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Technologies of Sin & Salvation
 

Technologies of Sin & Salvatation:
Capital & Technologies of Meaning in the Age of the Perpetual Innovation Economy


INTRODUCTION

For every procedure already requires an open sphere in which it moves. And it is precisely in opening such a sphere that is the fundamental event in research.

MARTIN HEIDEGGER, THE AGE OF THE WORLD PICTURE

IN THE BEGINNING, perhaps with the first uniquely human thought, was the Word. And with our first bite of that potent fruit, humanity was cast from the companionship of the beasts and the trees, left oneness for duality, and entered the tensive, knotted space of earthly and virtual worlds which humankind alone inhabits. And in that same instant, we began the ageless task of bridging the void between subject and object, sign and referent, ourselves and our world.

____Thus our story, from that moment when we first evolved – or fell – to our homo sapient condition, begins and unfolds with humankind's creation of its unique symbolic, social and material technologies — such as the word "sin," the number zero, the institution of market capitalism, digital neural networks. In this sense, as Donna Haraway famously noted, we have always been cyborg creatures of both virtual and real dimensions who, in fits and starts, have sought the wherewithal to perfect our technologies, heal the perceived rift between these ontological realms, and achieve a sense of unity in that extraordinary nexus of technological and natural worlds which is the beating heart of human cognition and culture.

____ With the human species always, already and inextricably linked to its embedded and emergent technologies, how are we to grasp this coupling – a symbiosis by definition as subtly complex, dynamic and beyond measure as our very humanity? This study suggests that the first crucial step is simply to recognize it as such. That we refuse the reductive theory and methods which persist in flattening the space within which we imagine our selves and our technologies. In order to avoid what John Seeley-Brown has described as the debilitating "tunnel design" so prevalent and pervasive in communications technology development today, we must first resist what Hannah Arendt described as the "metaphysical fallacy," and which John Dewey termed the "philosophic fallacy." That is, in essence, the very human tendency to project our metaphorical constructs and cognitive schema into a hypostasized, otherworldly realm of Truth. As the great European philosopher Martin Heidegger insisted, it is in the initial act of opening the sphere of inquiry in which lies the "fundamental event in research." The German physicist Werner Heisenberg similarly noted that, "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning." We want to ensure that our method of questioning provides the necessary space-in both theory and praxis-to explore the vital human nexus of the natural and the technological in its full affective, embodied and cognitive multi-dimensionality.

____ It is important therefore to first make clear that this study approaches the question of technology – and communications technologies particularly – in the broad Deweyan or Heideggerian sense. In this definition, the built human environment is seen as being comprised of shared linguistic, social and material technologies used in both distilling and replicating value and meaning out of the complexity and chaos natural to the physical environment. Throughout this study, such value and meaning will also be referred to as "schema" or as "technology." In line with Samuel Weber's insightful interpretation of Heidegger's Entbergung, technology is defined as an ambiguous dynamic of both regulating or "securing" as well as releasing or "unsecuring." These processes, which will be discussed later in fuller detail, are reflected in what Richard Coyne has identified as the fundamental paradox of metaphor, in its simultaneous signification of "identity" and "difference." The list below presents paired elements which demonstrate aspects of the ebb and flow of this tensive relationship:

Schematic :: Figurative
Identity :: Difference
Securing :: Releasing
Cognitive :: Aesthetic
Science :: Art
Intellectualism :: Affective-embodiment

____ Whatever stuff the human subject was made of in its incipient state of precognitive innocence, it has been transformed by the tensive dissonance between identity and difference which characterizes our most elemental technology-metaphor. For metaphor is that basic linguistic technology which serves as a model for other technological systems of interaction between human organism and environment. Further, this metaphor/technology tends to impose a fundamental dualistic structure on human experience through dialectical dynamics such as those listed above. This study argues that this fundamental human cognitive phenomenon necessitates the innovation of eco-cognitive technologies which take into account these imposed, constructed dualisms, and offer facilities for transcending the conceptual, cognitive limitations thus imposed. It is further argued that to innovate new value and meaning is to create new technologies – both aesthetic and alienating – a process which requires human figurative transformation, or productive innovation. The work of figurative transformation is seen as extending beyond cognitive reason, engaging the full dimensionality of noninstrumental, embodied affect-that is, the human mind coextensive with the body. Art and the aesthetic are shown to manifest what has until recently been the unique capacity of the individual human subject for such productive innovation and transformation. Alternately, the encoding, ordering and reproduction of such figurative transformation is accomplished through the instrumental dynamic of securing.

. . .

The illusion that information is separate from materiality leads not only to a dangerous split between information and meaning but also to a flattening of the space of theoretical inquiry. If we accept that the materiality of the world is immaterial to our concerns, we are likely to miss the very complexities that theory at its best tries to excavate and understand.

Katherine Hayle, Theories of Virtuality

A technological fetishism has affected most research ... concerning ICTs. However critical the research, however far towards the 'social-shaping' end of the agenda it seeks to go, if it starts with the problem defined in terms of technology, then it cannot easily, if at all, avoid the debilitating effects of that fetishism.

Nicholas Garnham, Information Politics

Hayle's and Garnham's admonishments in the epigrams above allude to the two most persistent, universal and devastating errors in opening the theoretical and methodological spheres in which the development and assessment of communications technologies typically occurs in contemporary research and design.

____ The first error is to perceive technology as somehow distinct from the imminent world of lived human experience, existing rather in a transcendent, otherworldly realm of "objective" ideas, forms or truths. This fundamental human impulse inevitably leads – as Arendt and Dewey observed – to cognitive and philosophic tautology, and to severing the human construct from the essential, symbiotic relationship which first gave it life and significance, and through which human beings have created value and meaning since our first signifying gesture. The objectives of Arendt and Dewey's observations were, in fact, divergent. In Arendt's case, she sought to understand and build upon the inherent directionality of metaphorical logic – from nature to experience. For Dewey, the objective was to expose the oldest philosophical error, the presumption that construction of locally useful cognitive tools is actually discovery of timeless truth. Yet both argued that the fundamental error involves taking the result of a lived experience as its logical, and therefore existentially necessary, preexisting conditions – or, that is to say, to impose a hypostasized categorical structure on experience. This is what links the otherwise distinct observational bases that Dewey and Arendt were drawing upon to make a point about a fundamental limiting condition on the logic of cognitive experience.

____ Examples of this error are as plentiful as they are endemic to the human condition, ranging from the most subtle and fleeting to the most profound and persistent. Echoing the ancient Hindu and Buddhist sages, 20th century scholars such as Erich Fromm and Gregory Bateson have, for instance, described the ways in which elemental linguistic technologies such as the words "love" or "beauty" are commonly imbued with fixed and transcendent status, shaping and often supplanting the direct, lived experience itself. Bateson famously noted that "The name is not the thing, the map is not the territory." Fromm suggests that this concept of alienation found its first expression in Western thought in the Old Testament admonishment against idolatry:

____ The essence of what the prophets call "idolatry" is not that man worships many gods instead of only one. It is that the idols are the work of man's own hands-they are things, and man bows down and worships things; worships that which he has created himself. In doing so he transforms himself into a thing. He transfers to the things of his creation the attributes of his own life, and instead of experiencing himself as the creating person, he is in touch with himself only by the worship of the idol. He has become estranged from his own life forces, from the wealth of his own potentialities, and is in touch with himself only in the indirect way of submission to life frozen in the idols (Fromm 1966, 44).

____ Fromm goes on to suggest that, among the many forms of alienation, the most frequent is alienation in language. The word is meant to serve as symbol rather than substitute for the living experience. The same holds true for all other human constructs. The danger, Fromm argues, is the timeless temptation to confuse "experience with artifacts, feeling with surrender and submission" (1966, 46). As I will argue in Chapter Three, this view is distilled in the Zen Buddhist proverb, "Examine the living words, not the dead," and reflects the essential Zen project of penetrating to the quick of experience through the discipline's unique methods of inquiry and technologies of enlightenment. Also important to this study will be Karl Marx's deconstruction of that social technology we call capital, assessing and describing its alienating impacts on human cognition and culture in the way capital must secure transcendent value and meaning apart from the living value and meaning of immediate human experience. This common error, the dynamic of alienation, receives extensive treatment throughout this book, and is particularly addressed in the study's proposed method of developing "eco-cognitive technologies," which explicitly seek to address such biases in human cognition and behavior.

____ A second and closely related error is found in the time-honored Western practice of "flattening" theory and method through the separation of information from materiality, mind from embodiment-a convention which has, as I describe in Chapter Two, dominated Western thought since the age of the early Greeks. This issue also receives extensive treatment throughout this study and is specifically addressed in a proposed aesthetic theoretical and methodological framework which recognizes and nurtures an "extruded" and integral space of affective, embodied and cognitive ontological dimensions. To cite one example which will reemerge throughout this study, Charles Seife has written of the relative ease with which the ancient peoples of the East absorbed the mathematical construct "zero," a seemingly inconsequential though ultimately pivotal technology (2000). Through the millennial evolution and migration of epistemologies through India, China and Japan, the concept of sunyata, or emptiness, would be woven into the heart of these cultures' values and meanings, permeating nearly every facet of their lives. A remarkable contrast is seen in the ways in which the founding fathers of Western thought constructed their own epistemological legacies around the uncompromising principles of early Euclidean geometry, a cognitive schema with which the mathematical notion of zero was incompatible. Plato and Aristotle won the epistemological contest of their day, dismissing a competing theory of meaning propounded by Protagoras rooted in embodied human experience in favor of an epistemology revolving around transcendent forms of geometric perfection. Two and a half millennia in hindsight, we now know that Protagoras had it right after all, when he suggested that man makes reality to his own specifications out of the conceptual void of natural existence. Yet Western thought is yet largely under the spell of Plato's vision of a virtual, static Truth above and beyond embodied human experience, fashioned so long ago around the binding principles and "ratiocination" of early geometry. And so today we find in Chapters Two and Four that little more than a choice of metaphor separates Plato's divine, transcendent Forms, and the vertiginous, untethered signification of the French postmodernists' syntactic philosophy.

____ Why does this matter? In the end, what harm is actually done by making use of dualistic thought or reductive methods which tend to flatten the space of inquiry or even place our rather remarkable linguistic, social and material creations on a pedestal? As it turns out, a great deal. In fact, scholars and sages through the ages-particularly in the East-have argued that our very humanity hangs in the balance. And a growing majority of scholars and scientists today argue that the health of our planetary ecosystem may be at stake as we hypostasize the pure virtual value of such abstractions as "economic growth," "material progress" and "economic globalization." But how is it possible that our definition of this elemental bond matters so profoundly to both our humanity and our world? A diversity of voices from a range of disciplines, cultures and times have suggested that, as Nietzsche implied, if we could only summon the courage to peer into that void born of the false separation of creator and creation, the void might reveal us to ourselves. That is, by observing the forces and effects of this relationship and the conceptual errors it engenders both in individual human perception and in our shared theories of meaning, we might finally gain release from the Samsaric cycle of human affliction, or, alternately, resolve that seeming paradox of willing ourselves back to a state of precognitive Edenic grace. The present study adopts the narrower, practical view that emergent communication technologies, combined with an ongoing transformation of capital which began two centuries ago, generate a climate in which human subjectivity is ineluctably transformed-and that we require new theoretical and methodological means in order to understand these transformations and direct them to more human ends. Rutsky describes this as an evolution which will necessarily involve "unsecuring the [human] subject, of acknowledging the relations and mutational processes that constitute it." This will involve, he argues, no less than "opening the boundaries of individual and collective identity, changing the relations that have distinguished between subject and object, self and other, us and them" (1999, 21). This study explores the question of how we have come to arrive at this historic juncture, and how we might better navigate the terrain of the future through what Jameson referred to-in figurative terms-as a process of "global cognitive mapping." As Jameson suggested, in a techno-cultural space too complex and chaotic to be represented as a totality, such "cognitive maps" may offer the best means of navigating the techno-cultural world around us (Rutsky 1999, 21). However, where Jameson viewed such a map as a purely theoretical means of gaining a broader understanding of the postmodern space, this study seeks to propose the first step toward an articulated method of cognitive mapping through metaphor analysis. But before we move forward, it will be important to survey the past.

____ Only a few centuries ago, with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the Western world was first compelled to turn its full, collective attention to the profound-and often wrenching-impacts of our technologies on the experience of being human. This signaled a turning point and the onset of an accelerated transformation in capital which has now been roughly two hundred years in the making. It was at this time that Marx first described the cause and effects of alienation to the Western world, his analyses given unprecedented and unforeseen weight and urgency by the jarring political-economic and existential transformations of that era. Seminal scholars of that time, such as Burke, Hume, Kant, Schiller, Hegel, and Schopenhauer took aesthetics as their driving method and metaphor in addressing the impacts of this industrial-and existential-revolution. By the turn of the 20th century, seminal American and European scholars such as William James, John Dewey, George Herbert Mead and Alfred Whitehead had begun to more fully elucidate the inadequacies of dualistic epistemologies and reductive methods in grasping the ever-intensifying socio-technological dynamics of the day.

____ Today, these voices are by no means limited to select philosophers or scholars. At the threshold of the 21st century, there is a gathering confluence of voices from a diversity of disciplines, suggesting a convergence of capital, digital, social and biological which is straining against the flattened parameters of Western theory and praxis. Among such research relevant to this study has been, for example, Mathew Rabin's seminal work in bridging economics and psychology, giving rise to the compelling insights of behavioral finance. Robert McNeil's groundbreaking synthesis in environmental history details the effects of successive technological and political economic transitions on the natural environment. Also notable are the sweeping, interdisciplinary implications of Albert-Laszlo Barabasi's work in the new mathematics of network dynamics. Crucial to the present study is the work of George Lakoff, Mark Johnson and Mark Turner in closing the gap between the cognitive and social sciences through their research into metaphor and the embodied ontogenesis of value and meaning. And scholars of virtuality, such as Katherine Hayles and Carol Gigliotti, have been particularly resolute about the need to move beyond our familiar theories and methods in order to redefine a more humanly multi-dimensional space in which we create both our technologies and our selves.

____ By setting out with a clear view of the ambiguous character of technology, the persistent conceptual biases concomitant with human cognition, the ways in which these have given shape to Western theory and method, as well as related trends in the emergent political economy, this study proposes a specific alternative approach to ICT research and design. This book suggests a means of explicitly acknowledging an integrative aesthetic space of information and materiality, mind and embodiment, within a grounded, multi-dimensional framework of cognitive ecology. It is therefore necessary that the study begin by exploring a means of framing fully extruded inquiry into contemporary technologies, and specifically digital ICTs. The project is, in this important sense, immediate and pragmatic. What is sought is a practicable approach to researching and developing information and communications technologies which is public, transparent and capable of open deliberation. Yet, because these digital technologies are so profoundly implicated in sweeping transformations in current and emergent social, biological and political economic realities, the project requires that certain essential epistemological, ontological and teleological issues first be carefully addressed in order to provide that proper sphere of inquiry, the necessary space within which to articulate such a method. This book will therefore consist of two parts: Part I will consist of a careful review of available literature, focusing on the crucial act of opening the sphere, of articulating an appropriate method of questioning, in a way which it is hoped may yield fresh perspectives and novel results for the method and case studies to be presented in Part II.

____ Specifically, in Chapter One, salient features of the current and emergent political economic and environmental context will be described. Reflecting a line of Enlightenment thinking running from Goethe to Spinoza to Hegel, Marx once noted that, in the industrialist's factory, "we have a lifeless mechanism, independent of the workman, who becomes its mere living appendage" (in Fromm 1961, 51). This state of being, for Marx and other like-minded thinkers, represented the Modern alienated laborer, subsumed within the systems machine, yet worshipping its products as consumable godheads. But the machine isn't what it used to be. Today, we live in a "perpetual innovation economy" characterized by automated technologies of reproduction sufficiently advanced that the human production of meaning has become the increasingly dominant means of generating surplus value. Over the past three decades, figurative transformation and its social and aesthetic encoding in "content" have become the crucial driving forces behind the generation of capital's value within the political economy. And so we may wonder, together with the French New Theorists, whether the Modernist, Enlightenment themes have any currency in today's postmodern, digital world. This chapter posits specific ways in which they do, arguing that it is in postmodern political economy, through our embodied labor, production and consumption, that we most dramatically confront the virtualizing and alienating impacts of our emerging technologies.

____ Chapter Two describes how, since the time of Plato and Aristotle, two broad, well-traveled paths have comprised the accepted modes of Western inquiry into the nature of meaning and value. Together, these traditions – rationalism and empiricism – may be seen as divergent methods of arriving at an ultimate, objective truth independent of subjective intervention or interpretation. These modes of thought have proven stunningly successful in defining the normative parameters-the accepted spheres of inquiry – of all subsequent attempts to define the nature of value and meaning over the past two and a half millennia. This chapter seeks to elucidate several of the key impacts of these epistemologies in order to understand clearly how it is that both our economic and environmental realities are today straining against the confines of the preternatural cognitive model inherent in these still dominant modes of thought.

____ In Chapter Three it will be shown that, in line with contemporary findings in cognitive science, Eastern thought has argued for several millennia that human cognition comprises a relatively minor, error-prone facet of human experience. In the Zen Buddhist traditions, for example, it is said that a vastly larger dimension of "cosmic unconscious" lies beneath and beyond reason and cognitive order. It will be argued that Eastern – and particularly Zen Buddhist – thought has held for several millennia what Western scholars such as Dewey and modern cognitive science have more recently asserted, and which this analysis suggests may coming to pass in 21st century political economy. That is, by removing cognitive barriers to the free play of figurative transformation, one opens the way to the limitless, creative renewal of value and meaning in human experience. By way of supporting this book's eco-cognitive methodology, two historical 'case studies' will be presented here, outlining ways in which Indian, Chinese and Japanese cultures have defined the sphere of inquiry within which pre-scientific technologies have been contextualized and developed in these other places and times to withstand the test of generation upon generation of human experience. Specifically, I argue that both the Yogic and Zen disciplines represent forms of eco-cognitive technologies appropriate to their respective cosmologies and cultural milieus, and provide lessons which are profoundly relevant as well to our current era of political economic transformation.

____ Chapter Four presents how the onset of the Industrial Revolution in Europe compelled Western scholars for the first time to address the existential impacts of the symbiosis of human and technology, turning at last to the fundamentally aesthetic work of more fully integrating the systems world within the life world. Here I argue that the work of the aesthetic, properly understood, is identical to the work of what in Western thought has traditionally been cordoned off as the domain of spirituality and religion. This is because art, like the best of religion, seeks an integral continuum of embodied, cognitive and affective human experience (Bateson 2000). Therefore, any method which purports to be appropriate to current and emergent political economic and ecological realities must by definition take full and careful account of this continuum of human experience and environment, which, though always a feature of the human condition, is only recently emergent within the global economy as a primary source of capital's value. Because the work of technology has traditionally been seen to stop at the door of human subjectivity and affect, this chapter will pull heavily from current cognitive science, as well as the later works of Dewey and Mead, which hold that science and ratiocination are situated within the more expansive domain of affect or cognitive unconscious, and which provide what I find to be the most subtle and penetrating arguments addressing the powerfully unique human need and faculty for art and aesthetics.

____ With our sphere of research thus opened and extruded, Part II will turn to the task of articulating an eco-cognitive method of ICT research and design.

____ In light of the political-economic context, our survey of relevant Western literature and thought, and the Eastern pre-scientific studies, the question is directly addressed in Chapter Five as to whether a contemporary ontological framework for a eco-cognitive method is feasible in a postmodern world in which there may be said to be as many valid realities as there are varieties of imbedded and imminent technologies. Specifically, are there means of purposefully articulating the systems world within the life world in a way which enhances rather than constrains that life world? Drawing on research in the cognitive sciences, as well as organizational theory related to knowledge management and sensemaking, it will be suggested that a process of cognitive mapping through metaphor analysis presents one humanistic and open-ended aesthetic and ethical basis from which to assess information and communication technologies, purposefully nurture their integrative qualities, and thus maximize opportunities for evolving our relationship with capital into a more humanly, three-dimensional "economy of human qualities" (Levy 1998).

____ Chapter Six presents a pair of in-depth case studies in which the methodology is applied and the results analyzed. These case studies, conducted with interpretive communities in Asia and in the United States, test the relevance and effectiveness of the eco-cognitive method in real-world corporate and nonprofit organizations functioning within the contemporary political economic context.

Finally, I conclude with a discussion of ways in which the proposed eco-cognitive method of inquiry may offer new means of envisioning and enhancing our notions of human worth and of evolving our technologies of meaning and of value. With the political economy already preceding us apace, the proposed approach to researching and designing communications technologies is seen as an urgent step in the direction of grounded theory and method.

____ Yet even as we proceed in mapping the genetic and metaphoric horizons of embodiment and the cognitive unconscious, there will always remain the temptation and danger of returning to the comfortable epistemologies through which the West has been grappling with such issues for two and a half millennia. In her text The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Margaret Wertheim documents the surfeit of religious and otherworldly metaphor invoked to discuss and describe advanced digital information and communications networks, describing that such transcendent themes tend to be particularly prevalent during periods marked by sweeping technological innovation (1999). And in Digital Biology, Peter Bentley provides one concise example of both the ageless project of bridging the void between virtual and natural dimensions, as well as the stubborn Western resolve to exploit instrumental observations of the natural world in order to transcend it.

Follow me into a different universe-the digital universe of our computers. I will show you the marvels that inhabit this strange new environment…. They are just the same as you and the natural world that surrounds you…. Together, they comprise digital biology…. Within these digital universes, we grow a new type of nature (2002, 3).

____ If we succumb to such facile, familiar metaphors and methods, we risk moving forward – though only within an inhumane, flattened space of instrumental reason – seeking in vain to atone, to heal, or to bridge that aching void through evermore complex technologies of salvation and transcendence. And so a major goal of this study must be to vigilantly avoid the pervasive impacts of the venerable dualisms of rationalism and empiricism, subjective and objective truths, in favor of the hopeful human impulse toward art and beauty – or more specifically toward an aesthetic integrity realized in that uniquely integral, multi-dimensional space of embodied, affective and cognitive human experience.

____ First, however, it will be useful to open with a discussion of key macroeconomic shifts widely seen occurring in the global economy.

 

 

Our story, from that moment when we first evolved – or fell – to our homo sapient condition, begins and unfolds with humankind's creation of its unique symbolic, social and material technologies.

 

CONTENTS

_ | Summary
0 | Introduction
1 | The Affect Economy
2 | Meaning Within Reason
3 | Meaning Beyond Reason
4 | A Return to Beauty
5 | Designing Value & Meaning
6 | Real World Case Studies
7 | Virtuality in the Flesh

 

 
 

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