. Increasingly, decisions are being made based on what is in the cloud. Symbolic action about what exists in the metaphysical realm overdetermines what happens in the physical realm. Baudrillard's notions of hyperreality and the precession of simulacra are totally relevant here. The Burkean question, "what are the signs of what," also acquires renewed significance. (14) A notable reversal has happened. To be specific, there has been an inversion of vectors of signification, which characterizes functionalism (Flusser, 2013, p. 30). The digital age beckons us to entertain a new logic--material artifacts are mere replicas of digital originals--which makes total sense. We literally call such digital originals "models," and use them to inform passive, plastic, fashionable material. 3-D printing is simply an up-to-date example. In our thinking nowadays, the digital version of a document or a photo is more real; reality is thus immaterial and portable. A physical copy of it is derivative, secondary, subject to the erosion of time and therefore deemed as corruptible, dispensable, and expendable. In fact, we barely have space for such copies anymore. Wilde has it right, "Life imitates art." Nowadays, the physical imitates the digital. Material happenings are only epiphenomenal. When 3-D bio-printers come around, living creatures will be mere copies. To restate the point, the reversing of the Platonic hierarchy among model, copy, and simulacrum used to be a lofty, strenuous philosophical endeavor. In the digital age, it is simply a matter of course. Platonic Form has been dismissed and pulverized as a mere projection. The simulacrum now reigns supreme.
As digital models are easily revisable, so physical reality is volatile. Planned obsolescence is the order of the day. This state of affairs calls for a liquid, gaseous mode of writing, if writing wants to retain a place for itself at all, so it seems. Change is now tangibly constant. "All is in flux" is no longer a mere metaphysical speculation but a physical sensation. This is partly why Virilio bemoans the acceleration of reality. If surrealism is a byproduct of modern warfare, which turns a street into a crater in a split second, then reality nowadays feels surreal, not just for Virilio. If back in the literate age the world was too rigid, now it comes off as a bit too fluid and unstable. In the digital sandstorm, everything feels like a sand dune. Insofar as micro-interality [phrase omitted] is what gives form to things, interality is rightfully the key problematic in this age.
The digital has triggered a reinvention of capitalism. Digital platforms of communication and collaboration not only afford crowd sourcing and freelancing, but also call into being "virtual enterprises," for lack of a better term. The vitality of the typical organization resides in the multiplicity of operative virtual enterprises masked by the organization imagined as a self-contained entity. Thanks to digital platforms of communication, the organization of resources is conducted in a rhizomatic fashion, defying organizational boundaries, overcoming geographical limitations. This is another reason why ontological thinking will have to give way to interological thinking. There comes a point where casuistic stretching will burst the obsolescent conceptual system. The flow of information, capital, human capital, technical objects, aesthetic elements, and innovative ideas has been happening at an unprecedented pace. Capitalism has mutated into turbocapitalism. Speed turns out to have a direct correlation with power and wealth, as always. It is also a sign of the aging of the world (Virilio, 2009, p. 41). If virtuality is pure reserve, speed and development are exhausting the world's virtuality and youthfulness. A society made up of entrepreneurial selves and characterized by accelerated flows is at once vitalistic and overheated.
Digital media have a maximalist bias. Each time we get a software upgrade, the new version almost always turns out to be more clunky and less functional. Most likely, we are forced into a position of having to upgrade our hardware. Planned obsolescence is a built-in principle to ensure expanded business. When Gmail incorporates a virtual assistant function, and starts to remind us to follow up on things, we know Gmail is reading our messages and no longer behaves like a pure, innocent channel as it is supposed to. Perhaps it has never been one in its entire life history. When we are on Facebook and happen to be slouching and then an ad pops up which promotes a product that corrects slouching, most probably Facebook has been spying on us, which is an open secret. Typing a text message on the smartphone feels weird these days, if we think about it. Who's really composing the message? The phone anticipates our thoughts and thinks on behalf of us. So the message ends up emerging from in between us and the phone. The phone trains us to think formulaic, generic, predictable thoughts. The autocorrect function simply discourages innovation, treating it as deviation, thus betraying a built-in narrow-mindedness. Even if we try really hard and invent a minor, idiosyncratic syntax, before too long, the phone will catch up anyway through machine learning, thereby denying our sense of uniqueness and agency, and discounting our poetic efforts.
In the olden days, to be poetic is to commit a crime against the language. Nowadays, the poetic impulse manifests itself as a criminal inclination toward the apparatus, and motivates us to appropriate the apparatus in tactical, unintended ways. As the apparatus becomes intelligent, it will absorb and coopt our poetic impulses as feedback to energize itself. The apparatus is to the control society as the prison is to the disciplinary society. The disciplinary society treats everybody as a prisoner, whereas the control society constitutes everybody as a functionary. Resistance in the disciplinary society takes the form of the prison break. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey, is the representative anecdote of the disciplinary society. Resistance in the control society entails breaking the closed feedback loop, which nourishes the apparatus with information about us and programs our desires and behavior through positive and negative feedback (micro-rewards and micro-punishments). Cybernetic thinking is indispensable for comprehending and resisting cybernetic control. The trick is to feed the apparatus noise and disinformation and, better still, to infect it with viruses. The Matrix trilogy lays bare and dramatizes humanity's anxiety over the fast approaching control society, which is characterized not so much by the Panopticon as a ubiquitous physical structure as by a seamless, continuous panopticism as an abstract principle that permeates the entire social field. Incarceration and confinement have given way to apparent, paradoxical freedom, which is to say, freedom under the control of e-cuffs, electronic tags, and the like. Digital media are the constitutive ground of the apparatus and the technological infrastructure of the control society. As digital technologies evolve and advance, the apparatus is quickly coming into its own.
Ours is not precisely a situation of the finger being mistaken for the moon. Rather, it is a situation of the real moon being forgotten about due to its hyperreal digital double. We look at the smartphone to find out whether it is raining outside. To us, information about the real has become a stand-in for the real itself. Ours is not the problem of the proverbial man from the state of Zheng who did not know what size shoes to buy because he had left the measure of his feet at home. A digital scan of our feet is there to guarantee our shoes will fit so well as if they were gloves. The problem is that we don't perceive a problem. As Flusser (2013) has it, "Just like Gulliver, post-industrial humanity is caught by the Lilliputian net, however, given the elasticity of the net, humanity is not aware of that. [...] In such a situation man is effectively worthless; he does not even wish to free himself. He feels good as a slave" (pp. 81-82). Digital enslavement feels like freedom. The Spinozan question, why people fight for their bondage as if it were their freedom, acquires a new significance in the digital age (Deleuze, 1988, p. 10).
The digital changes how we produce knowledge. It also changes the way we are exposed to knowledge and the form knowledge assumes. Instead of a well structured system, knowledge now comes at us as rhizomatically interconnected bits, with each bit implying and interacting with all other bits. The private mind risks being definitively dominated, if not entirely subsumed, by the hive mind. Now that the private sphere is constantly penetrated by the infosphere, there is no more withdrawing from the world. The private self has devolved into a function of chance encounters in a sea of pratyaya. The event that precipitates interology is a total or comprehensive alteration of the planet and of our perceptions of it and ourselves. The new reality will soon render superfluous philosophical efforts to transform ontological thinking into interological thinking, since the latter will become humanity's "natural" inclination. The word ontology will become an anachronism and will be treated as an archaic term. Solitude will become a luxury reserved for a rare few--the aristocrats of the immediate future. Insofar as the fasting of the mind remains a priority in humanity's spiritual life, post-historical religiosity will have a Daoist-Zennist tonality.
The author thanks Kenneth Surin, Graham Harman, Peter D. Hershock, Jean-Francois Vallee, Randy Lumpp, Reno Lauro, and WANG Guangming [phrase omitted] for reading a version of the article and offering valuable feedback. He also feels indebted to Peter D. Hershock, who shared his book manuscript entitled The Intelligence Revolution: The Challenge of Human Presence in a New Era of Global Predicaments and Smart Services, which inflected his thinking, and to Usam Shen [phrase omitted] and LU Yuan [phrase omitted] for having engaged conversations with him about related matters when this article was being composed.
Peter Zhang [phrase omitted]
School of Communications
Grand Valley State University
273 LSH, 1 Campus Dr
Allendale, MI 49401, USA
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Peter Zhang, Grand Valley State University, USA
(1) Invoked here is the notion of perspective with multiple vanishing points [phrase omitted]. Paintings with it may reflect what a moving observer or "eye" sees.
(2) Sean Cubitt points out, "mediation is the condition in which we live, and which in many respects has forced us, in the globalization as well as the mediation process, away from the philosophy of individual will into deeper mutual dependency, and a consequent surrender of individual freedom in the interests of a human ecology" (Armitage, 2000, p. 139).
(3) Flusser indicates that "solid objects [are] mere appearance, not just philosophically, but technically" (2011a, p. 144).
(4) Elsewhere, Flusser observes, "openness to death is the real dwelling of man: he who exists for death" (2013, p. 74).
(5) Notably, khora is linked to chaos. The implication is that form neither precedes khora, nor stands above it, but emerges out of it. Chaos is primordial and originary, whereas form is derivative and contingent.
(6) Fa-Tsang, the seventh-century founder of the Hua-yen school of Buddhist thought, held that the whole cosmos was implicit in each of its parts. He also believed that every point in the cosmos was its center, and likened the universe to a multidimensional network of jewels, each one reflecting all others ad infinitum (Talbot, 1992, p. 291). This understanding was preceded by the Avatamsaka Sutra, according to which "each object in the world is not merely itself, but involves every other object and, in fact, is everything else (Eliot, 1969, pp. 109-110).
(7) Flusser (2000) has a related thought: "traditional images are abstractions of the first order insofar as they abstract from the concrete world while technical images are abstractions of the third order: They abstract from texts which abstract from traditional images which themselves abstract from the concrete world" (p. 14).
(8) Virtual reality offers a new species of out-of-body experience. Flusser's phenomenological-minded work on vampyroteuthis infernalis gets one to wonder whether virtual reality can develop to the point where one can assume the body of an octopus or any other creature in it. If so, it may hold the promise of making us less anthropocentric and more empathic.
(9) The Zen-minded question to ask is, can people attain the effect of Mural without Mural? Better still, if people can reach the same degree of inventiveness, or even more, by other means, such as spiritual praxis, what do people need Mural for? Each interface has its embedded bias. It necessarily constrains us as it enables us.
(10) As Flusser (2011b) puts it, "There can be no doubt that the structure of the emerging society increasingly resembles that of a brain" (p. 125).
(11) Deleuze and Guattari point out, "The discontinuity between cells, the role of the axons, the functioning of the synapses, the existence of synaptic microfissures, the leap each message makes across these fissures, make the brain a multiplicity immersed in its plane of consistency or neuroglia, a whole uncertain, probabilistic system ('the uncertain nervous system')" (1987, p. 15).
(12) There is an intercultural dimension to this problematic. Facial expressions and gestures are codified differently from culture to culture. Thai people, for example, smile when they are angry. In a multicultural society, technologists will have to resort to racial profiling (a highly problematic practice), for example, to enable ambient intelligence to get a sense of the collective sentiment in a meeting room.
(13) The immortality of the digital double is an illusion, a cybertopian fallacy. Sean Cubitt points out, "The storage media associated with computers are notoriously liable to corruption and infection. The only hope for permanence is in proliferation of copies, that is, in the distribution of texts across a variety of media and machines. But even this belies the capacity of computer files to be overwritten: corrected, discussed, amended or erased" (Armitage, 2000, p. 137).
(14) Burke holds that things are the signs of words (Carey, 1989, p. 25).
[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article]