Geert Lovink on Sat, 6 Feb 1999 21:08:19 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> kittler.eng

subject: On the Implementation of Knowledge- Toward a Theory of Hardware

			For David Hauptmann, SysOp of my professorship, 
			laid off by the Berlin Senate

The world in which we have lived for the last forty years is no longer
broken up into stones, plants and animals but into the unholy trinity of
hardware, software and wetware. Since computer technology (according to
the heretical words of its inventor) is at the point of „taking control," 
the term hardware no longer refers to building and gardening tools but to
the repetition, a million times over, of tiny silicon transistors. 
Wetware, on the other hand, is the remainder that is left of the human
race when hardware relentlessly uncovers all our faults, errors and
inaccuracies. The billion-dollar business called software is nothing more
than that which the wetware makes out of hardware: a logical abstraction
which, in theory - but only in theory - fundamentally disregards the time
and space frameworks of machines in order to rule them. 

In other words, the relationship between hardware, wetware and software
remains a paradox. Either machines or humans are in control. However,
since the latter possibility is just as obvious as it is trivial,
everything depends on how the former is played out. We must be able to
pass on to the coming generations - if not as the legacy of these times
then as a kind of message in a bottle - what computer technology meant to
the first generation it effected. In opposition to this, though, is the
fact that theories from the outset turn everything they are at all able to
describe into software, that they are already beyond hardware. There
exists no word in any ordinary language which does what it says. No
description of a machine sets the machine into motion. It is true that
implementation, in the old Scottish double-meaning of the word - at once
the becoming an implement and the completion or deployment - is indeed the
thing which gives plans or theories their efficiency, but at the price of
forcing them into silence.  In this crisis, the only remaining remedy is
also just as obvious as it is trivial. This essay, instead of attempting a
general theory of hardware which cannot be accomplished, turns first of
all to history, in order to take the measure of what computer technology
calls innovation, with the aid of a familiar hardware: writing. For
reasons which are connected to the city of Berlin, in this year, I further
focus on one single hardware:  the implementation of the knowledge
produced by universities. With the double prerequisites of high technology
and the scarcity of finances, a kind of knowledge which needs knowledge
hardware can probably do no damage. 


Ernst Robert Curtius, who knew what he was talking about, called
universities "an original creation of the [European] Middle Ages."  Even
this great medievalist, however, did not bother to clarify the kind of
material basis this creation was founded upon. The academies of antiquity,
the only comparable institutions, got by with hardware that was more
modest and more plentifully available. In Nietzsche's wicked phrasing,
Plato himself, in all his Greek "innocence," made it clear "that there
wouldn't even be a Platonic philosophy if there hadn't been so many lovely
young boys in Athens, the sight of whom was what first set the soul of the
philosopher into an erotic ecstasy, leaving his soul no peace until he had
planted the seed of all high things in that beautiful soil."  The cultural
legacy of a time in which the free citizens and the working slaves
remained strictly separated coincided, then, with biological heredity. 
The youths who attended the Early Medieval universities, on the other
hand, were monks. Their task involved neither procreation nor beauty, but
work. Since the time of Cassiodor and Benedict, when it was allowed to
fall to the level of a lowly craft or trade, this has consisted of
writing. Every stroke of the quill on parchment, even if its meaning was
lost to the writer, still as such delivered a flesh wound to Satan.  Thus
it came to be that monasteries, cathedral schools and universities began
to produce books incessantly. Unlike the academies or schools of
philosophy in antiquity, they were founded on a material basis which cast
the transfer of knowledge between the generations in a form of hardware. 
In place of an amorous rapture between philosophers and young boys, an
Arabic import came up between professors and students: the simple page. 
In the writing rooms maintained by every university, under the direction
of lecturers, the old books multiplied to a mass of copies. Hardly had the
new university been founded when these copies, for their part, forced the
founding of a university library. The newly acquired knowledge was
multiplied in letters which were sent from scholar to scholar, soon
demanding the founding of a university postal system. Long before modern
territorial states or nation states nationalized the universities, the
dark Middle Ages had already truly implemented this knowledge.  It is well
known that, as a legacy of this time when every university had at its
disposal its own medium of storage (a library) and its own medium of
transmission (a postal system), only the libraries remain. It is possible
that the universitas litterarum, the community of those versed in writing,
was a bit too proud of its literacy to keep it secret as did the cleverer
professions. The fastest and largest pre-modern postal system, reaching
all across Europe, is namely thought to have been maintained by the
butchers. Whenever the butchers had to appear before the court, however,
they would strategically deny their writing and reading abilities.  It
then came to be that, without much ado, the university postal service was
merged with the state post upon which Kaiser Maximilian and his royal
rivals founded their states. The abolition of the butcher post, however,
was only achieved much later by the same kaisers and kings.  Bans and
prohibitions which were just as draconian as they were repetitive helped
spark the Thirty Years War. 

In much the same way as the university postal services, which perished due
to the vanity of those trained in writing, the university writing rooms
have also disappeared. For Gutenberg's invention of moving type was not
aimed at the multiplication of books but at their beautification. 
Everything which previously flowed with the sweat of calligraphers, unable
to entirely avoid making copying mistakes, into handwritten texts and
miniatures was to become standardized, free of errors, and reproducible. 
Precisely this new beauty, however, made it possible to break knowledge
down into software and hardware. Universities appeared, on the one hand,
whose equally slow and unstoppable nationalization replaced the production
of books with that of writers, readers and bureaucrats. On the other hand,
that Tower of Babel of books also emerged, whose thousands of identical
pages had all the same page numbers, and whose equally un-falsifiable
illustrations put before the eyes that which the pages described. Once
Leibniz submitted the organizing of authors and titles to the simple ABCs,
entire state and national libraries (such as those here in Berlin) were
founded upon this addressability. At the same time, this alliance between
text and image, book printing and perspective, gave rise to technical
knowledge per se. 

It is no accident that Gutenberg's moving letters have been called
history's first assembly line. For it was the compiling of drawings and
lettering, and of construction plans and instruction manuals, which first
made it possible for engineers to build further and further on the
shoulders - or rather on the books - of their predecessors, without being
in any way dependent on oral tradition.  Beyond the universities and their
lecturing operations, going all the way back to the succession model of
masters and journeymen, technical drawings and mathematical equations
promoted a kind of knowledge which could even take book printing as its
own basis. Even the aesthetic-mathematical revolutions, bearing fruit in
Brunelleschi's linear perspective and Bach's well-tempered clavier, were
based upon measuring devices like the darkroom or the clock whose complex
construction plans could first be handed down through printed matter. The
fact that Vasari placed the invention of the camera obscura, that
technically implemented perspective, in the same year as Gutenberg's book
printing was, of course, a mistake - but it was significant. In technical
media, such as photography or the phonograph, precisely the same
discoveries are at work, but with the difference that no longer is any
hand, and thus no artistry, necessary to mediate between the algorithm and
the machine. Perspective has its origin in the beam path of the lens; 
frequency analysis in the needle's cutting process. Instead of monks,
scholars or artists (in the lovely words of photography pioneer Henry Fox
Talbot) with analog media "nature" itself guides "the pencil." However,
the analog media of the greater 19th century pay a price for this
self-sufficiency. The more algorithmic the transmission of their input
data, the more chaotic is the storage of their output data. The immense
storage facilities, holding in images and sounds that which was once known
as history, replace history with real-time, but they also replace
addressability with sheer quantity. In spite of film philology (to use
Munich University's bold neologism), no one can skim through celluloid or
vinyl like they can in the philologist's books. For this reason, it is
precisely the act of implementing optical and acoustic knowledge in Europe
which has resulted in boundless ignorance. At the same historical moment
that nation states were giving their populations democratic law in the
form of general obligatory schooling, the people themselves saw writing
fade away into high-tech arcana. Their unreadable power, systematically
drifting away from the populations, has passed from the First World War's
military telegraph system to the expanded directional radio of World War
II and, finally, to the computer networks of today. The father of all
transmission-tehnological innovations, however, has been war itself. In a
strategic chain of escalation, the telegraph appeared in order to surpass
the speed of messenger postal services; radio was developed to solve the
problem of vulnerable undersea cables; and the computer emerged to make
possible the codification of secret - and interceptable - radio
communications. Since then, all knowledge which gives power is technology. 


Weighed on a moral scale, the legacy of this time may therefore as a
complete catastrophe. From a more knowledge-technological estimation, it
is, rather, a quantum leap. This strategic escalation has led to the fact
that today a historically incredible line of succession holds sway. Living
beings transmitted their hereditary information further and further, until
millions of years later a mutation interrupted them. Cultures transmitted
acquired, and thus not quite hereditary, information ever further with the
help of their storage media, until centuries later a technical innovation
revolutionized the storage media themselves. Computers, on the other hand,
make it truly possible to optimize storage and transmission in all their
parameters for the first time. As a legacy of the Cold War, which coupled
the mathematical problems of data processing with the telecommunication
problems of data transmission, they have produced rates of innovation
which irrevocably surpass those of nature and cultures. Computing
capacities of computer generations double, not over the course of millions
of years, and not over hundreds of years, but every eighteen months
(according to Moore's so-called empirical - but as yet only affirmed -
law). It is an implementation of knowledge which has already surpassed
every attempt at its retelling.  Nevertheless, three points can perhaps be
emphasized. First, all the man-years of engineering work possible will no
longer suffice for the designing of new computer architectures. Only the
machines of the most up-to-date generation are at all capable of sketching
out the hardware of the coming generations as a circuit diagram or
transistor design. Second, all of the hardware to which such designs refer
are is further stored in software libraries which themselves indicate or
display not merely their electronic data and boundaries but even the
production process. Technical drawing is no longer a drifting abstraction,
as once in printed books, dreferring to devices whose possibility or
impossibility (in the case of the perpetual motion machine) must first be
proven in the process of building. It now indistinguishably coincides with
a machine which itself is a technical drawing, in microscopic layers of
silicon and silicon dioxide. However, third and lastly, the hardware of
today thereby brings together two previously separated knowledge systems:
media technology and the library.  On the one hand, computer hardware
functions like a library, making possible the storage and retrieval of
data under definable addresses. On the other hand, it makes possible the
same mathematical operations with these data that have been part of
technical analog media since the 19th century, operations which, however,
have fundamentally vanished from traditional libraries. From this
combination, the management of knowledge results in a double gain of
efficiency. To the same extent that the analog media appear one after
another in the Universal Discrete Machine, their former chaos also falls
under an ordering of universal addressing which first truly enable the
knowing of images or sounds. Or the other way round, to the degree that it
appears in binary code, writing gains the enormous power to do what it
says. It is no accident that what we call in ordinary speech a statement
is called, in programming language, a command.  Whatever technical drawing
simply puts before the eyes, effectively takes place. 


It is possible that from this short sketch, which does not even come close
to doing justice to the complexity of today's hardware, the vast migration
which knowledge has experienced and will yet continue to experience does
indeed emerge. Michael Giesecke, in his study on book printing of the
Early Modern era, was able to use the triumphal procession of electronic
information technology as a methodological model in order to be able to
estimate Gutenberg's leap of innovation quantitatively. On the other hand,
such a process does not work in reverse. No past leap of innovation can
provide the measure for that which is currently occurring. If so-called
intellectual work on the one side and its objects of study on the other
are as a whole transferred to machines, the self-definition of European
modernity, understanding thought as an attribute of subjectivity, is at
vulnerable. This is not the time or place to discuss in detail the results
of this occurence for a society which blithely banishes machines and
programs out of its consciousness and must be immediately retrained. 
Because it is about implemented knowledge, and not implemented strategy,
the results of that migration for universities as institutionalized places
of knowledge remain urgent.  At first viewing, there are reasons that the
university can be satisfied.  First of all, the principle circuit diagram
of the Universal Discrete Maschine appeared in an unprepossessing
dissertation which counted human beings and machines, regardless of any
differences, as paper machines.  Secondly, the implementation of this
simple and useless paper machine, first put into operation using tubes,
later with transistors, also took place at that elite American university
which decided the Second World War as a sorcerer's war. Thirdly, the
circumstances of this birth have already made it sure that the Pentagon,
in order to be equipped for the case of an atomic attack, did not only
diversify its command centers over numerous states, but also had to link
with them the elite colleges from which the hard- and software employed
first originated. Long before the Internet was promoted as the utopia of
radical democrats and the delight of features editors, it was already a
university postal system in precisely the historical sense of the Early
Modern coupling of state and university postal systems, such as in the
France of Henry III.  The difference being that in the Internet, in
defiance of all those utopias, scholars do not exchange their findings or
documents, but computers transmit their bits and bytes. (Which is not even
to speak of the radical democratic forums of discussion.) Every knowledge
system has its corresponding medium of transmission, which is why the
electronic networks are best understood as first the emanation of the
silicon hardware itself, as the planetary expansion and spread of - of all
things - the epitome of miniaturized technology. In this respect,
universities had better chances under high-tech conditions precisely
because their origins are older, more mobile, and more integrated than
those of teritorial or national states.  It is precisely their proximity
to computer technology, however, which makes it difficult for universities
to be equipped. Wholly apart from the economic shifts which, in the
meantime, have made the design of new hardware generations into a billion
dollar business for a few companies, established academic knowledge, along
with its implementation, also has theoretical deficiencies. In the pattern
of the four faculties which still survives its many reformers, there was
from the very beginning no place for media technicians as they explicitely
arose out of the modern alphabet and number systems. For this reason,
technical knowledge, after a long path through royal societies, royal
academies and military engineering schools, all of which circumvented the
universities, finally reached the technical colleges, the prototypes of
which at the time of the French Revolution were not accidentally called
schools for powder and saltpeter.  This odor of sulphur frightened the old
universities so much that they wanted to refuse the technical colleges the
right of promotion to doctoral degrees. And it was first the life's work
of the great mathematician Felix Klein, who compensated for his
extinguished genius with organizational talent, which in the German Reich
prevented science and technology, universities and schools of engineering,
from taking fully separate ways.  In the garden of the Mathematical
Institute at Goettingen, as the first physics laboratory in the history of
German universities, a couple of cheap sheds appeared, out of which
emerged all of quantum mechanics and the atomic bombs. David Hilbert,
Klein's successor to the professorship, was thus doubly refuted. His
theory that no hostility exists between mathemeticians and engineers
simply because there is no relationship between them at all was
overshadowed by world developments, and his hypothesis that all
mathematical problems can be decided was pushed aside by Alan Turing's
computer prototype. Since then, all knowledge, even the mathemetician's
most abstract, is technically implemented. If „the 19th century," to use
Nietzsche's wicked phrasing, was a „victory of the scientific method over
science,"  then our century will be the one that saw the victory of
scientific technology over science. In exactly this way, over a century
ago, the physicist Peter Mittelstaedt described it as state of the art,
though not without experiencing the passionate animosity of his
colleagues. Even in the 19th century, according to Mittelstaedt, every
experimental scientist worked like a transcendental apperception, in the
Kantian sense, incarnate. The data of the sensory impression (to stay with
Kant's phraseology), flowed to the senses, whereupon the understanding and
the faculty of judgement could synthesize this flow of data into a
generally valid natural law. In contrast, today's experimental physics
claims that stochastic processes which occur far beneath any threshhold of
perception are received, first of all, by sensors which digitalize them
and transmit them to high-performance computers. What the physicist
achieves, finally, with his this human-machine interface, is scarcely
„nature" anymore, but a „system of information," the „ordering" and
mathematical modelling of which has itself been taken over by computer
technology. The result of this is Mittelstaedt's compelling conclusion
that transcendental apperception, also referred to as knowledge, has
simply abdicated. With this abdication, in part because with solid-state
physics it made possible the hardware of today, physics really takes on
merely the role of a forerunner. If the spirit of the philosophers itself,
in Hegel's great words, is "only as deep as it dares to spread and to lose
itself in its interpretation,"  though this explicit interpretation would
be unthinkable without a storage medium, the formerly so-called humanities
(Geisteswissenschaften) are no less affected. The fact that they show a
readiness to drop their old name and in its place to take on the name of
cultural sciences (Kulturwissenschaften) appears to encompass a
renunciation of transcendental apperception, namely the equally
hermeneutic and recursive "knowing of that which is known."  Cultural
science, in case this term doesn't remain a fashionable word, can surely
only mean that the facts which make up integral cultures, the
investigation of which is therefore fixed, are in and of themselves
technologies; they are, furthermore - in the harsh words of Marcel Mauss -
cultural technologies.  When texts, images, and sounds are no longer
considered the impulses of brilliant individuals but are seen as the
output of historically specified writing, reading, and computing
technologies, much will already have been gained. Only when the cultural
sciences, over and above this, begin to use contemporary logorithms to
coordinate all the writing, reading and computing that history has seen
will it have proved the truth of its renaming. The legacy of these times
is certainly not only to be found in archives and data records, which are
inherited by every age, but also in those which it passes down to coming
generations. If the knowledge that is handed down, then, does not become
recoded and made compatible with the universal medium of the computer, it
will be threatened by a forseeable oblivion. It is quite possible that
Goethe, that totem animal of all the German literary sciences, has long
since ceased to be at home in Weimar archives, but has taken residence at
the American university which has most exhaustibly scanned-in his writings
- an institute that, not in vain, was founded by Mormons, and so for the
eternity of the resurrected.  The apocatastasis panton need not hurry, as
silicon-based calculation and transmission still lack the sufficient
storage. Even now, physical parameters are not capable of authenticating
the event of the recording per se. That which is valid for archives and
storage facilities is, for that reason, all the more valid for the
knowledge technologies and categories. In Gutenberg's time there were
French monasteries in which handwriting was so deeply rooted that they
searched through all three hundred copies of their first printed missal
book for copying mistakes.  In Fichte's time, and much to his derision,
there were professors whose lectures would "re-compose the world's store
of book knowledge" although it was clearly to be found "already printed
before the eyes of everyone."  Knowledge practices which even today adhere
to book knowledge in computer illiteracy and misuse a technology which
sits on every writing desk as merely a better kind of typewriter are no
less anachronistic. Indeed, even the lectures in video conferences and
Internet seminars, currently being attempted in many places, presumably
bring necessary but still insufficient changes. Only when the categories
which are implemented in computers, meaning the algorithms and data
structures, are elevated to utilization as guides for - precisely -
culture-scientific research will their relationship to the hard sciences
be anything more than the shock-absorber or compensation for the evil
results of technology that has been favored since the time of Odo
Marquardt. The unique opportunity to bridge the chasm between both
cultures stems from technology itself. For the first time since the
differentiation of libraries and laboratories, the natural sciences again
work, insofar as they have become technical sciences, in one and the same
medium as the cultural sciences. Soon, the network of machines will have
filed texts and formulas, past and future projects, catalogues and
hardware libraries in a uniform format under uniform addresses. If it
succeeds from that point in articulating the cultural and natural sciences
to one another, the university will have a future. 


This articulation, perhaps, can be expressed with the formula that the
cultural sciences will no longer be able to exclude calculation in the
name of their timeless truth, and the natural sciences will no longer be
able to exclude memory in the name of their timeless logic or efficiency. 
They must learn from one another in ways that are precisely reversed: the
one to make use of calculation, the other of the memory. Only if that
which is to be passed down historically is so formalized that it even
remains capable of being handed down under high-tech conditions does it
produce an archive of possibilities which may be able to claim, in its
great variety, no lesser a protection of species than that of plants or
animals. The other way round, the technological implementations in which
formerly so-called nature crystallizes begin to be more than ever in
danger of forgetting, along with their origins, their reason for being. 
Even now there are vast quantities of data which are simply unreadable
because the computers which once wrote them can no longer be made to run. 
Without memory - and this means without a history which also explicitely
places machines under the protection of species - the legacy of this time
in history, then, cannot be passed on to the coming generations. Only when
the natural sciences stop dismissing their history in terms of being a
forerunner will that same history begin to appear as a scattering of
alternatives. The fact that even Stanford University is preparing to
collect the half-forgotten private archives of all the Silicon Valley
companies could very soon have a rescuing effect - if not for human lives,
then certainly for programs upon which human lives (not only in the
airbus) increasingly depend.  The historicity of technologies does not
encompass, but rather excludes, sticking to the saddest legacy of all
so-called intellectual history.  Knowledge can exist without the
copyright. When Goethe, in January of 1825, strongly suggested the
"favorable conclusion" to a "high" German "national assembly" that he be
able "to draw mercantile advantage" "from his intellectual production"
"for himself and those of his dependents,"  the development of a
privatization that in the meantime has spread to even formulas and
equations was initiated. Gene technological and related computer supported
procedures are patented, while the currently fastest primary number
algorithm - in contrast with four centuries of free mathematics - remains
an operational secret of the Pentagon.  Turing's proof that everything
which humans can compute can also be taken over by machines has up to now
had so little effect in an economy of knowledge which, not only at the
disadvantage of its transmission capacity, systematically disables more
than only the universities. Clearly, our inherited ideas are a long ways
from reaching the level of today's hardware, the manufacturing equipment
of which costs billions, and the manufacturing price of which, in
contrast, crashes downward. It can be expected of hardware, and only of
hardware, that it will one day drive out the apparition of the copyright. 
That, however, is bitterly necessary. All of the myths that are constantly
conjured up, which like the copyright or creativity define knowledge as
the immaterial act of a subject, as the software of a wetware, do nothing
more than hinder only its implementation. It may be the case that, in past
times when the infrastructure of knowledge lay in books, they even had a
function. Jean Paul's brilliant but dirt-poor Wuz, in any case, who could
not afford to pay for any books, could himself write his library. Today
such lists would be condemned to failure. Computer technology offers not
merely an infrastructure for knowledge, which could be replaced by other,
more costly or time-consuming procedures. Rather, computer technology
provides a hardware whose efficiency itself earns the name software
compatibility. It is, then, in contrast to all the current theories which
have only pictured technology as a prothesis or tool, an inevitability.
This may not please nation states and scientists. The doctrine,
particularly favored in Germany doctrine, that the communicative reason,
formerly also called the peace of God, is higher than the instrumental, in
the end costs much less. It is probably for this reason that the siren
songs of a discourse theory which has no terms at all of time and archive
meet such open ears in high offices. As places of communicative reason,
universities did not have the slightest need for hardware. They got along
with just that garden on the north edge of Athens, where Plato once
dropped the seed of all higher things in the soil of his young boys. The
short history of European universities should have shown, on the other
hand, that knowledge is not to be had without technology, and that
technology is not to be reduced to instruments. Moreover, the anonymity of
knowledge, for which Alan Turing gave his life, makes it ever more
impossible to decide whether major states will continue as before to be
responsible for knowledge institutions such as universities. One thing is
certain, however: it will be decided, regarding the legacy of this time,
who set up which hardware when. 
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