Digital disrupture

Dieter Mersch

Digital Criticism
A Critique of “Algorithmic” Reason

Übersetzt von Michael Turnbull

Veröffentlicht am 10.12.2017


Digital disrupture

Theories of the digital owe their demand to an ambivalent situation. For a start they originate in the visions and utopias of the alternative cultural enlightenment of the 1970s, which not only brought forth the personal computer but also the media sciences and media theories, which examined and reflected on the digital disrupture and now diagnose a caesura as substantial as the early modern period and the invention of printing. All the signs and content of previous cultures are thus under close scrutiny, and are being transformed and overtaken by a development whose further dynamics are barely predictable. According to the general analysis, the technological turn associated with digitization will transform all circumstances of life to such an extent that following Marshall McLuhan and the book he has co-written with Quentin Fiore, the title of which, ironically, isn’t The Medium is the Message but The Medium is the Massage, it is necessary to speak of a thorough “massage” of the present age. What are the hopes connected with this? What are its boundaries and risks? And why is the actual breaking point the period of social upheaval in the 1970s—and not the late 1940s or early 50s, which saw the mathematical theorization of the phenomenon and construction of the first computers, then called “electronic brains”?

The origin, and thus the caesura, of digitization is in fact much earlier, or at least that of its theoretical model and its technological equivalent, which reaches far back to the early twentieth century and perhaps, with Boolean algebra and Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace’s studies on the difference engine, to the middle of the nineteenth century, even. Alan Turing described the mathematical scheme of his eponymous Turing machine as a “universal machine,” which was able to simulate all calculable or mathematically representable problems. Moreover, alongside the mid-twentieth-century development of a general semiotics, Claude Shannon’s information theory and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics brought a new scientific paradigm into the arena that from the early 1960s at the latest began to think about circular communication, self-correcting machines, or cyclical causalities and feedback loops, in order to reconstitute the natural sciences and humanities, and thus to reconcile what C.P. Snow described as two different cultures.

Since then there seems to have been hardly a boundary that has resisted the success of digitization: intellectual processes are captured by digital algorithms; the neurosciences still follow—or at least...

When people lose their belief in religion, G.K. Chesterton once mocked, they no longer believe in nothing but in everything. Hence the necessity for a restitution of the faculty of discrimination, which is able to arrest the dissemination of arbitrary information and renew credibility. Suggestions have so far been muddled and ineffective, but this is no argument against them, rather an indication of the difficulty of the task. In addition, the proliferation of an internet communicativity tending toward deregulation has been underestimated from the very beginning, because only the infrastructure and acceleration of the systems have been realized, not their possible regulation. This has to do with increased access and speed of circulation, in a word with what Friedrich Nietzsche denounced as the unconditional will to escalation and excess, which sure enough represents nothing other than a glut of economic logic itself. A yet unwritten “critique of algorithmic reason,” understood as a restriction of its claim to validity, might be necessary, so as to restrain the overproduction of “truths” and “falsities” on the internet.

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Dieter Mersch

Dieter Mersch

studierte Mathematik und Philosophie in Köln, Bochum, Darmstadt. 2004 wurde er Professor für Medientheorie und Medienwissenschaften an der Universität Potsdam. Seit 2013 ist er Leiter des Instituts für Theorie an der ZHdK Zürich. Dieter Mersch war Gastprofessor in Chicago, Budapest und Luzern, Fellow am IKKM Weimar und an der ZHdK Zürich. Seine Arbeitsschwerpunkte sind Medienphilosophie, Ästhetik und Kunsttheorie, Semiotik, Hermeneutik, Poststrukturalismus sowie Philosophie des Bildes und der Sprache.

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