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Re: nettime: Hari Kunzru/Rewiring Technoculture
t byfield on Mon, 6 Jan 97 10:36 MET

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Re: nettime: Hari Kunzru/Rewiring Technoculture

At 5:25 AM -0500 on 1/5/97, Geert Lovink forwarded:

> Rewiring Technoculture
> By Hari Kunzru

> Nevertheless, regardless of the frettings of social scientists who like
> to keep mathematics and politics safely separated, the global economy
> is a complex non-linear dynamical system - a self-reinforcing system
> which has numerous emergent properties. This means, not that it is
> some transcendental entity to which we are all asked to submit <...>
> but is the total expression of the unimaginable number of economic
> decisions which we, singly and in groups, make every day.

        Linear and nonlinear mathematics are, equally, conceptual technologies
whose primary function is to approximate behavior of systems. These
"systems," however, don't present themselves to us as such; rather, we
extract "data" from the effluvium of everyday life. We can do so well or
badly, but our criteria for assessing whether the job was well or badly
done are determined by how well that data substantiates the (reductive)
"systems" it seems to constitute. In short, the process is tautological;
that's why linear math seemed so very adequate for so very long, and why
people so often mistake the belief that nonlinear math is "better" for the
knowledge that it is perfect. Without doubt, some even "better" insights
will come along in the future and, when they do, names like Mandelbrot and
Prigogine will sound a lot more like Pascal and Kepler. So perhaps it would
be more honest or accurate to say that it's not the systems we think we
detect but, rather, the technologies with which we detect them that are
self-reinforcing: after all, how would one define a "non-self-reinforcing
system"? One that fades into its entropic environment? It's at that
point--when the outlines of the beloved unitary figure of our studies seem
to dissipate into the background--that the ways in which nonlinear math is
_used_ appear as little more than an extension of the ways in which linear
math was and still is _used_: positivist, productivist, reductive,
teleological, and instrumental.
        Declaring that something is "a complex non-linear dynamical system"
isn't terribly useful. The main practical implications are:

        (1) traditional "linear" models and analyses are more crude
        (2) newer "nonlinear" models and analyses are less crude
        (3) no model or analysis can reliably predict long-term behavior

        It certainly implies _nothing whatsoever_ about states being
"organisms that wish to perpetuate themselves," or "power desiring its own
reproduction," "power structures seeking to transcend the social field and
channel matter and energy into their singularity," or "efficency demanding
that available resources be maximized," let alone that "emergence
distributes intelligence throughout the system." This kind of metaphorical,
vitalist language is invariably offered up to supplement the sterile
tautologies of math, because _no_ math declares that everything in the
world proceeds according to the same logic, or that the microcosmic is the
macrocosmic, or that formal resemblance is tantamount to identity. But
those claims are, of course, made again and again by proponents of
nonlinearism. Again: The fact that we have developed methods for detecting
formal scalar patterns in the world around us in no way means that they are
there. And even if they are there, does it necessarily require that we
worship at the altar of these metaphenomena? Are they really _the point_?
        There are some very big assumptions buried in the glosses about how
rational systems and optimal behavior arrived at through appeals to
mathematics are the imperatives that social, economic, and political policy
must follow--especially in light of the indisputable fact these values are
utterly historically contingent. I have serious doubts about those
assumptions, but that hardly makes me a nostalgic or an irrationalist.
        Alternatively, if people want to stay true to this math they're so
enamored with, why not assume for a moment that all of human history is
just a brain-dead eddy in the universal construction of some mathematically
perfect whatever, and that our own negation could be our finest
contribution to this grand evolutionary project? If "rational" behavior is
both Rational in that sense _and_ self-destructive as far as our own petty
little histories are concerned--and this is certainly a possibility--then
maybe all these lovely mathematical teleologies are so much rubbish.

> So neither a Marxist teleology nor some supposedly 'Californian' vision
> of transcendental freedom are appropriate. Both fall into the trap of
> proposing a type of totalising prediction and control which it is not
> possible to exercise. Political economy at the end of the millennium is
> best thought of as an engineering problem - of controlling economies by
> allowing them to optimise themselves through self-organisation, of
> nudging them off sub-optimal attractors when they become trapped there,
> indeed of learning the craft of steering paths through the global
> economy without perfect knowledge, long term predictive capability or
> total control over outcomes. This is not a denial of politics. It is
> simply a set of heuristics by which politics should proceed.

        Nonsense: aside from the rather obvious conclusion that we should be
flexible, it's a jumble of metaphors and contradictions duded up with
trendy jargon. If you take this self-organization stuff at all seriously,
conscious human effort is at best a symptom of ineluctable forces; or if
you want to insist that human consciousness and agency stand sufficiently
apart from their contextual primal soup to manipulate it toward human ends
(savvy readers will ask: "Which human ends?"), then this self-organization
is irrelevant. It seems to me that, when everything's said and done, you've
arrived at a distinctly non-nonlinear question--namely, Lenin's "What is to
be done?" The answer, since you (laudably) err on the side of faith in
political action, was answered--by Rabbi Hillel--before the question was
asked: "If not now, when? If not me, who?"


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