Fail we will, to keep on trying we (simply) must!
This is my contribution to the “Upon Us All Equally – tranzit statements for the future”, organized by Tranzit Romania and held at National Dance Centre Bucharest, 7-9 November 2019.
Watch this on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDS7Wa9e6SU
More about the event: http://ro.tranzit.org/en/project/0/2019-11-07/upon-us-all-equally
Vladimir Jerić Vlidi: The Bucharest Statement v2.0
Screenplay: Vladimir Jerić Vlidi
Recording & editing: Pavle Crnobrnja
Produced by Network Failure & Tranzit Romania
Belgrade, December 2019
The page explored in this video: https://networkfailure.net/dispossession-by-numbers-2017
Dear all, welcome to the Version 2.0 of my statement regarding the future, given at Sala Popescu. Bucharest, November 8 this year, at the event organized by Tranzit Romania.
Thanks to all the fantastic Tranzit people who called me to join this great event.
Especially THANKS to the audience, who survived until 1 AM just to see me not quite making sense.
With this correction of the statement I would like to exercise the principle and the practice of keeping on trying, of keeping on improving, and also of future always being an unfinished project.
I will try to reference some of the other presentations as together they could form a kind of a web, a network of ideas, that could be able to encompass, to outline, to encircle, a certain future.
Let’s see if I would be able to make a point and build my argument in 15-20 minutes or so;: it Is a complex argument that should amount to a simple statement.
Corresponding with the title of the event – “Upon All Us Equally” – most of the presentations seemed to focus on ecology, on the current catastrophic state of the world and on the looming global climate disaster. This is tremendously important, and there are different ways how to think of the problem; I am not sure that a sum of singular personal contributions would make the difference necessary, what does not mean I am skeptical in any way about it, nor that I will not contribute as much as possible.
But I wanted to examine the problematics of the future from even more basic angle, and to try to think of the future as a broad, common, abstract, non-applied category. As, you may remember, a future.
Why this story? Because of the current technologies of communication, which are at the same time and to a large extent the technologies of subjectivation. We are not only surrounded by it anymore – it is able to produce us, even mid-life. Or mid-generation.
These things, the one I am recording this into and the one you are going to watch this from, are around us for only ten years now; most people find it hard to believe. And already we spend one month of each and every year of our lives in applications..
The situation could eventually be summarized as how Vllem Flusser observed early, that “discourse has been substituted by calculus”.
He did recognize that every revolution was eventually a technical revolution, but he had also seen this particular and ongoing technical revolution as something different, as no less than spiritual revolution.
Now this is where all this once again can refer to the title of the event: I am not sure that the kind of the future I am going to speak about will be equally distributed. But, this question is probably outside the scope of this discussion.
True, quite probably, the worst is yet to come; but there is hope.
Here I could refer to Dmitry Vilensky’s presentation, in which he said that, from a specific angle, that we should look at the future in “the worse it gets, the better” kind of way.
In my remix, it would rather be “it HAS to get worse BEFORE it gets better”. So let’s swallow the cold frog first, as they say, and start with the bad; let’s see where we can get from here.
What is future?
Do we even want it? In the future, the Universe stops. We are all dead.
Also, there is another question: how much future we want? (To paraphrase Rastko Močnik and his famous 1990s text “How Much Fascism”.)
Lest briefly remind on some fundamental aspects of the fourth dimension of our existence, as we know it: time. It is a special dimension as a difference from others, as we can not freely travel and navigate around it. The future is a part of it.
Following the theory of relativity, we may think of the future as a place in time but also as a place in space. A place that is already there. So the past should be also somewhere there, right. But can we return? Hm. There is something called causality that prevents this even conceptually.
So we can’t really tell. There is only one law of physics that doesn’t work backwards in time, and all the others are time direction agnostic, to say. So perhaps there is no time at all. Perhaps we will have to look for the future in space.
Let’s briefly speculate; if the present is the state of the matter NOW, then the future may be, like the past, of informational and not of material nature – NOT YET in the case of the future, and NOT ANYMORE in the case of the past: this could be why it is also – maybe correctly – being said that both future and past are STORIES.
And some quite specific stories – a metadata kind of thing. If present is DATA, our data of NOW, then we can think of both future and past as METADATA of this data.
So, let’s try once again:
What is future?
Actually a place, as implied by the theory of relativity?
Or a certain modality, as Franco Berardi Bifo would say?
Is it an information?
Or simply something inevitable?
Now, I owe you first the quick explanation of the announcement I have sent ahead of event. It is supposed to, in a cynical manner, describe the sense of today. But instead all that I could also have used a quote, and here is one:
It comes from the well know title “The Production of Space” which Henry Lefebvre published in 1974. It was really great to see Stavros Stavrides use of Lefebvre’s writing to reflect on the current situation and own activist practices.
So, does this description of the present-day reality resonate?
“Few people today would reject the idea that capital and capitalism ‘influence’ practical matters relating to space, from the construction of buildings to the distribution of investments and the worldwide division of labour. But it is not so clear what is meant exactly by ‘capitalism’ and ‘influence’. What some have in mind is ‘money’ and its powers of intervention, or commercial exchange, the commodity and its generalization, in that ‘everything’ can be bought and sold. Others are concerned rather with the actors in these dramas: companies national and multinational, banks, financiers, government agencies, and so on. In either case both the unity and the diversity – and hence the contradictions of capitalism – are put in brackets. It is seen either as a mere aggregate of separate activities or else as an already constituted and closed system which derives its coherence from the fact that it endures – and solely from that fact.”
This was written in 1974! So we have been here before. It is good to know, as we are still around! And, all this is comforting for a change – we are NOT alone in this, and this is NOT the first time.
Let’s replace the 1970s with the 1980s now.
If something dramatic happened with the future, it is with its name; sharing the destiny with the words such are revolution or solidarity or even ‘life’ itself, the future over time came to mean different, and often opposite things.
According to the small research I did a few years ago, at least at the territory of South East Europe, the word “revolution” was in media almost exclusively – more than 70% – being used to describe the telecommunication products and services.
It is probably a legacy of the the 1980s, where a lot of things as we knew them from before just got stuck – the research I did with Jelena Vesić about that phenomena is published in the latest issue of L’Internationale, and I will leave the link in the video description.
So growing up in 1980s, I can confirm that some kind of quantum fluctuations are happening with the future, as it is NEVER what it promises to be.
Beware of the future and what you wish for!
In the 1980s, the future was really bright. Perhaps too bright.
We expected flying cars and weekends on the moon, free life in Amsterdam and general emancipation, no less; but what arrived was Internet, and I am afraid e-scooters now. After the grand promise, soon the future degraded to the level of maibe no wars, maybe no catastrophes or collapse, MAYBE. And no guarantees.
But as we will see, there was a preceding period that was more important for this story.
Let’s recapitulate and see where we are at this point:
For the capital, what is future is how much can you extract from it now, what profit you can make of it now. FUTURES are called specialized contracts and stock market papers which are doing just that.
What it really means to borrow from the future, or to extract from it? In both ecological and economical terms, it is quite similar. But this we will have to leave for some other discussion.
Now, if for the capital future is a resource to exploit and profit from, and eventually to exhaust, for the common people future ceased to mean opening some broad horizons and expecting far out outcomes – it started to mean just tomorrow. Simply, TOMORROW.
So the future as we understood it before continued to live only in science-fiction-like genres, or what we also call Utopian literature. It is there where the future was still open, possible, surprising, endless in a way. Anything is possible.
Utopian literature – visions of and for the future.
I wanted to understand how this happened; I wanted to learn, if possible, exactly when and where the future made this historical turn and started to mean something different than before.
I have started a small forensic project; the outcome is this huge, monstrous web page, called “Dispossession by Numbers”. I took me some months trying to understand the material I am looking at and also the technology with which to document the research.
The introduction to this volume is published in the fantastic Red Thread journal in the late 2017, and you may see the entire thing here:
Let’s scroll a bit now.
As I have departed form Utopian literature, at one point the research have lead me to Walden Two, one of the most ambitious Utopian novels of the XX century.
It was published in 1948 by a man called B. F. Skinner. He happened to be the most influential behavioral psychologist of the XX century, and the very founder of the field of radical behavioralism.
In the book, Skinner proposed a vision of society based on the principles of reinforced behavior, and applied in the form of a certain pedagogy; his Utopia was based on specific “cultural engineering” and strong communality.
His community is self-contained, the work is limited to several hours per day and all goods are free. Everybody seems a bit obsessed with constant experiment and improvement, and all are bound by a specific form of social contract referred to as THE CODE.
The population of Walden Two is presented as calm, rational, and quiet. Maybe a bit too quiet.
As The New York Times review said:
“This placidity is more important to Walden Two than its elemental Marxist economy: Skinner views his creation as an advancement over the previous utopias, which rested on the authority of philosopher‐kings, laws or economic principles; Walden Two is organized about psychological concepts.”
But this book is probably the greatest “failed” Utopia of the century, maybe the last big “classical” Utopian venture, and importantly, the first that was immediately perceived, or rendered, as Dystopia.
It was misunderstood to the point that many believed that Skinner was actually being satirical. Such social calmness was understood as something spooky, because of the perceived price of “mind control”. Some people were outright terrified by the Skinner’s proposition, and recognized different sorts of totalitarianism and oppression.
He was angry and disappointed that the public misperceived his Utopian ideas, and attributed the problem to that in approximately the same time, less than a year later, the another novel was published that made the people see the things – especially the future – differently. It was, you may have guessed, the “1984” by George Orwell.
Then, following this further, I have realized that Skinner in that very same year had also published his ground-breaking scientific work called Verbal Behavior, in which he outlined the science behind his social and philosophical application as described in Walden Two.
So his Utopian novel was actually an interesting complementary, a manual of how his science could be applied across society. It could be said that in a single year and by these two works B. F. Skinner managed to blur, if not break, both the definition of science and the demarcation line between the Utopian and Dystopian vision of the future.
All the concepts from the book were outlined in details in this paper. And ever since, my own research, departing from Utopian literature, lead me to trace and follow the documents – the scientific papers.
So what was the core of his method? To simplify a lot, statistics and calculus.
As announced in his talk held at Harvard in 1948:
“A scientific study of verbal behavior has no reason to regard itself as involved in a search for meanings, no matter how ‘meaning’ may be defined. Its task is not to analyze symbolic behavior or the function of symbols.”
Skinner believed that all behavior is developed as a response to the environment and can be so explained.
He thought of classical Pavlovian conditioning as too simplistic and concerned only with reflexive behavior, so he focused on the intentional behavior. For that purpose he developed the approach of operant conditioning, in which particular actions could be reinforced or punished in order to guide a certain process of learning, probably best described as training; this is exactly what you do with algorithms today. This is also your radical behavioral psychology, and straight from the source.
Most of these conclusions Skinner derived from his lab practice, in which the central device was what became known as the Skinner box. It was an instrument to isolate, control, and deliver positive or negative feedback to a test subject.
He had his reasons to prefer pigeons to rats. He though of humans as not much different then other animals, only quite sophisticated and advanced versions. He was radically materialist, and thought of radical behaviorism as a way to overcome ideology once and for all.
From a certain perspective, he appeared almost as a caricature of how we see the XX century scientist today: MAD, MALE, MODERNIST.
It seems that the only question for that entire generation of scientists is for which branch of military they worked during WWII: Norbert Wiener famously developed cybernetics while working on torpedoes, while most of the engineering to advance the computing sciences of today John Van Neumann developed while working on The Bomb.
So it was also the case with Skinner; his famous box turned into a bomb when he was hired by the U.S. military to develop pigeon-guided missiles. This worked more or less like this:
“Skinner trained pigeons to peck at an image of the military target projected onto a screen; whenever their beaks hit the moving target dead center, he rewarded the birds with food pellets. Once the pigeons had learned how to peck at targets, the three of them would be put into a missile cockpit specially fitted with straps attached to gyroscopes that would steer the bomb.”
This is the painting dedicated to that experiment, made by the artist Anton van Dalen in New York in 1986: it is called “B.F. Skinner With Project Pigeon”.
As Skinner believed that by excluding the mental processes such are thoughts and feelings he made the science of behavior not only more productive, but MORE OF A SCIENCE, that was exactly the long-standing problem with humanities at the time.
For too long the humanities were treated as a “secondary” science compared to hard sciences; this sense of humiliation among humanities started in the first half of the XX century, with the historical breaks and rapid development of the theory of relativity, quantum physics, medicine, chemistry, and so on. The gap was additionally widened over the course of WW2, with huge investments in hard sciences for the purpose of military research.
Also, if humanities were supposed to somehow prevent the horrors of the WW2 on the basis of moral or philosophy or reason, they have gloriously failed; the people eventually needed the help of hard sciences to defend themselves and to defeat their enemies.
So at the time the humanities were viewed from the side of hard sciences, and perhaps even general public, similarly as the arts are being seen today from the side of the “smarter” and “critical” academic side of humanities: as something non-systematized, something hardly useful in practice, always a subject of interpretation, inconveniently connected with particular persons, as something that is hardly a science at all.
This is probably the reason for the tremendous impact of the next paper we will mention here: it is the future-defining work titled “A mathematical theory of communication” published in 1948 by Claude Elwood Shannon. The instant success of the Shannon’s paper was reflected in the title of the 1949 book to follow, “The Mathematical Theory of Communication”.
It was what the humanities were waiting for all along – the first theory to understand communication as a formal and definable process expressible in numbers.
Despite Shannon’s stark warnings that this is an engineering thing and a matter of mathematics, not suitable for various different “freestyle” purposes – in 1949, he published a short article titled “The Bandwagon” asking fellow scientists for restraint, and soon after he stopped all communication – it was too late.
Especially the linguists (as, for example, Umberto Eco, Morris Halle, Roman Jacobson) already started using the theory to explain the matters of language, of human communication, of society, philosophy, sociology…
There are a lot of details, and details are important, but, in short, what Shannon did was to open the way to eventually numerize and algorithmize any and all exchange of information. This was the ultimate answer to a lots of engineering challenges, and will make most of the todays technology possible; his paper was the basis of founding what is today known as Information Theory.
But, this was only possible if the information was perceived in a specific way; as explained in the book:
“First off, we have to be clear about the rather strange way in which, in this theory, the word ‘information’ is used; for it has a special sense which, among other things, must not be confused at all with meaning.”
The another quote by Shannon gives the full perspective:
“The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; these semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.”
There are more papers to join this group – the work of Alan Turing or Norbert Wiener, for example – but we need to hurry up a bit now.
So there seems to be something important happening in the year 1948 that will come to define the future development and to directly influence how we live today.
Is it that simple as the group of papers, scientific papers, getting together to assemble our common future?
Well we have seen the stranger things happening, like people believing to be engaged in social critique while on Facebook, so why not?
Eight years later, these concepts came together; the expression of “Artificial Intelligence” was coined for the very first time by the cognitive scientist John McCarthy. He needed the title for the funding proposal for the now famous workshop held, interestingly, at September 11 1956 at Dartmouth College, involving Shannon as probably the most important name. Once again, the thing was significantly supported by the military defense funds. This was the establishing event of Artificial Intelligence as a field.
Immediately after, Skinner published his Verbal Behavior research, now in the form of a book. All this together defined the idea of intelligence being connected with behavior; the probability of intelligent behavior is what is judged by humans as such; but humans and their natural language and their own behavior are being connected back to statistics and probabilities, what will guide their judgement.
Ever since, such a theoretical and conceptual deadloop remains the operative description of what we call AI.
To quote Antonia Majača, f*** that AI. F**** that AI.
But all this did not went down easily.
In the following decades there was a huge debate, largely away from the focus of the public, in which these concepts were challenged, rejected, reintroduced and remixed. The figure we can mention leading this resistance from the side of linguists was Noam Chomsky, who managed to establish a critique of Skinner’s methods and demonstrate that this approach towards the so-called AI is futile, and cynical. But he could’t manage to offer an alternative working theory, though he offered the Theory of Universal Grammar.
This is why the 1970s and a part of 1980s are known today as “AI Winter” – there was not much progress in the field. But all what was necessary for these concepts to start bringing useful probabilities was to accumulate the critical mass of data and of substantial computing power.
And suddenly, the power of prediction, of calculating probabilities, was probably even greater than as how Vlad Morariu described the predictions offered by astrology. This is mainly how Facebooks and stock markets of today operate; this is growingly how all social and technological infrastructure operates today. This is also how we got this endless “today” repeating over and over again, and a sense of claustrophobia, of closed horizons and the lack of options, that Alexandra Pirici spoke about just ahead of my presentation.
Once fully applied, or better say substantially amplified, these concepts clearly demonstrated their market value.
To quote a computer scientist and director of research at Google, Peter Norvig, from his recent reply to Chomsky:
“The intellectual offspring of Shannon’s theory create several trillion dollars of revenue each year, while the offspring of Chomsky’s theories generate well under a billion.”
So this succession of scientific papers, debates and applications is what redefined the idea of the future: from possibilities to probabilities. The only problem is that in the operation the category of meaning had to be sacrificed; a future with no meaning we can’t recognize as the future at all.
What is perhaps safe to say is that the future and the past exist because NOW exists. The now creates forward and backward now. (Without ‘now’ there would be trouble with subjectivity, right?)
What it means to replace POSSIBLE with PROBABLE? It means to replace YES with MAYBE; to replace I WANT THIS with I COULD ADAPT TO THAT.
We will not solve our current problems in the future, as it is currently unavailable. Nor in the past, as many try to do, as we are already the future of it. This leaves only the present – this eternal present? – as the place to look for answers and try out the solutions.
For the end, I would like to once again revert to what Henry Lefebvre outlined in “The Production of Space”. It is not a recipe, or a formula, or a solution for anything, but a proposition how to think of the possibilities.
“Space as locus of production, as itself product and production, is both the weapon and the sign of this struggle. If it is to be carried through to the end – there is in any case no way of turning back – this gigantic task now calls for the immediate production or creation of something other than nature: a second, different or new nature, so to speak. This means the production of space, urban space, both as a product and as a work, in the sense in which art created works. If this project fails, the failure will be total, and the consequences of that are impossible to foresee.” Lefebvre, p. 110
To quote Brian Holmes from his talk from few years ago, “instrumental means of capitalist control and coordination can become the expressive means of liberation”.
We can use this knowledge and these machines to “turn data into knowledge, knowledge into aesthetic form, esthetic form into action”. There is nothing that structurally prevents us of deciding to do so.
There are different futures on offer, and this is where you can choose. Choices … It’s an old trick of the mechanism of the market. Whenever the buyer has some choices they believe they are in control of the process.
You don’t need to choose, but to decide.
Perhaps one day we will decide possible over probable! Perhaps that day we will feel that the time is flowing once again towards some meaningful place; and perhaps that day may be TOMORROW.
From probable & meaningless to possible & meaningful.
And, trusting Lefebvre, art has something to do with it.