Trevor E. Batten
Amsterdam, June 2000
I. Computer and Culture
It is my belief that one could argue -- with a reasonable chance of success -- that the greatest single influence on European cultural development has been the conceptual tradition based on Greek binary logic. On the one hand, it has been the basis for an extremely successful "rational" approach which has created technological and scientific possibilities beyond our wildest dreams -- and on the other hand, the emotional reaction against it has perhaps been the most powerful driving force behind European "artistic" culture for many years.
ii. The Computer as Tool and as Metaphor
Clearly, the computer is the most important practical (and possibly revolutionary) tool of our time. With increasing tempo, it is becoming more and more integrated within our daily lives while at the same time, in some mysterious way, it changes almost every aspect of life in which it is applied.
Perhaps this is not so strange (or unique) as one would imagine. Previous inventions -- such as the clock and the steam engine can also be seen as trancending their practical useage to become metaphors enabling us to understand and explain the social changes which occured both inside and outside their immediate areas of application as a result of their integration into society as ubiquitous tools.
iii. The Computer as an expression of social division
Probably, one does not need to build a clock -- or to drive a steam engine -- to understand the central messages of regulation and power involved in these two inventions. However, the computer seems to be a more paradoxical machine -- but, unfortunately, the European cultural tradition, with its divisions between pragmatism and theory, science and art, etc., seems to prevent us from noticing this.
Probably, for both commercial and cultural reasons -- computer users can generally be divided into "technical types" who programm (and control) them and "the rest of the world" who simply use the "tools" provided by the others.
How easy it is to confuse the workings of a Microsoft "Windows" program with the workings of the "computer" in general (forgetting that their are other ways of designing systems) -- and how dangerous it must be when user ignorance permits a (foreign) commercial company to have such a powerful control on both practical and conceptual aspects of our daily lives.
iv. The Computer as an expression of paradox
So in which way is the computer so paradoxical?
Perhaps the most obvious level -- is simply the way such a practical tool seems to force conceptual change whenever one attempts to integrate it into existing systems. It seems to be becoming increasingly obvious that the more the computer is applied to support the (practical) staus quo the more rapidly it generates confusion by undermining the very system it is supposed to be supporting. This in itself is a bit of a paradox -- because European thought is based on a division between physical body and abstract mind -- the two are not supposed to be closely interwoven and pragmatic tools are not supposed to be mentally subversive.
The level of paradox increases when one conciders that this subverter of European logic -- is in fact -- clearly based on exactly the same logic as that which it undermines! To make matters worse -- the same logic also refutes the (legitimate) existance of such a paradox.
v. Science as a (mistaken) metaphor for culture
As mentioned earlier, binary logic has had a powerful conceptual effect on European thought. However, even among its natural supporters within the scientific community, it is not without competition -- already non-Euclidean geometry, fuzzy logic, chaos theory, quantum mechanics and relativity theory, etc., have moved beyond philosophical speculation into the area of practical conceptual tools (within specialised areas).
Although the "cultural" community has not been slow to adopt and adapt some of these "scientific" ideas into its own world of theory -- concidering the basic distrust between these traditional antagonists one can question how "correctly" these concepts have been translated.
In my opinion, it would seem that where "science" has been enriched by powerful conceptual tools which have enabled it to move beyond the problems posed by traditional concepts such as "truth" and "objectivity" -- "culture" has in fact only succeded in confusing itself through the misinterpretation of these new scientific concepts.
An example of this, can be seen in the way in which "science" has used "relativity" to move beyond the single viewpoint and to generate new knowlegde by mapping (superficially disparate) information from a variety of media, disciplines or positions -- while "culture" has degenerated into the subjective prison of "relativism" which makes discussion and criticism virtually impossible because this would appear to demand the use of ideologically unsound and morally indefensible "subjective value judgements".
So how are we to deal with the developing cultural schitzophrenia in which "science" becomes more and more involved with the practical implications of subtle interactions between apparently different (and seemingly unrelated) phenomena while "culture" swims in a sea of disconnected "virtual" realities in which there are no real consequences for ones actions?
vi. The Computer as medium for thought
For some strange historical reason, "rational thought" (which is no longer exclusively bound to binary logic) and "language" seem to be on opposite sides of the fence. This seems rather absurd -- because surely "thought" (rational or not) is impossible without (mental or physical) language.
So although culturally understandable it still seems logically absurd that computers are often referred to (outside the scientific community) as "electronic brains" while at the same time -- the linguistic implications of such a "thinking machine" are generally ignored.
Surely, we should stop looking at the computer in terms of a "technical tool" and move towards understanding the computer in terms of the implications for "language" development. Clearly, this would imply a rethink of our culturally bound concept of "language" as an exclusively human means of expression -- and would involve those on the "cultural" side of the fence in a more direct and explicit interest in the interactions between "form" and "content" or "structure" and "meaning".
Could one imagine a better laboratory for these investigations than a machine which in a relatively short time has moved from being an exotic laboratory experiment involving a series of "on/off" binary switches to a "universal simulation machine" capable of simulating not only existant and non-existant games and theories -- but also transcending the simulation by creating practical tools in both physical and conceptual worlds?
II. A Few More Questionable Cultural Axioms
Unfortunately, the long introduction was neccessary in order to try and explain the depth of our cultural misunderstanding of the computer -- which should be concidered less as a technical machine and much more as a language based "philosophical" aparatus which allows us to simulate and explore different conceptual systems in order to understand them better -- not only because of the practical implications of these systems themselves -- but also in order to understand fully the practical importance of the "language" in which they are expressed.
Closely related, and perhaps intertwined, are a few other "cultural axioms" which may need reconcideration -- although for reasons of brevity I shall not discuss them in such detail.
On one level a belief in "universal" solutions is probably a reflection of our binary logic which essentially does not allow, for example, something to be true in France but not in Germany. Mathematically, this would seem to be an archaic remnant of a belief in a flat earth -- because only a flat (Euclidean) surface is capable of reflecting the qualities of mutual exclusion and universal homogenity found in binary logic.
On another level, it may be a "romantic" reconstruction of the Roman Empire (which lies at the heart of many European legal systems) -- reflecting a pyschologically deep rooted desire for "universal" order within the system as a refuge against the barbaric chaos "outside" the system. Politically, one can see in this view an inherent tendency towards (neo-)Fascism -- in the way it essentially denies a valid existance to anything (or anybody) "outside" the system.
The importance of "virtuality" within our culture (reflected in a traditional (male) belief in the supremacy of (male) mind over (female) body) can be seen in the problems Galileo encountered while attempting to use pragmatic observation to decide the outcome of abstract (academic and theological) debate.
A more recent example is the way non-Euclidean geometry is still concidered more bizarre than binary logic -- even though the earth's surface is clearly non-Euclidic and binary logic has few pragmatic applications either inside or outside the computer. Apparently, in dealing with the world, our belief systems are more powerful than our sensory experiences (which are often concidered rather suspect) -- so perhaps it would be wise if we examined our belief systems more closely and more often.
This is certainly so with respect to "virtuality" and the computer, because although the casual user might easily feel divorced from pragmatic reality -- the programmer is actually involved with mapping the conceptual universe of the user into the physical reality of the machine.
In fact, the pragmatic nature of any physical system is always built into its physical composition. By simulating the "physical capabilities" of a physical system on a "universal simulation machine" -- the "physical" characteristics of the original system remain important (though invisible) by determining the "conceptual" characteristics of the "virtual" system. So while the "virtual" machine may appear to free us from physical restraints -- in fact it not only binds us completely and continually to the physical constraints of the computer (or machine) involved -- but also to the conceptual constraints of the system being emulated.
This is similar to the way we are constrained within a (non-physical) language by grammatical limitations possibly (and presumably) derived from the practical universe reflected by that language. So "virtuality" does not imply "freedom from constraint" -- in fact it emphasises the (until then hidden) importance of "conceptual context" as a practical restraint on the capabilities of the system.
iii. The existance of Paradox
It seems that the (culturally determined) "logical" problem we have in dealing with the existance of "paradox" might be one of the greatest barriers to (European) self-understanding.
The computer is not the only paradoxical element in our culture. Surely the way that the European "liberal" tradition has developed (interweaving the worlds of trade and culture -- despite their apparent antagonism) is in itself paradoxical.
How can we understand the historical process which lead the borgoise liberal tradition to develop in such divergent and contradictory directions as the American, French and Russian political revolutions (and the English industrial revolution) -- if we are not able to understand and appreciate the paradoxical nature of life in general?
iv. The value of "Aesthetics" as a problem solving tool
Perhaps the most paradoxical aspect of European culture is the fact that despite our theoretical belief in "universal homogenity" -- European culture is, in fact, (traditionally) so amazingly diverse!
On the one hand this (political and cultural) diversity has often lead to conflict -- but on the other hand it can also lead to a stimulating dialogue between the varying cultural positions.
Clearly, dialectic conflict can be a source of confusion leading to physical conflict -- but it is also a technique (through thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis) for gaining new insights. However, even when we have defined the dialectic axis (by specifying the contrasting elements within the different domains) -- how does one find the point of (perfect) synthesis?
Presumably, this is a point of arbitrary "subjective" synthesis which will certainly lead to disagreements amongst observers or participants when more than one "player" is involved (especially whenever (human) psychological parameters are involved) -- and even more so when the players are operating under different cultural rules.
So perhaps, we can consider these "subjective" points within the dialectic axis as (arbitrary) "aesthetic" points of (possibly non-static (contexual)) equilibrium. In simple psychological terms -- the "point of aesthetic equilibrium" is simply the point between two conflicting positions (for example between chaos and order, action and inaction, etc.) where the individual (personally at that moment) feels most happy. Presumably, cultural differences can be understood in terms of statistical variation in these preferences (including their desired levels of constancy and homogenity).
Perhaps then, a set of such "aesthetic points" can be seen to generate a specific conceptual space -- as in the way the (arbitrary) specification of a set of logical axioms will generate a formal system. The logical implications of these differences then manifest themselves in practical ways -- such as the need to hurry (or not) when late for an appointment -- because in the one system the emphasis is on catching up on lost time -- while the other system sees this as being impossible and therefore a waste of energy.
So, even though the generative axioms or aesthetic points are arbitrary -- the system/space created will be "objective" (i.e. the characteristics will remain consistent for all observers as long as the same definitions are used and the conditions of observation/interpretation remain constant).
An infinite range of (aesthetically generated) "conceptual spaces" can then provide an infinite range of "concrete contexts" within which any "abstract theory" can be tested by mapping into the chosen space.
This infinite set of mappings can generate an infinite increase in new knowledge (regarding the chosen spaces) -- however, the relevance of this knowledge is dependant on the (aesthetic) acceptance of the relevant space -- or at least the belief (supposition or pretence) that the domain of origin and the domain of application are interchangeble (i.e have a similar topology and are thus analogical).
In a complex (and rapidly changing) world where traditional values may or may not be valid, a diversity of conceptual systems, each capable of providing potentially different approaches to solving current problems might be essential in order to increase the chances of finding a suitable solution -- provided these potential solutions can be pragmatically tested by co-existance.
III. Some Practical Implications
i. Encouraging "culture" as a conceptual tool for survival
High "Culture" has always profitted from popular "culture" -- which was not intended as entertainment for others -- but as a genuine response to (and aid to survival against) the living conditions of those involved.
Possibly the cultural diversity of the USA (with its range of physical and cultural environments and individual histories it can draw upon) is partly responsible for the success of the Hollywood film business. Or perhaps the skill of Hollywood in presenting social issues as "entertainment" is (also) a major reason for success. It seems the dissemination and discussion of human value systems is not only important but can be entertaining too!
Presumably, if there is no longer any genuine popular culture any more -- then even "high Culture" will suffer in the end. So there are simple materialistic reasons for preserving a "meaningful" local culture -- but if culture is simply reduced to its comercial tourist and entertainment value -- then presumably even this will become valueless -- unless there remains a feeling within the public that some kind of "alternative value system" is being offered. However, sustainability of the entertainment/tourist market is not the most important reason to encourage culture to reclaim its position as a genuine tool for survival. In fact, we need "alternative value systems" simply to preserve the conceptual diversity required to solve the problems which are continualy generated within our dynamic social, political and economic systems as they naturally develop and unavoidably mutate in response to (internal or external) changes as time goes by.
So we need to educate people in the cultural field to understand technological and scientific developments -- not only to be able to apply them on a practical level -- but also to realistically evaluate their implications on a conceptual level -- to develop a conceptual "interface" enabling us to profit (as science so often does) from the advantages of the different conceptual viewpoints without getting lost in a confused tangle of emotions or an agressive fight for the supremacy of one view against the rest.
Surely, the political structure of Europe itself -- is one practical area where such a "conceptual interface" is badly needed -- because how can the union continue to expand peacefully if no importance is attached to the different cultural and political traditions which make up the union?
Why, for example, are the British so against a federal structure which is so commonplace in Germany? What are the implications of the French tradition of centralised government? What are the practical advantages and disadvantages of the (anglo-saxon) jury system -- or proportional representation in elections -- and which aesthetic choices or emotional value systems lie behind these differences?
If these important cultural differences are ignored -- then it should be of no surprise if the people of Europe continue to develop a feeling of cultural insecurity which can only be expressed through xenophobia and racism which could easily destabilise the whole region.
ii. Encouraging regional diversity and autonomy
Despite strong European traditions of regional differences -- there seems to be a subliminal force driving it towards an administrative unity and centralism which is not found, for example, in the United States of America. So why is it so essential for Europe to "harmonise" when the dominating "superpower" is able to allow more independance (ranging from local taxation to the application of the death penalty) in its constituent states? How can we expect Europe to become a vibrant and exiting player in the global marketplace if its inhabitants have the impression of being sucked passively, with no real choice, into a structure developed by faceless bureaucrats and privately scheming politicians?
The replacement of "Centralised Rational Etatism" with a more dynamic and varied cultural, political and economic vision regarding the future -- which allows some kind of (regional) aesthetic choice would seem a basic essential for a creative Europe. What is the point of allowing citizens freedom of movement -- if there is no discernable difference on arrival? Surely a cultural and political mono-culture is just as dangerous as a biological mono-culture? We cannot afford cultural intollerance -- but we cannot afford cultural apathy either!
iii. Encouraging Citizens to be active Producers not passive Consumers
Powerful players in the game of global capitalism appear to believe that they are best sustained by a large and largely passive consumer market -- but is this really true? Surely, a close examination of "the marketplace" shows that it is not a single homogenous "thing" -- but a series of (local and global) "environments" where the different (commercial, governmental and ideological) players (large and small) are in constant interaction -- both with each other and, to a certain extent, the playing field (environment) itself (which also becomes modified as the "game" progresses).
Perhaps Hollywood is again a good example of how "all the best laid plans of mice and men do often go astray" -- simply by the way all attempts to control the box-office returns get periodically defeated by some unpredicted "outsider" -- perhaps as an economic translation of the idea that "one cannot fool all of the people all of the time"!
So, although the big players tend to ignore (and even deny) it -- the big players need the little players to keep them alive (similar to the way biological prey and predator keep each other's populations in ballance -- with both populations dying if one of them becomes too successfull).
So, if the game is so complex -- and it requires players that are continually able to respond correctly to unavoidable changes in the market -- how are we able to develop the neccesary intelligence to play the game successfully if we are all reduced to being the passive consumers that are believed neccessary to buy the products produced by the game? Is this not an intellectual parallel to the basic economic paradox -- which demonstrates that if companies keep wages low in order to compete commercially, then workers do not have the financial surplus required to support the market.
Perhaps, passive consumers and low paid workers in large scale industries are the last thing the economic system really needs in order to be successful. On the other hand -- active producers of goods and services presumably cannot function without consuming goods and services from other suppliers -- and so automatically support each other economically.
Although (on both moral and economic grounds) we should not neglect those who need educational or financial support in order to survive -- by actively encouraging people to be involved in cultural, social, political or economic "problem solving" instead of passive consumerism -- we must surely develop not only a better chance of solving the complex problems facing us -- but probably a more healthy and dynamic economy as well.
IV. A Brave New World?
In a world disillusioned by the collapse of the great ideologies we are still discovering that a world without beliefs and value systems is an unpleasant and confusing place. So how can we rebuild our conceptual defence systems without deluding ourselves into accepting some outmoded and discredited second-hand fairy tale?
Perhaps we must simply learn to accept that all Utopias are impossible to realize -- and that life is a complex but fascinating interplay of dreams and realities the outcome of which is never completely certain -- even though the situation may sometimes appear to be resistant to change.
If Europe is not to grow fat and to decline as a result of its own success -- or to become unable to sustain itself culturally, politically and economically in a changing world -- then it must (continually) review its cultural attitudes, not (only) from below, but (also) from above.
Despite what we may wish to believe, success may not be dependant on control -- but on an intelligent and flexible understanding of how the game is played. Without sufficient diversity of skills amongst the players there may not even be a game to play!
Our first priority must then surely be to create the conditions where this diversity of skills can be developed and preserved.