A Billion Gadget Minds: A few preliminary thoughts…
My head is still processing (and after that workshop even the use of such terminology is contentious) the depth of material on offer at the Billion Gadget Minds workshop at the Swedenborg yesterday but I’d like to get some semblance of reaction articulated while the ideas are still sloshing around my cognitive substrate.
I had to rush to the workshop thanks to intractable jobcentre policy but fortunately I believe I caught the meat of Anna Munsters talk on the Neurological Turn around, in and against networked media. Munster proposed the fMRI as a diagram for the brain, an indication of the desire of networked media giants to trace a way into inhabiting the zone of anticipation in our day to day lives. Munsters talk was succeeded by Luciana Parisi & Stamatia Portanova’s exploration of generative architecture and choreography as instances of soft thought. I can’t but be familiar with Luciana’s style of academic address and Stamatia dovetailed well with her but the content of their talk was deep and dense. This lecture demanded time to let the concepts sediment before returning to what the pair were trying to articulate.
Ting – Jieh Wang proceeded in a different and bold direction by aiming to define cognition via Luhmiann systems theory. His contentious assertion of cognition as merely something arising from or equivalent to computational gains arising from making a distinction stood in stark contrast to the ‘soft thought’ mode of thinking intelligence and the critique of neurosciences predisposition to reductionist accounts of intelligence and it foreshadowed the emergence of a necessary counter to some of the other arguments being advanced at this workshop.
Mike Wheelers post lunch talk provided a useful bridge between the high conceptual and philosophical explorations of thought that preced Ting – Jieh Wang and the more dismissive, analytic consideration of intelligence that he advocated. Wheeler is a close working partner of Andy Clarke, part of the Edinburgh School and together they are both propoenents of extended functionalism, a philosophical position upon which extended cognition is predicated. Wheeler wheeled (sorry) off the main tenets of extended cognition but pushed the field further via the introduction of topics such as how does will, possession (and though unstated, intention) affect extended cognition? This is a dilemma that bears merit when one consideres shared or collaborative cognitive scaffolding.
Following Wheelers discussion Mark Bishop of Goldsmiths computing department arrived to add some genuine analytical philosophical gun powder to proceedings. Bishop and Wheeler exchanged blows in what could undoubtedly fill an entire afternoons debate.
Gabriel Menotti took to the stage, and though unfortunately jet lagged and english rusty sketched out a view of live coding which explored the idea of crash and the agency and performativity of computers and humans in a shared assemblage. The points he was attempting to make were important ones but they were not relayed as well as they could.
Ingmar Lipperts analysis of data practice in capitalist carbon offsetting was a matter very dear to my heart if a little off topic from the the flow that had preceded. Yet what Ingmar showed, the unquestioning relation of an enterprise to its database illustrates that the scalability of databases means that they can be cognitive scaffolds on a scale beyond humans (and for those who dispute that contention databases and the relation model are the root structure of any consideration of the internet as a cognitive scaffold). A lot of what he discussed will doubtless be even more pertinent come the database unhinged lecture in a weeks time.
Following the final interval Chryssa Sdrolia’s sweeping and inspired account of the importance of not dismissing panpsychism (or as she preferred to refer to it, panexperientialism) when it comes to considering computation, chance and the emergence of the novel. This was a, at times, breathlessly delivered account of Chaitin and Whiteheads philosophy which provided some important rejoinders to Bishops arguments but as with Parisi and Portanova’s talk earlier definitely merits a second reflection.
The plenary attempted to pull together what had in truth been a disparate range of talks, illustrating (as ever) the importance of transdisciplinarity when it comes to anything as hallowed as cognition. For me some of the debate today remained too distant from its propositioned hook: i.e. the billion gadget minds. In Menotti and Ingmar one can discern the idea of the agency of software assemblages and architectures, in Munsters talk you could see the science studies like analysis of infra empirical scanning coupled with techno-assemblagist net politics (with the spectre of the idea of affect lurking in the background). Systems theory, extended cognition and AI all couldn’t but rear their head (Searles chinese room was trotted out far far too much, and I really struggled to see what strong AI had to do with the matter on discussion). Parisi, Portanova and Sdrolia offered a strong alternative take on things, but one that is strongly, strongly continental philosophical in its approach (and I do to an extend mean that detrimentally in that I feel it is not great for saying anything conclusively but more useful for unlocking ways of thinking about things – which both talks certainly did!).
It is a shame given that Fuller and Mac Kenzie, two authors I admire for how they think about software cultures and their capacity to perform intelligible synthesis of disparate topics declined to intervene very much in the plenary.
Anyway, more to follow this, I hope to grapple with each talk individually in due course