Digitism – Part 1 (?)

Over at Cyborgology there’s been a long running discussion about “digital dualism”. But summarizing the different perspectives on digital dualism is more than I can handle here..  So I write this post to respond to Nathan Jurgenson’s latest post in which he asks “I’d like to close with a question: do we need names for these different digital dualism perspectives? If so, what to call them? I’m asking, and would love to discuss this more in the comments.”   He continues with a thumb nail sketch of the issues.

Thus, digital dualism is the tendency to see the digital and material as too distinct, rather than enmeshed, consistent with the definition of the term I worked with one website to create:

n. The belief that online and offline are largely distinct and independent realities.

Second, I want to refocus on the question of how digital dualism—this tendency to underestimate digital-material enmeshment—often clears a clean path towards the claim that one (usually, but not always, the material) is more real, deep, human, and true. Not ontology, these are cultural value statements based on the idea that the on and offline are distinct rather than enmeshed.

Digital Dualism of the Real

Nathan in this post poses putting ontological issues on the “back burner”.  But he continues to use the word “real” in hs definition.  This dual stance will tend to cause confusion.  And as I had pointed out the lack of a partner to digital in the phrase “digital dualism” seemed unclear.  He responded that digital/physical dualism would be more accurate.

I recently ran across the essay Beyond Nature and Culture – Philippe Descola.

The thought experiment derives from the initial intuition. If we agree that every human is aware of being a combination of interiority and physicality, then one can imagine how an entirely hypothetic subject, devoid of any previous information about the world, might use this equipment to chart his environment through a process of identification. By identification, I mean the elementary mechanism through which this subject will detect differences and similarities between himself and the objects in the world by inferring analogies and distinctions of appearance and behaviour between what he experiences as characteristic of his own self and the attributes he ascribes to the entities which surround him. And since the only tools he can rely upon are his interiority and his physicality, his patterning of the world will be based upon the selective attribution or denial of these attributes to other existing things. The range of identifications based on the interplay of interiority and physicality is thus quite limited: when confronted with an as yet unspecified alter, whether human or non-human, our hypothetical subject can surmise either that this object possesses elements of physicality and interiority analogous to his, and this I call totemism; or that this object’s interiority and physicality are entirely distinct from his own, and this I call analogism; or that the object has a similar interiority and a different physicality, and this I call animism; or that the object is devoid of interiority but possesses a similar kind of physicality, and this I call naturalism. These formulae define four types of ontologies, that is of systems of distributions of properties among existing objects in the world, that in turn provide anchoring points for sociocosmic forms of aggregation and conceptions of self and non-self.

Descola argues four types of ontologies (animism, totemism, analogism, naturalism), create the substrate for what “cultural value statements” are possible.  He is also arguing for a at least a minimal amount of duality as the basis for distinguishing this from that.  Unless one is able to achieve the Space Is Seen level of awareness, I think he is right.

I want to propose that the issues Nathan et al are getting at is not a mere conventional duality, but a fifth Descolian ontology: Digitism.  The Digital subject surmises that hir interiority and the physical fluctuates, fluxes, in whether they are analogous to each other.  (Nathan’s digital/physical duality echoes, but changes the interiority/physical duality Descola describes.  The digital occupies the same place in the formulation of the duality as “interiority”.)

For the Descola’s Naturalist, “naturalism inverts the ontological premises of animism since,instead of claiming an identity of soul and a difference of bodies, it is predicated upon a discontinuity of interiorities and a material continuity.”

For the Digitist, as interiority  and the physical become digitized, categories become less essentalist and more the expression of a particular embodiment characterized by change and queerness.

So I propose that Nathan’s digital dualism is really  a divide between those who favor different ontologies: Naturlalism or Digitism.

I’ve seriously overextended by cognitive abilities here so I end with this quote from Descola’s essay.  Maybe I’ll explore Digitism further in future posts. At any rate:

The differences that count are those that accrue from the network of discontinuities of form, matter, behaviour or function that are offered to our grasp by the movement of the world.  Discontinuities that are sometimes straightforward, sometimes barely outlined; discontinuities that we can recognize or ignore, emphasize or minimize, actualize or leave as potentialities; discontinuities which form the framework on which are hooked our relations with what Merleau-Ponty aptly called ‘the associate bodies’

22. I found, in short, that there was no need to presuppose some original fault lines in this network of discontinuities, in particular one that would separate the realm of nature from the abode of speaking creatures; I found that, however useful this constitutional division may have been in triggering the accomplishments of Modernity, it has now outlived its moral and epistemological efficiency, thus making way for what I believe will be a new exciting period of intellectual and political turmoil.

Beyond Nature and Culture – Philippe Descola.


Drone Strikes in the Uncanny Valley – Part 2

In Part 1,  I wrote:

The visceral revulsion of many seems to indicate a sense that these drones have, or will assume a life of their own, that despite their clearly mechanical appearance, they inhabit the uncanny valley.

But how can this be?  A robot’s too/not enough human likeness is the core of the effect.  There are in fact quite a number of drones, with various appearances.  But  I can’t recall one with any visual appreciable human likeness at all.

Mori’s graph show the industrial robot as the least uncanny.  But the industrial robot’s environment is highly constrained and controlled.  Even the huge mining or tunneling machines exist in specific environments when doing their work.

The drone roams the greater world, our world, seemingly unconstrained or controlled.  Imagine  observing from the ground a drone hovering for days.  Then suddenly it launches a missile that strikes close by.  Even if one is uninjured it must be a breathtakingly frightening experience.

From that vantage point, the drone appears to have intelligence, agency and to be capable of highly consequential action.  I think,, for many of us, this empathetic understanding is at least as strong as a more rational and factual one.

Combined with drones not looking human, this leads us to metaphorically regard them as a different species.

Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute says one of the “families of unreliable metaphors for imagining the capability of smarter-than-human Artificial Intelligence” is

 Species metaphors: Inspired by differences of brain architecture between species. AIs  have magic.

Drones then become a magic species, capable of rainng death down on us.

Their  different brain architectures leave them though emotionless.  Human Rights Watch released its report Losing Humanity a few months ago arguing against the development of “fully autonomous weapons”.

Even if the development of fully autonomous weapons with human-like cognition became feasible, they would lack certain human qualities, such as emotion, compassion, and the ability to understand humans. As a result, the widespread adoption of such weapons would still raise troubling legal concerns and pose other threats to civilians. (p. 6)

The report received limited coverage.  Among the most substantive was the Spencer Ackerman’s article Pentagon: A Human Will Always Decide When a Robot Kills You The wry, ironic tone of the title was typical of the few articles that did appear.

The Pentagon wants to make perfectly clear that every time one of its flying robots releases its lethal payload, it’s the result of a decision made by an accountable human being in a lawful chain of command. Human rights groups and nervous citizens fear that technological advances in autonomy will slowly lead to the day when robots make that critical decision for themselves. But according to a new policy directive issued by a top Pentagon official, there shall be no SkyNet, thank you very much.

.Looking up from the forest floor of the Uncanny Valley, through the canopy, I’m not so sure.

About Mushrooms

In a previous post,  I described the events leading up to my grandfather telling me, “You have to understand about mushrooms.”  Learning recently about Charles McIlvaine, I recognized something of my grandfather in him.  Both, I think, trusted his own experience to a degree that would ordinarily seem to result in an early death, only to have it validated.

He served in the Union Army for two years, rising to become a Captain. (Here is a point of difference between the two.  My grandfather came to America in part to avoid service in the Polish army.)

I found no account of his next 17 years.  Another similarity to my grandfather perhaps – a certain mystery about where he was and what he was doing.  At that point McIlvaine moved to West Virginia.  This is his account of what happened.

A score of years ago (1880-1885) I was living in the mountains of West Virginia. While riding on horseback through the dense forests of that great unfenced state, I saw on every side luxuriant growths of fungi, so inviting in color, cleanliness and flesh that it occurred to me they ought to be eaten. I remembered having read a short time before this inspiration seized me, a very interesting article in the Popular Science Monthly for May, 1877, written by Mr. Julius A. Palmer, Jr., entitled “ Toadstool eating.” Hunting it up I studied it carefully, and soon found myself interested in a delightful study, which was not without immediate reward. Up to this time I had been living, literally, on the fat of the land – bacon; but my studies enabled me to supplement this, the staple dish of the state, with a vegetable luxury that centuries ago graced the dinners of the Caesars. So absorbing did the study become from gastronomic, culinary, and scientific points of view, that I have continued it ever since, with thorough intellectual enjoyment and much gratification of appetite as my reward. I hope to interest students in the study as I am myself interested.

For twenty years my little friends – the toadstools – have been my constant companions. They have interested me, delighted me, feed me, and I have found much pleasure in making the public acquainted with their habits, structure, lusciousness and food value.

Charles McIlvaine “ OneThousand American Fungi”

McIlvaine’s method for leaning about mushrooms included eating hundreds of species of them.  The ediblity and poisoness of many of these were not known at the time.  His nickname came to be “Ole Ironguts”.

My grandfather came to America when he was 16.  I don’t know what education he had there.  His family was well off, so I’m sure whe went to school.  But from the rough jobs he had in this country, I’m fairly sure his formal education stopped in Poland.  Maybe he began to learn the ways of the forest there.  Because of the way he talked about “the woods” I’m sure though, that his knowledge came from extensive personal obsevation and experimentaton.

If you ever drank his coffee you would know he deserved the name “Ole Ironguts” as well.