Technical Activity

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Comparision of Code and Output

We can see the effect of the changed code. Next we can read why the code does what it does, or we can try to figure it out on our own by comparing both sides. Furthermore we can make changes to the code and see what happens. Commonly writing code can be seen as a practice of adapting. We write some code, check what it does, then rewrite the code if we’re not happy with the result. This is an iterative process of trying until we’re finished or running out of time.

Programming is a practice

Learning by doing, not by memorizing. (Neovim Tutor)

We will get an understanding of programming not just through thinking, but through practice. We have to code to understand code.

One way is to establish a routine, like coding a little bit on 5 days a week or so.

Alexandre Villares writes a small program every day, sometimes the output will be an inspiration for deeper work, most of the time just practice. Alexandre Villares — sketch-a-day

A similar approach is the writing technique Free Writing. Roughly this means to write down what you think for a given amount of time (commonly 5 to 15 minutes), on a regular basis (like daily).

Open Machines

The following is an excerpt of »Self-Driving Futures«, a talk given at the »non-machines« conference at Bauhaus-University in July 2023. It adds a perspective to the term non-machines, based on the book On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects by philosopher Gilbert Simondon.

Universal Machine

Let us begin with universal machines, i.e. Turing machines, most commonly in the form of computers and similar devices. In principle, they create a space of potential machines limited only by the limits of computability (both in terms of algorithms and hardware), the limits of formalization, and the imagination of the machine’s author.

Specific Machine

Programming in this sense means to reduce the potential of the universal machine to such an extent that a specific machine is developed. This (non-universal) machine is freed from any non-functional (surplus) potential.

Control

One of the main purposes of machines is to be able to control the future. By reducing the potential of the universal machine to the exact desired functionality, the future actions of this specific machine are under control.

Limited Futures

Reducing the surplus potential of machines Means gaining control Means reducing the openness of the futures.1

On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects

In 1958, the same year in which the first higher level programming language (ALGOL 58) appeared, the book »On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects« by the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon was published. In it Simondon thinks about machines in terms of their degree of technicity. Automation requires a reduction of a machine’s functionality, which equals a low degree of technicity. A high degree of technicity, on the other hand, requires a leeway of vagueness within the machine. He criticizes excessive specialization of the machine, which causes it to lose its adaptability.

Traffic Light

Let’s illuminate this by means of a traffic light system.2 A simple traffic light system executing a fixed routine is an example of a complete automaton. In Simondon’s view it is a closed machine. It acts within a closed environment, independent of the outside world. Its degree of technicity is zero. This can lead to absurd situations that we have all seen: A single agent (car driver, pedestrian etc.) standing completely alone at an intersection in front of a red light, waiting for the system to turn green. The human agent is obviously inferior to the machine and the formal system, so this is a bad human-machine-interaction and a bad integration of technology into the world.

Social Relation

A quote by Simondon to that topic:

“Thus, the first condition for the incorporation of technical objects into culture would be that humans would be neither inferior nor superior to technical objects, that they would be able to approach and get to know them by maintaining a relation of equality, of reciprocal exchange with them: a social relation, so to speak.”3

Open Machines

According to Simondon, a machine is open >>> if it’s possible to modify its operation from the outside.

The first step in achieving this is to enable information from the outside world to enter the machine and change its output. A simple version of this is a traffic light system that uses sensors to detect an agent waiting in front of a red light, which can influence the operation of the system.

AI Traffic Light

Recently, a more sophisticated version was installed at an intersection in the city of Hamm. It is being promoted as the first AI traffic light system in Germany. Seven cameras monitor the entire intersection and detect agents of eight different types: [“pedestrian”, “cyclist”, “motor bike”, “car”, “truck”, “bus”, “tram”, “train”]. Depending on the type, number and the speed of the agents, the system adjusts the green and red phases of all traffic lights. For example, if there is a large group of pedestrians, the green phase can be extended to allow everyone to cross the street at once. The AI traffic light is an open machine in the sense that it uses information from the external world.

Ensembles of Technical Objects

The next step is a machine that uses information from another technical object. In Simondon’s terms, this would be an ensemble of technical objects. In development, for example, is this for cars that communicate with each other and with other agents such as traffic lights. The main goal, of course, is to gain even more control over the future. We all know the popular question of whether a self-driving car should aim for the grandmother or the child. In the idealized, technically driven world, this problem does not exist. The technical objects have the situation under control and accidents do not happen. ⤷The main purpose of interacting machines is to control the future.

Leeway of Vagueness

Simondon prefers to keep the human in the loop. He envisions a leeway of vagueness in the machines hat keeps them open for a human operator to modify their actions through interactions with them.

Technical Activity

More from Simondon:

“The technical activity differs from the mere labor and from the alienated labor in that the technical activity includes not only the use of the machine, but also a certain coefficient of attention to the technical functioning, maintenance, adjustment, improvement of the machine, in which the activity of invention and construction is continued.”4

Much of the technological development on industrial scale is heading in the opposite direction: technological objects are made for the unknowing users, without the ability or possibility to encounter them in the mode of technical activity.

Non-machines

Let us return to the initial definition of a machine.

If a machine is defined by the reduction of surplus potential a machine which contains surplus potential can be seen as a non-machine.

Surplus potential means a leeway of vagueness within the machine and the possibility to approach it in a mode of technical activity.

Technical Activity

The main goal of this course is to practice technical activity. This means to

  • use open machines and modify them

  • create open machines

  • not just using machines, but inspect and modify our relation


1

Of course, this applies not only to the construction of the machines themselves but also to our mindset when interacting with machines. See, for example, the chapter »Keine Experimente. Über künstlerische Künstliche Intelligenz« (»No Experiments. On artistic Artificial Intelligence«) in Hannes Bajohr, Schreibenlassen. Texte Zur Literatur Im Digitalen (Berlin: August Verlag, 2022).

2

In general, traffic rules are a good example of a formal system. It is defined by abstractions and is independent of the individuality of the agents who apply it. In order to function, it depends on our consent. It is not biologically inscribed in us to wait in front of a red light and start moving when the light turns green, etc.

3

Gilbert Simondon, Die Existenzweise technischer Objekte (Zürich: diaphanes, 2012), 81. Translated by MK.

4

Simondon, Die Existenzweise technischer Objekte, 231. Translation and italics by MK.