Metadata as a Problem for Thinking

I should have said this before, but the word itself is a monstrosity. Whosoever would attach a Greek prefix to a Latin root should be driven out of the city, egads. But let's overlook this superficial fact, at least for the time being. We saw before that metadata is an engineering problem. But metadata is a problem for other reasons too; metadata is a problem for thinking.

The notion that metadata might be a problem for society emerged onto the world stage with the Snowden revelations, although people have been worried about such issues already for some time. The conversation then was about the collection of so-called metadata -- telephone call records, who called whom, and so on -- and the lawful or unlawful ends to which such data might be used by state and commercial actors.

Here I'm not so much interested in whether metadata is a problem for society, but rather how metadata relates to thought and whether metadata might be a problem for thinking. Continue reading

Play and Labor

I was recently interviewed by Denisse Vega de Santiago and George Jepson for Volume magazine on labor, play, capitalism, and other topics. Oh and I get to say some catty things about architecture and use profanity! Read the whole interview here.

Analog Hall of Fame: Scale

I said before that no one has yet patented a Meaning Machine. While that's true in the abstract, I want to talk about the two most common ways to hack around the problem. First is labor and second is scale.

k-means clustering of random data points

Meaning is the "hard problem" of computation, at least today. How do we know that data means something as opposed to something else? What's the difference between noise and signal? Is artificial intelligence (AI) able to discern meaning? And, perhaps more esoterically if not also pedantically, is meaning an analog technology or a digital technology? (For the final question, I take meaning formally as an analog technology, in that meaning entails a kind of Gestalt synthesis of complex arrangements of terms; yet practically speaking meaning is always the result of an interaction between the analog and the digital, and thus cannot be reduced to one or the other.)

Today there are two basic solutions to the "hard problem," the problem of meaning. The first solution is to outsource the problem to humans, effectively to make humans shoulder the burden of the Meaning Machine. To the extent that significance is measurable, it's because a human put it there and marked it as measurable. In other words, if you find meaning, it's the result of human labor. Continue reading

Meillassoux at the Googleplex

I've been thinking about the old maxim "correlation is not causation." Skeptics tend to push a strong interpretation of the maxim. The skeptics say significance doesn't emanate from behavior; the phenomena of the world refuse to furnish their own meaning. Working scientists on the other hand tend to be more pragmatic. Scientists usually understood it more as an admonition than a prohibition. A scientist might say that assigning causes to effects is okay, just be sure that the linkage is valid. Correlation might be causation, says the scientist, provided that two measurements are indeed causally related.

How different clustering algorithms perform against six sample data sets

For a long time prior to the Twentieth Century, the skeptic's prohibition was dominant. In the Eighteenth Century, David Hume famously argued that there's no way to link definitively a set of input events with a set of consequences. If two things tend to happen together we might say there is a "constant conjunction" between them, but, beyond that, there's no way to say they are linked through a cause. So while "correlation is not causation" has a specific, practical meaning (don't extract inappropriate conclusions from data), it also has a more general Humean meaning (data will only ever be constant conjunction, nothing more).

Later, with the turn to probability and statistics in the Twentieth Century -- consider for example the importance of probability in quantum mechanics -- the Humean consensus began to unravel. It's not that Hume's problem was solved. On the contrary, no human has yet invented a cause-effect detector. Rather, Hume's problem was rendered obsolete by practical circumstance. People simply stopped caring; they stopped worrying about whether truth was logical. In fact they stopped caring about truth. Continue reading

How to Spot an Analog Philosopher

After previously offering some thoughts on how to spot a digital philosopher, it seems only fair to do the same for analog philosophers. I've referred to analog philosophers in the past via the figure of the Swerver, but Swervers are only one instance of analog philosophy. And while digital devices permeate the world, analog philosophy has made a comeback in recent decades. Are we living through a golden age of analog?

How to spot an analog philosopher? First look at his attachments... What does he love the most?

Analog philosophers value life and vitality, and thus have a special affection for nature. They talk about energy and aliveness, but also the same thing in reverse, dissipation and death. The ugliest ugly is the most beautiful beautiful, and vice versa. An analog philosopher might be a new age spiritualist or decadent goth, there is no conflict.

"Consider the world's diversity and worship it," proclaims Ariel in Derek Jarman's Jubilee (1979). "By denying its multiplicity you deny your own true nature." Indeed analog philosophers admire diversity and heterogeneity, along with difference and multiplicity -- qualitative multiplicity, that is, less so the arithmetic kind. "All creatures great and small" is the analogger's mantra. Continue reading

Acoustic Resonance

Robin James's recent book The Sonic Episteme is a fascinating tour through the contemporary culture and politics of sound. The book hinges on what she calls "acoustic resonance," a paradigm of thinking where sound and sonic phenomena like vibration, oscillation, resonance, and diffraction are taken to be the very fabric of being itself. The "acoustic resonance" paradigm has three key parts: matter is defined in terms of "rhythmically oscillating patters of intensity"; these vibratory patterns "interact in rational or irrational phase relationships"; and finally the rational resonances are coded as consonant, while irrational resonances are coded as dissonant (63). Waves move, they interact, and the interactions are harmonious or not. In this way, the basic physics of wave propagation and superposition form the basis for an entire metaphysical hierarchy. It's one of the oldest moral hierarchies in western thought, in fact, going back to the Pythagoreans. As in ancient geometry, where certain ratios of numbers form pleasing harmonies -- literally the ratios that are "logical" (logos) -- while other interactions between numbers break the harmony and are thus illogical (alogos), James shows how the paradigm of "acoustic resonance" furnishes a ready mechanism for sorting consonant/rational sounds in favor of dissonant/irrational ones.

The rational/irrational distinction has long been a way to sort and classify persons along gender, class, and racial lines. As the classicist Anne Carson has pointed out in her celebrated essay on the "Gender of Sound," the ancient world -- and by extension the modern world too -- put forth a very specific model of the human, to which woman somehow never seems to conform. "Woman is that creature who puts the inside on the outside," Carson wrote. "By projections and leakages of all kinds--somatic, vocal, emotional, sexual--females expose or expend what should be kept in. Females blurt out a direct translation of what should be formulated indirectly" (129). Continue reading


Cue the TERF wars. The coming responses to Andrea Long Chu's book Females -- there will be many so get ready -- are so predictable they practically write themselves. Some will most certainly object to Chu defining female via the negative, any negative. And anyway, they will claim, only an author who is "really" a man could be this misogynistic. Others will object to Chu's affection for words like "all" and "universal"; we just don't describe people that way anymore. Such objections will subsequently morph into the classic Animal Farm rebuttal: yes, okay, but some females are more female than other females. I don't subscribe to any of this.

Why is this book so interesting? A compulsively readable pamphlet, the book is funny and gutsy, weird and perverted in all the best ways. But more important is how Chu defines female as a structural condition determined by the symbolic order, not some empirical fact about sex or gender, and certainly not via the typical liberal discourse around women's empowerment. In other words, Females is important because it is structuralist. That's also why people will hate it. Continue reading

How to Spot a Digital Philosopher

The expression "Digital Philosophy" has a specific meaning. Recently I've tried to expand that meaning to include other thinkers and traditions from throughout history, not just those who claim, improbably, that "the world is a giant computer." I'm thinking, for instance, of Richard Dedekind's work on arithmetic, or the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, or Leibniz's monadology, or indeed Alain Badiou's ontology. Such work, and much more, could conceivably come under the heading "Digital Philosophy." (Also of potential interest: how to spot an analog philosopher.)

How to spot a digital philosopher? First, listen to how he talks

The digital philosopher will favor structures generated through difference. These structures of difference include binary opposition, hierarchy, and norms, but also rupture, distinction, and cutting. His preferred mode of analysis is to divide a complex world into just two categories.

The digital philosopher will favor analysis over synthesis; he will want to break things down into their constituent parts. These small parts turn primarily around binary difference, but ultimately constitute arrangements that are multiple.

He will favor abstraction, structure, language, logic, rationality, and form. He will be a structuralist, a rationalist, a formalist, a critic, a mathematician, an idealist, a metaphysician. Continue reading