cuneiform - Allegorithms

Allegorithms: an Introduction

 

byVit Van Camp and Dustin Breitling

The text is taken from the book Allegorithms, published May 2017 by Litteraria Pragensia Books.

 

 

Oscillating between the algorithmic and the representational, the human agent navigates its environmental niche in a way which is conducive to its further psychological, social, and biological existence. Yet how transparent and how predetermined is such a dynamic? Where are the points of contact, friction and overlap within the variegated pulls and counteractive flows inherent in the choreography of the „democracy of objects,“[1] and how conducive is such an ecology of relations to the continuing survival of the human, here understood as an intersectional juncture between the biological, technological, cultural, semiotic etc.?

 

As a point of departure, let us take the case of Google Deep Mind’s AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence constructed for processing and playing the Chinese game of Go. On March 9th, 2016 AlphaGo engaged in its first match with Lee Sedol, a 9th dan Korean-born champion. The computer ultimately won four out of the five total matches, and thus concluded another chapter in the history of man-machine interaction and affirmed its position among the strongest of human players. The largely self-taught computer’s victory in a game which has always been thought as one of the grand challenges of AI[2] is here not so much lamented as an example of yet another blow to human hubris at the hand of the inhuman, but rather the setting itself – a machine intelligence and human wetware engaged in a struggle over the game board’s interface – serves as an extended metaphor of the issues addressed in this book.

 

The algorithms of the AlphaGo construct are modelled on “neural networks.”[3] They are predicated upon a deft interaction of “value networks,” providing an evaluation of board positions, with the “policy networks” through which the computer selects its move. These deep neural networks “are trained by a novel combination of supervised learning from human expert games, and reinforcement learning from games of self-play.”[4] AlphaGo has been programmed to play thousands of games against itself, honing its skill and going far beyond the limited database of possible repertoire which Google Deep Mind has equipped it with. The seed algorithms have become obscure and AlphaGo has become a largely black box even for the human engineers who created it. Yet, reading into its hidden computational processes may be inferred from the strategy it adopts on the shared interface of the game board. It is learning new patterns and strategies at lightning speed, and is said to possess a “beautiful” and deft, near “perfect,”[5] manner of play. Commentators have, for instance, praised its ability to focus on the most important part of the go-ban, or its ability to effectively balance tactical versus strategic gains in tight exchanges.[6] These commentaries are a method of reading into the black box of the computer – a reading which, more often than not, takes the form of an allegorical personification of a machine’s “intelligence,” “objectives,” or “strategy.”The Go board may be seen as the interface which makes the latent algorithms of AlphaGo manifest and readable.

 

An analogy surfaces: Much like the “neural network” of AlphaGo abstracts its own methods of playing through its machine-learning processes, so does the human ability at representation allow human society to tenuously guide, revise and reinterpret the various algorithmic seeds which have been previously programmed into both the natural environment and the social fabric. The hyperstitional circuit which incorporates flows into the socius are far from unequivocal, and may be reinterpreted, transcoded and ultimately revised. The contributions to this book set out to map out this relationship of the societal and allegorical models and interfaces, themselves black mirrors which facilitate an uneasy interaction with black box systems. An openness towards transdisciplinarity and ecological thought, as well as an underlying acknowledgment of some of the implications of a recent turn to object oriented philosopohy are integral to the very modus operandi of such an endeavour.

 

allegorithms

 

The title of the book is predicated on the basis of a tri-partite framework – the algorithm, the allegory and the rhythm of their mutual interaction.

 

The algorithm, here understood as a mechanical process oriented towards executing a prescribed function, is a discrete and analytic phenomenon, classically understood as being predictable and navigable. The output of such a function should be transparent, and should be, in its basic form, objectively noticeable as an iterable and mutually shared phenomenon, reproducible within the experimental discourse of science. The observable periodicity and predictability of simple algorithmic dynamics serve a functional and evolutionary role for the survival of the human, insofar as the natural as well as socio-political processes occurring outside the scope of the popular interpretative repertoire may be perceived, and subsequently may be subjected to an attempt at discretization and further navigation. Much like with AlphaGo however, once the cybernetic circuitry spills over a certain threshold the dynamic flows are not always so easily mapped and cognized for the human observer.

 

The mode of allegory is here understood in its post-modern sense, insofar as it has become unmoored from its dialectic relation to the Symbol, and has lost its limited position as an encoded metaphor which is purely literary and based in natural language. Rather, taking up Fredric Jameson’s view, we regard “allegorical interpretation” as “first and foremost an interpretative operation which begins by acknowledging the impossibility of interpretation in the older sense […]”[7] – a mode of interpretation, a “newer allegory” which is always predicated on the gesture of “transcoding,” and one that is “horizontal rather than vertical,” whose signification always slides to other linguistic discourses and aggregates.  Allegory has found its new niche as a mode which facilitates various ‘promiscuous couplings’ where  “allegorical interpretation [is] a kind of scanning that […] readjusts its terms in constant modification of a type quite different from our stereotypes of some static medieval or biblical decoding.”[8] Or, in other words, codings which were still heavily dependant on the sanctity and coherence of the Symbol have, in the contemporary reading, become flattened and evacuated, only to make space for the fluidity of the process of transcoding. Allegory is shown to be a mode of trawling and contextualizing the rhizomatic informational database, rather than an item within it.  Alexander Galloway in this sense reminds us of the hermeneutic dimension inherent within the double motion of codification and decodification as an interpretive process.[9] Building upon this consideration, we can further potentially gauge and frame broader socio-political implications.

 

The question becomes how the operative role of ‘meaning’ and how our interpretive devices cathect and interpret the interfacial skeuomorphs[10] and artificats which serve as vitalscaffolds and mimetic affordances in our interaction with technologies. The ersatz resemblances and  iterations of physical objects and  their environmental depictions (folders, desktops, documents, trashbins) are transcoded into skeumorphs to be readily decoded on the part of the user. Therefore, doesn’t the skeuomorph’s role in facilitating interaction for its user also raise the question as to whether the user itself grasps what s/he or it’ is ‘doing’ through, and with the interface? Ultimately, we see the significance of highlighting how the existence of manipulating and customizing the means of abstraction via interfaces veils ‘the hidden abode of production’ and execution.

 

This hidden abode blurs the digital and analog rift of a 1:1 conversion between programming languages and their dependent operation upon the material processes of circuitry and voltages that render the economy of the pixel. On the other side of this rendering acts the human wetware which itself functions as an inscriptional surface, a type of mystic writing pad, for the information mediated by the machine. Here, the import of ideology still bears weight in the ostensible command line empowerment of the user,  echoing Althusser’s critique of interpellation and the usage of shifters (‘I,’ ‘You’) that ‘profile,’ and prescribe their sapient counterpart a name or image with which to identify themselves within the labirinthine system of standardized protocols and platforms.[11] In this sense, the material and ideological preconditions and their further implications on both material and abstract ideology forms the main thrust of this collection.

 

The fine line between code and language, and the role of language within politics has been effectively approached in Fredric Jameson’s treatment of allegory in the process of cognitive mapping (itself an example of transcoding between linguistic and  visual models). Jameson sees allegory as always being a type of “allegorical transcoding”[12] – a function of language which reformats a signifier and interprets it as a component partaking in a wider, fluid process of the creation of meaning. Embracing Jameson’s politics, the question then seems to be for whom such a meaning is created. Allegory, understood as a visual, semiotic interface to the underlying workings of the black box ‘hidden abode of production,’ is not wholly transparent in itself, but is rather subject to the dissemination of codes and protocols.

 

Allegory has never been an inherently democratizing mode; in fact, quite the opposite: allegory (translated as “veiled language”) traces its etymology to a fusion between the Greek notion of agoreuein, meaning to speak publicly, and allos, later adopted into Latin as alienus, meaning ‘other.’[13] Allēgoria was thus associated either with the language of veiled conspiracy, or with an elitist, privileged form of encoding the understanding of which was barred to the common people.[14] The implications of such a genealogy point to the fact that the allegorized interface is never wholly transparent – it always favors and caters to a certain form of subjectivity inscribed within linguistic, power and class relations. Only certain individuals, for instance those which McKenzie Wark has termed the “vectoralist class,”[15] may have access to and be able to navigate certain interfaces and thus harness the power of their algorithmic potential. The allegorized code is in this way always to a degree complicit in the promulgation of tribalism, class distinction and privilege.

 

An attempt at reconciling the seemingly riven nature of the obfuscate algorithm and its semiotic representation of the interface can be found in the term ‘allegorithm,’ employed by McKenzie Wark and Alexander R. Galloway. Understanding ‘allegorithm’ as a concept straddling “the intuitive experience and the organizing algorithm”[16] Wark denotes a manner of fleshing out and ecologizing the lived experience of technology for the subject/user. In its role as a juncture of social and material conditions, the interface functions as a knot of relations which is never simply binary, but always ‘leaks‘ across various intersectional boundaries, entangled within a web of material, socio-political and semiotic relations. Jane Bennett, loosely conjuring up Timothy Morton’s concept of  “enmeshment,“ has also written of the always hybrid, ecological dynamics of human “entanglement” with both human and inhuman phenomena. Much like the bacteria and viruses which have become integrated into the human body and genome, technology also regularly fuses with the human not only in the sense of pure, material bio-modification, but also on the semiotic level, invoking the Stieglerian concept of ‘hypomnemata.’[17] Language is here understood as a system integrated within a “flat ontology”[18] of relations, its meaning itself an object accessible only through a type of semiotic archaeology. The obfuscated mirror of the interface is thus never wholly transparent, but is always predicated on an uneasy relationship between the sub-surface, accreted algorithm and the layered and obfuscate allegory which in turn reconfigures the ‘recording surface’ of the human. In this sense, both the user and the interface are always entangled, enmeshed within a material and temporal ecology, subject to the pulls and gravities of only partially perceived, or withdrawn,  objects.

 

Within this interconnected framework of intertwined circuitry, the seeming paradox of a binary distinction between the algorithmic and the allegorical is effectively defused. Furthermore, when time and rhythm of exchange are taken into account, the seeming aporia of the dichotomy between code and language dissipates. As Gregory Bateson writes, “logic cannot model causal systems, and paradox is generated when time is ignored.”[19]

 

satellite imagery
https://www.geospatialworld.net/news-posts/new-geospatial-satellite-service-security-pros/

 

Respectively, the algorithm may seem allegorized (e.g. personified) when spoken about to an interlocutor, yet its capacity to enact, choreograph, coordinate and  dictate a vast logical network underwrites its fundamental role within the capitalist regime enacted by algorithmic interfacial constructs that are, as Benjamin Bratton underlines, constitutive of a globalized interplanetary computational economy that encompasses all manners of gates and switches, distribution of circuits, anatomical sensations, screen-based icons, software protocols which eventually give rise to buildings and roads, warehouses and continental shipping ports, transoceanic supply chains, open and closed production cycles, geographically particular store shelves.[20] The acknowledgment of a temporal rhythm of inscription and exchange strives towards a synchronized and systemic understanding of the vast processes which harbor potential for intersubjective communication, and for fostering a navigable discursive repertoire. Such an understanding of the interrelatedness between the technological and the representational cultivates a navigable mode of exchange between the human (let us not forget about ‘the human’ as a productive, life-affirming ideological construct) and technology, and is necessary for the continued cultivation and dissemination of a new and ultimately emancipatory inhuman sensibility. Much like the AI and human players in our illusrative analogy alternate in placing stones on the grid of a Go board, ultimately collaborating in aggregating the overall mosaic of the game in time, so do the mechanical and the human cooperate in the production and gaming  of our contemporary living environments. Fundamentally, our interfacial regime demarcates the possibilities and constraints of unfolding events. Through the perpetual recalibration of the virtual and the actual, and the co-evolution of complex interfacial representations and their temporal and material underpinnings, the contingently placed accumulations of objects and intensities grow and contract in the rhythm of geopolitical and intracultural change and exchange. The level of contingency which is afforded to such a dynamic is predicated upon  the human ability to understand their temporal and material underpinnings, and in their ability to properly navigate and craft interfaces which will be effective and unapologetically determined to foster greater equality and well-being. The anthropocentric project of politically engaged living is here not understood as a symptom of philosophical malaise, but rather a positive affirmation of a novel remodeling of the relation between the world of objects and the register of signification, begging the question: who controls the interfaces and underlying algorithms and for what ends are they produced, programmed and disseminated?

 

It is through a fluid, yet homeostatic and heuristic oscillation of subjectivities on the part of the human, through a type of new animism in which the users allegorize the inhuman object in a responsible and productive way, that a more politically engaged access to, and reinvention of the inhuman may be achieved. This book is a small attempt at fostering just such a form sensibility.

 

The text is taken from the book Allegorithms, published May 2017 by Litteraria Pragensia Books.

 


[1] Levi Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Open Humanities Press, 2011).
[2] David Silver et al.,“Mastering the Game of Go with Deep Neural Networks and Tree Search,” Nature, Vol. 529, No. 7587 (27. January 2016) 488.
[3] Silver et al., “Mastering the Game,“ 484.
[4] Silver et al., “Mastering the Game,” 484.
[5] Cade Metz, “The Sadness and Beauty of Watching Google’s AI Play Go,” Wired, 3.11.,2016, accessed 1.29. 2017< https://www.wired.com/2016/03/sadness-beauty-watching-googles-ai-play-go/>.
[6] Jonathan Hop, “AlphaGo vs. Lee Sedol – Thoughts on Game 1,” Youtube, 3.14.2016, accessed 1.29.2017<https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-lO-gIRqIc&t=981s>.
[7] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press: Verso 1991) 168.
[8] Jameson, Postmodernism, 168
[9] Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect (Polity Press, 2012) 75.
[10]A skeuomorph is a tool or boject that incorporates design elements from previous iterations that are no loner needed or used. In the context of technology, skeuomorphism is the design of software to look like the physical prodcut that’s its replacing.
[11] Geert Lovink,  “On the Social Media Ideology,k“ e-flux, accessed 29.1.2017<https://www.e-flux.com/journal/75/67166/on-the-social-media-ideology/>.
[12] Jameson, Postmodernism, 120. See also Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (MIT Press, 2001).
[13] Jon Whitman, “A Retrospective Forward: Interpretation, Allegory and Historical Change,” accessed 29.1.2017< https://is.muni.cz/el/1421/jaro2012/ESB158/um/whitman_jon_-_interpretation_allegory_and_historical_change.pdf> 7.
[14] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton Paperback Edition, 1973) 59.
[15] McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press, 2004) 7.
[16] McKenzie Wark, Gamer Theory (Harvard University Press, 2007) 21.
[17] In Stiegler’s typology understood as the inscription ‘surface’ integral for the formalisation and molding of the sensory-motor complex.
[18] Bryant, Democracy of Objects, 31.
[19] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (New York: Bantam Books, 1980) 130.
[20] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack (MIT Press, 2016) 230.

 

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