2019

Trevor Paglen A Prison Without Guards (Corpus: Eye-Machines) Adversarially Evolved Hallucination, 2017

The Technologization of Cultural Techniques.
What Happens When Practices Become Algorithmic Technologies?

Describing what he calls “the emblematic media corporation of our age”, i. e. Google, John Durham Peters states in his 2015 study The Marvelous Clouds that “media have shifted from mass media to cultural techniques not only in theory, but in fact.” Google does not produce programs as such but provides organizational services based on algorithms by which cultural techniques like search, document storage (archiving), calendars, maps and navigation, or translation are implemented. This shift has changed the field of Media Studies in a dramatic way: Media histories are challenged by the fact that their subjects are no longer radio, cinema or TV but practices and operations that traverse various media and multiple dispositifs. The recasting of media as cultural techniques demands new media histories that map out the histories of practices and operations across epochs and disciplines: histories of navigating, searching, sampling, counting, or drawing, not to mention the elemental cultural techniques like reading and writing that were subjected to a special fate in the era of their digitization.

When thinking of concepts such as image, number, or tone it is crucial to recall that, as Thomas Macho once stated: “cultural techniques are always older than the concepts generated from them.” People made comparisons before they possessed the concept of the metaphor; people navigated land and sea before they possessed an abstract concept of space; people measured time before they had an abstract concept of time. Indeed people most probably processed the distinction between inside and outside before they derived from those operations the political concept of the city. Hence, the question is not how techniques leave the domain of the human in the course of becoming digital technologies but how these processes of “exteriorization” (Leroi-Gourhan) change the very concepts of, say, number, image, comparison, space, time, or city.

However, the anthropological category of “exteriorization” does not fully do justice to these processes since they operate retroactively and recursively on the original techniques. Alongside the concept of the text and the book, the practice of reading has also changed in the course of digitization and the algorithmization of knowledge processing; together with the concept of comparison the practice of comparing has changed since comparing (for instance of images) has turned into an operation which is based on data mining and machine learning. Yet inversely we must also consider – in a media-archaeological manner – the technological state of the art as a starting point from which to ask what cultural techniques were in the first place. How does the computerization of cultural techniques produce new forms of subjectivity? As the concept of cultural techniques implies already the notion of “chains of operations” and thereby a permanent (retro-)coupling of human and nonhuman agency, how does the technologization and computerization of cultural techniques change the very nature of knowing, of affect, of being-with-others (people, things, animals)?

Finally, classic cultural techniques like indexing or tagging, for instance, have gained ontological powers in the age of Google: only that which is tagged exists at all. Only what is searchable is at all. At the same time, in the fantasies of media corporations the range of objects that can be tagged (including people) tends to become co-extensive with the world of phenomena itself (if not the real world), which then will always be just an augmented version of itself.

The 2019 Princeton-Weimar Summer School for Media Studies invites doctoral students to present case studies of cultural techniques rearticulated as algorithmic technologies that may or may not explore one of the examples mentioned above.