Deus Ex: Prototypes of larger systems

Grammar has a limitation, and that is that it can only ever do one thing at a time. That is to say, a sentence has to be constructed in a particular way, and any one choice excludes other choices. Which might seem like a trivial observation, and it is, but placing it at the beginning of a text serves a purpose: to remind that this limitation is inherent to writing, and that reading ought to follow suit.

Fortunately, there is always an option to add another sentence, and another, until all things are said. Unfortunately, this engenders logistical problems, as sentences not only have to be internally coherent, but relate in understandable ways to those sentences pre- & proceeding them. Moving from statement to statement without proper transitioning makes for an incoherent text, and prompts the pun that all text is also always-already context. Writing is the subtle art of balancing text and context in such a way that the reader can follow along and get from beginning to end without too much effort – lest they cease reading.

With these two limiting factors in mind, the task of writing can be understood as framing sentences in such a way that they convey what is to be conveyed with the least amount of necessary fuss. Poets take this task to ever new heights by abolishing ever larger chunks of fussiness from their writs, remaining only the essential bits. Less radical writers struggle between writing too much context or too little. Too much, and the read is a slow going slog; too little, and comprehension is lost.

This leads to the eternal condition that there will always be more left to be said after anything is said. The possibilities are never exhausted, and any given read will result in a “but they could have said more about”. It takes a disciplined writer indeed to limit themselves to an idea and stick to it until it said well enough to be understood. The temptation is always there to add just that one more thing, one more thread, one more line of thought. It is the eternal temptation.

The conversation between Morpheus and Denton is perhaps the most well known exchange from Deus Ex. Not because it is essential – it is possible to miss it entirely – but because it breaks with the notion of providing context for its statements. Which isn’t the same as them having no context, but this context is not present in the exchange. Things are stated, left unexplained, and promptly forgotten as new things are stated.

Morpheus has this to say about itself: “I must greet each visitor with a complete summary of his file. I am a prototype for a much larger system.” Two things stand out in this utterance. The first is the “must”, not uttered with any particular emotion or sentiment, but as a straightforward statement of fact. The second is the “prototype”, which relates to the nature of the aforementioned must: it is a prototype for a system with a specific function, and must fulfill this function. That this function is constant realtime surveillance of electronic communication (as in, all of it) does not change what it is: a prototype artificial intelligence acting within specified parameters.

As you can imagine, there are multiple threads to purse at this point. The temptation is real: what does it mean that an AI can monitor electronic communication in realtime? What does it mean in terms of machine intentionality? What can it do with these capabilities? What can we take away from Morpheus being hidden away in a small room as a curiosity for the amusement of guests? What bigger system is it a prototype of?

Speaking of bigger systems, Morpheus says thus: “The need to be observed and understood was once satisfied by God. Now we can implement the same functionality with data-mining algorithms.” Again, the potential lines of flight: can god be quantifiable as functions? Can these functions be replaced by other instances? Does it matter to the individual if the god in the machine is digital or divine? Would such a transubstantiation be desirable to perform if we could? Would the machine want it?

These are both big and many questions. Seeing how they arise from just two lines of dialogue, this puts the art of writing in perspective. Adding or subtracting anything is a delicate matter, as it adds or subtracts that many lines of ponderance. There are no idle words – everything is significant. Everything can give rise to any number of questions, and must be written as such. Yet grammar states that something must be written, in particular. A choice has to be made.

The reason this particular exchange is so well known is the subtle ways it affords multiple lines flight without bothering too much with the necessities of character development. Morpheus only ever shows up once, and the authors are thus free to state things without having to address them later. The ratio between text and context is thus reduced significantly, and the statements can follow one upon another. Which they do.

As a closing statement, Morpheus speaks thus: “The human being created civilization not because of a willingness but because of a need to be assimilated into higher orders of structure and meaning. God was a dream of good government. You will soon have your God, and you will make it with your own hands.”

As readers and potential prototypes for much larger systems, we have our work cut out for us.

Deus Ex: Prototypes of larger systems

Arnold: The Function of Criticism at the Present Time

The most striking thing about works of fiction is that they can at once both compress and display complex and nuanced ideas in an efficient manner. You have most likely had the experience of reading a poem, book or story where, at the end, your mind is racing with ideas previously unthought. Not because they were laid bare through the methodical and systematic expounding labors of the author, but because the sheer momentum of one word leading on to another. The text began, middled and ended, and thus your reading left you with impressions enough to last for a long ponder indeed.

The ability to produce such feats of literary wonder is not evenly distributed, however. We all have some notion of becoming the next big author and moving the world to tears and remorseful introspection through our epic storytelling feats. However, lack of time, self-confidence or possibilities to spend countless hours, days, months on crafting and recrafting the same text over and over and over again until it becomes the best read it can possibly be – prohibits us. There always seems to be some practical matter to attend to before writing can commence, and thus the notion remains in the realm of possibility. But the reading continues.

The title of Arnold’s lecture turned essay is interesting in and of itself. The function of criticism at the present time has, as you can see, two promises regarding what is to follow. The first is to outline the function of criticism in some generality, and the second is to apply this to the present time and place. Arnold fulfills both promises by intertwining them – the function or criticism at this time is the same as the function of criticism at any time, which is to say the function of criticism in general. The difference being that it’s easier to get audiences to listen/read at this time if it is made relevant to the present, rather than just stated in general terms. It is a subtle title for a subtle move, yet it performs the duty of conveying the role of criticism admirably.

This role is precisely to not be in the present time. Or, rather, to view the present through the perspective of times that are long gone, are fading from living memory, have just passed, might be tomorrow and – to spark controversy – might happen upon us further ahead. It is to take note of present passions, to note that there have been similar sentiments before, and to remind those listening that there might be lessons to be learnt from these forgotten events. That the lessons of the past are not past us, as it were.

These passions often present themselves in the form of literary works, and the critic has a role in critiquing these. Especially those who arouse popular approval or is particularly effective in conveying the subtle aspects of the times. Not for lack of manifestos and academics extolling these very same ideas in clear prose with explicit lines of argument, but because (academics and writers of manifestos will have to forgive me) these literary works are far more efficient at garnering audiences of sufficient size to affect societal change. And, conversely, because these very same changes are expressed in these very same works.

The role of the critic is to step back, analyze and unpack the ideas these works contain. And, more importantly, to express it in such a way that contemporary readers can understand the hows, whats and whys – to lay bare what the work accomplishes in its efficient compression of ideas, and to connect these ideas to a broader context. And, hopefully, to give rise to ponderings of longer endurance than the works in and of themselves are probable to do. The critic is, in a sense, also a pedagogue.

Arnold warns that the act of critiquing will, inevitably, backfire. For two reasons. The first being that critiques often seem impractical on the face of them, and that there are more immediate things to attend to. Practical matters of commerce, industry and politics need to be addressed before the airy fairy luxury of books and poems can be properly perused. If Maslow had been around during Arnold’s time, the comparison would have been made: first things first, and then those things that depend on these. In that order. Practical people prioritizing practical pursuits.

The second reason is that an untimely critique will most likely be misconstrued as a disagreement. Even doing something as simple as taking a core tenet of a work and placing it within a historical or ideological (in both senses of the word) context can be read as an attack on this tenet, and those who hold it to be dear will respond as if attacked. Arnold describes how he suddenly found himself at odds with his peers after pointing out that a contemporary was less original than the hyperbole praised him to be. It was interpreted as a breach of unity of the group, and punished as such. The fact that Arnold was right didn’t change much, alas.

Taken together, these two reasons serve to further outline the virtues of the critic – to dare to be not immediately useful in order to get at what is deemed important in the longer term. If critique was indeed impractical, it wouldn’t be able to incite anger at those who perform it; and if it can incite anger, it serves a role in explaining and contextualizing other similar passions of the present. Being a clear, concise critic entails using the best ideas at hand in order to as succinctly as possible give word to these sentiments and convey them to a general audience. The risk of alienating readers in the short term is the price to pay for (re)formulating ideas that will last longer than the present outrage.

Arnold lived and worked in the 19th century, well before concepts such as “media representation” made their appearance. This does not change the fact that the second promise of the title is still kept to this day, in that criticism still has a function. Even more now, as the amount of literary works surrounding us has increased manifold, both in terms of volume and mediation. It is not hard to name movies, songs or computer games that have, each in their own way, moved us through the sheer momentum of their continuation. And there is ample room for critiques of these works to make their significance that much more eternal.

While not all of us will become great writers, it is not too utopian to hope that we will become greater readers. –

Arnold: The Function of Criticism at the Present Time

Zielinski: Deep time of the Media

I have something of a conservative bent. That is to say, when enthusiasts of new technologies happen in near proximity to me, I tend to remind them that Aristotle wrote the first book on social media (Rhetoric), and that the way to design effective tools is to shape them in such a way that continued use of them over the years will form habits that eventually stabilize into a virtuous being. Which is sometimes received for what it is – a recognition that human beings are the primary users of technology, new or old, and that as such the ancients have things to teach us. More often, though, it is received as a cranky rebuke that things were better in the (really) old days, and that them kids with their apps n’ their social networky thingamajiggies are up to no good. Conversations tend to end at this point.

To say that there’s a tendency in the current zeitgeist to endorse the new and discard the old is something of a truism. iPhones come with version numbers, and the higher this number is, the better the phone is. It is almost an exercise in technical indulgence to go into the details of what differs between the versions. The conclusion is foregone, the point prefabricated. The notion of eternal progress is inherent to the project of modernity, and the further along we move into the future, the more progress has been made. Today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be even grander.

When I picked up Zielinski’s Deep time of the Media (2006), I was not sure what I expected. The promise of returning to thinkers of old in order to shed new light on the present allured, and the book delivers on this promise, but it is not what the book is about. Merely digging up old thoughts for their own sake is not the point, nor is it a simple retrofitting the ancients into our modern chain of being. It is not, as the foreword points out, a work of “anticipatory history”, of dissecting the past in order to see how it contributed to the present moment. It is something else.

The quickest way to summarize the book is to state what it does. What is does is that it describes, in passionate detail, a series of media theorists of old, their lives, thoughts, circumstances. It then sums up. Not the theories, the progression from then to now, the contributions, the grand scheme of things. But the passions, enthusiasms, interests, obsessions. It is not an archeology of things as much as it is an archeology of sentiments.

The present has a way of making itself seem predetermined. The letter always arrives, as it were. The things around us seem like the obvious things to be among, by virtue of us having seen how they got here (and more often than not being the reason for them being here). Regret as we might the lost opportunities of yore, those very same opportunities fade from memory as those things that came to pass ossify into what always was. The past accumulates into the present, and turns into inevitability. VHS always won over Betamax.

What Zielinski endeavors to ask is not along the lines of “what if Betamax won over VHS?”, but rather something along the lines of “what if we had the chance to alter the thinking that went into the design of these technologies, and could nudge things in a better direction?”. What if things could be different?

It’s tempting to think that this nudge would take the form of technological improvements. Using our future knowledge to imbue the iPhone 2 with the technical capabilities of the iPhone 3. Subtle adjustments to boost the speed of progress ever so slightly. But that would be difference of a too banal a kind. Zielinski wants us to ponder the kinds of nudges that would alter the relationship between human and machine, between subjects – interfaces, in the broadest possible sense.

This faces us squarely with the brutal directness of media: what does it mean to interact with it? What happens to us when we adapt our beings to it? What do we have to do to make its contents available to us, and what does this doing do to us? What if we were to do it differently? What if we were to be different?

It might be argued that Zielinski takes a rather roundabout approach in getting to these questions. Pondering late medieval magicians, the ways electricity literally electrified the galvanized enthusiasts at the time of its novelty, or the role of excessive documentation used in late 19th century Italian criminology – this is by no means the direct route to any particular conclusion at all. But taken as a whole, as an aggregate, each part serve to underline that thinking about media used to be different, and that we, too, can think differently about the media landscape we find ourselves in. The time taken to ponder and – more importantly – appreciate the different historical sentiments is (to further invoke McLuhan) the message. Again, the sentiments, not the technical details, has center stage.

In a move from the past to the present, Zielinski ends this book by turning to artists and kairos poetry. Kairos is the technical term for the perfect moment to act, and kairos poetry is thus a poetry of being in (or, indeed, creating) these moments. Times where the present is slightly less predetermined than it usually seems, and when the future is fuller of possibilities than usual. The perfect moment does not belong in a golden age long past, only salvageable by means of painstaking archeological excavations of obscure manuscripts and inventions. The perfect moment is whenever you align and design for it to happen.

It’s not so much carpe diem as wrangling the full technical media capabilities of the present into submission and forcing it to do something worth remembering. With/in your own reflective terms and interfaces.

There is still time.

Zielinski: Deep time of the Media