On language & (digital) technologies

Slides and notes for talk given at the Rotary Club Berlin on 26th February 2015.

Good evening and many thanks to the Rotary Club for the invitation, to Dr Irene Ahrens for taking the initiative, to Prof. Dr Martin Kuhlmann for introducing me, and to all of you for being here.

I am sorry my German is not good enough as to deliver this talk. I am doing improvements nevertheless and at least I am happy I already have access to the German sources of philosophers and other authors of interest.

As it is already known I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to talk about a subject that is of interest for my research.

The question

As I think this will help to the narrative I would like to begin with a question…

or, to update the question to more modern times…

Which is similar to ask which is the relation between human sciences and hard sciences or between what is more human at its most and maybe inhuman at its most.

And in asking this it is also implied: which one is subordinated to the other? Is there a subordination? Or the relation of the terms is always the same but at a distance, like the sun and the earth? Or is the same with different names?

I would like to explore a very compressed version of the possible answers to this question.

First answer

The first answer can be written in many different forms, because it encompasses all the traditional Western thinking. It is still the view that reflects what most people think and even what people working with technology think. I wrote it as…

This position is the classical reading of Plato and Aristotle. The most common position still in nowadays thinking and even unquestioned in philosophy until very late, the 20th century.

As you can see already here, language and technology are separated by a big gap. Philosophers did not like it or pay attention to technology for a good time spanning 25 centuries.

And to explore every answer I suggest to look at some concepts or short phrases.

The first is Logos.

It is a concept which begins with Heraclitus, who used the term to name the principle of order and knowledge.

During the development of Greek philosophy language will become the perfect mirror of what is logical and real, the Logos. This Logos allow us a thinking that can grasp nature and later even religion and modern science.

It makes man capable of understanding and being in harmony (and later dominating) what it is.

This is the most basic supposition in philosophy, that our language can mirror or read or at least deal with what it is, as it is. It can become knowledge, which in old greek is episteme.

Knowledge is always knowledge of what it is as always is, the essential aspect of things. Language following the logos is in charge of the unchangeable things, is contemplation of the unchangeable things.

Now, regarding technology, is a word and concept that comes from the greek Teknikon which signals what is relative to Tekne.

This, contrary to the episteme, is an action, it is the action of doing something.

It was first translated as craft.

It is doing something, producing something with our human hands.

But Tekne, in Greek times, did not designated just the crafting and in these sense the tools and the technological field, which would become the application of science, but it included also all the arts.

And as an example we have this quote of Aristotle…

As you see, technical things are secondary. Born of the hands of men without a need of existing. They are not born from the intelligence perceived in nature or in reason.

Technology has been then considered as something secondary and, for a long time, neutral. An instrument depending on an arrangement of elements and human will. It is a medium for some end. Ruled by causality.

And even if this thinking has characterised the technology of ancient and modern times we did not change the way we think technology in our time, in what I like to call the digital turn. We continue to think that we are in control and we are just using some more developed tools.

As we have seen. This dichotomy does not leave technology in a very nice place. But there was still something good about it. Namely, the fact that arts and science and their products were all together.

As Heidegger signalled there was still some truth uncover by technology.

As Heidegger explains here. Technology was used also to produce objects showing truth and beauty. It was not just aesthetic pleasure but a production that uncover (which he says Entbergen) the uncovered truth.

And so, in those times, this marriage between knowledge and arts was possible. What we now called human and hard Sciences were united in a way. An a dialogue between them was not just possible, but a common day practice.

But then decay and its decadence will come, and the hierarchy between the two realms will deep, and in the end we will just emphasise the role played by language, where some words are more powerful than products. Where words will give access to commands. Concepts will be created, manipulated, until the end. And, in what a great manner with modern science!, and even more, nowadays with digital devices where we have the sensation that we have lost not just the beauty of things or its true value but also this respect for the sake of some commanding words which translate too easily to a power of will. Where we feel that even men are treated as products, as a product of technology under the will of some people or the goals of a system that does not leave much space to play.

But, to take also advantage of this 20 minutes, and not to make the speech a heavy one, I would like to relate at the same time some glimpses of my life, examples and stories in connection with the main subject. Not to prone myself as an example, quite the contrary, just to give some human, contingent tint to my account.

In Cordoba, Argentina, where I was born. Bored with the system and its teaching – the transmission of human knowledge in digestible form – I left the school and after reading many classics at home I head towards learning programming languages.

Afterwards, finding anyhow the desire of some more adequate approach to knowledge, and knowing that I cannot be alone in this world and some people must certainly know more about many things, and trying to begin by the beginning, I left computing – which become my part-time job – to study philosophy at the university.

And, between many stories, I remember when in second or third year, after much impatience I was going to have as subject what was already my favourite topic: philosophy of language. The professor entered the room and told us that we were going to talk about one of the most intangible concepts, quite unapproachable. We would focus for six months in one of the greatest creations of language. And then he wrote just one word in the whole blackboard “Money”.

And I realised how close language or the philosophy about it can be to other concepts and to some quite important realities. How we can make things with words. And how technology can also be a creation from language, but not something to leave apart without much consideration.

Second answer

A second answer comes from Heidegger, as you see many centuries have passed until we rethought the question. It is based on the idea of original technicity of the human being. I wrote it as…

Technology is a way of being in the world.

Technology is in union with time, death, concern, and the possibility of calculation of the future.

We will use technology as an anticipation and possibility of circumscribing the realm of possible futures.

The tools are made by man for the hand of man to inhabit this world.

They are extensions of ourselves, to live in accordance with our world and to delay the time of our death.

We can revisit the Greeks from another side, the mythology, to understand this approach.

A modern philosopher studying our technological era, Bernard Stiegler, interprets the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus.

According to the myth, Zeus gives Prometheus the task of distributing qualities and powers to the living creatures, but Prometheus leaves it to his twin brother Epimetheus to act in his place. Epimetheus hands out all the qualities to the living creatures and forgets to keep one for the human being. Human beings therefore appear here as characterised by a lack of quality. For this reason, Prometheus decides to steal technology – that is, fire – and gives it to human beings, in order to enable them to invent artefacts and to become capable of developing all qualities.

And we knew of a new era.

And we listened to what a technological person, as Steve Jobs, has to say…

A computer is a bicycle for our minds.

But for some, in these modern times, the inherent technicity of man made a turn for the worst. Heidegger will say that technology in our times is the greatest danger.

And writings from some philosophers will say that we have come back to a dark time in the history of humanity…

And so back to glimpses of my biography.

After Argentina I was living in Paris. I find myself in a philosophical France that even if always proud of its heritage and their living heirs was worried about loosing its place in modern thinking, and trying to approach and include in their own family – the continental thinking – one of the Wunderkinder of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein. France made a linguistic and pragmatic turn.

And my love for language and metaphysics, which at that time have already find a climax in some writings by Heidegger welcomed this analytical, practical, therapeutic, down-to-earth approach.

Continental philosophy was looking now for a thinking shaped by the industrial revolution.

On the other hand, Wittgenstein says:

Think of the tools in a tool-box; there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws. –The function of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects. (And in both cases there are similarities).

Tentative answer

Now I would like to explore a third possible (and last) answer. It is one that takes this idea from Heidegger of the technicity of man but approaches it to the therapeutic view of Wittgenstein. I wrote the tentative answer as…

This implies to take a humbler approach.

For philosophy or human sciences this means to leave the idea of our heritage as a warranty for our true knowledge.

For technology means that there is something to learn from centuries of thinking the question. It is not that technology was born just 20 or 30 years ago.

A humbler dialogue will leave open the possibility that something new has happened and that is not bad in itself.

That requires thinking as much as action.

Maybe we need to come to the machines, our almost thinking machines, as the Greeks did with nature, with respect and curiosity.

Maybe the fascination with technology is that we do not fully understand how it works. We have and not have command of it. For sure human sciences can help technology in understanding. A good theorist of our times says…

We live in a new world, no doubt. Where technology has less and less to do with producing, with shaping matter. It is creating a whole world where we live in.

The founder of the MIT Media Lab and the project One Laptop per Child said already 20 years ago…

And one more case of interaction and dialogue between both worlds (the human and the hard sciences) would be the code in itself.

In most cases we have forgotten that code or software, it is not about machines talking to themselves. There is a direct line from one to the other and that is exactly our best and most human characteristic: language…

Language and matter at the beginning and the end. Language as a form to deal with material things without the need of having them present. Both having the world as the referent and the sense of every action.

And so I pass to the third and final excursus in the account of lived moments.

Still finishing a PHD at the Sorbonne I was living in Berlin and knowing people involved in programming. This “Silicon Allee” as we called nowadays.

They were and are talking about startups, and ideas for apps, and tools, and venture capitalists, and a strange class of people, the programmers, which in most cases take care much more about producing something, deploying as they say, than measuring their tasks by economical or social reward or meaningful implications.

I found myself wanting to know if that translated always into the apps. Wanting to know for sure if it was possible that some people were right, and still the paper book was the best shape to transmit a long text, a novel, with its cover, its silky pages, beautiful typography, tact and odour. And then I choose for myself a long book to read, and the challenge of reading it only in digital devices. And the die was cast and I began to read, in my phone, computer, and e-reader (in the end mostly in an e-reader): À la recherche du temps perdu. A long book. Seven long volumes in French. But already at the half of the first book I was totally submerged into the account, without knowing of the support, living in the remembrance of a fictional character much more than in its plastic frame and its electronic ink. And some months later – because I was doing much more than just reading – I still vividly remember being sit at the front row of a double-deck bus between Potsdam and Berlin, in a beautiful summer day, and experiencing the chill of reading “Fin de À la recherche du temps perdu”.

So the proposition is to go further with the dialogue.

And in thinking on this way we have beautifully come back to the beginning. Where a dialogue between all the sciences (human and hard) has been made necessary.

The major living philosopher in Germany, Habermas, would use the same word.

But here the question is not one of discussing technology democratically trough a freed language as he thinks.

It is rather a matter of recognising the mutually constitutive implications of technology and language and therefore of radically rethinking both terms together, since there is no way of (re)thinking one without the other.

Habermas continues to analyse technology in terms of ends and means. He suggests that we pursue a liberation of language from its technicization, and that we turn technology into an object of democratic debate in a free language. In sum, for Habermas, technology can be treated as an object of a discussion that takes place in a transparent language and that is based on what he calls good reasons - that is, rationally convincing arguments.

That is just coming back to the beginning and giving the crown to philosophy.

The proposal of this third (tentative) answer, on the other hand, would be one for real dialogue, where the philosophical thinking can illuminate digital technologies and at the same time philosophy can revisit its concepts, revise and reshape them, considering this most exciting times, where maybe, a new form of language, has been born.

Conclusive musings

So. To conclude. I would say. Let us try to go forward with a better dialogue. Asking more and better questions. Real and not rhetorical questions. Let us approach philosophy and human sciences, let us approach technology. Trying to marry human and scientific knowledge again.

One more quote for the end. This is short, I can read it auf Deutsch…