Society and a digital 'New Wild'

The aim of a philosophy of the 'New Wild' is also to investigate the idea of human complexity and use it to discuss our relation to technology, society, aesthetics and our human problems. The main argument of this particular article is that the modern world is largely full of digital complexity. This has also created a 'new wild'; an essentially untameable and alien, impassive world that we should be in awe of, which has largely replaced nature as the wild frontier of human experience and mastery. My argument is that this new environment that we have created is in some ways more inhospitable than previous natural environments that we were more equipped and adapted to live in, partly because we simply don't understand it. In general the idea of the 'New Wild' is to be used to refer to things that we don't understand, and that we may not even know how to explore. It especially refers to things that appear simple on the surface, but which actually hide great complexity. One aspect of the 'New Wild' therefore is our digital environment.

This human-created 'wild' is something we have no choice but to try to cope with as a society, as it is the direct product of our digital and technological solutions to all our problems. We cannot therefore check or control its expansion and complexity unless we also reject techno-capitalism or adapt it dramatically. The character of digital complexity is mirrored in the sciences of complexity and certain impassive processes in nature, such as those exploited in James Robert White's Landscapes (see background). These are also processes that we don't understand well. These Landscapes exhibit the principle, explored via scientific computing which holds that simple physical processes can lead to complex, algorithmic, patterns. This dialogue will be about the relation between art and science too, as this is a way of engaging with the idea of complexity and the 'New Wild'.

One idea of the 'New Wild', is in essence the idea of a digital (and algorithmic) landscape lying underneath and in between our own human geography. This article expands on this idea and as part of this discussion, the concept of ‘contextual geography’ is introduced as a theme to illustrate the effects of this 'New Wild' on society and how it also shapes and constitutes our new environment, ironically making it less hospitable in some ways than it was earlier in human history.

The changing kinds of complexity experienced by the individual due to technology

As our societies continue to seek to solve the challenges that they face, technology increasingly plays a role in trying to assist us in tackling perceived problems. However, if we map the change in the character of the tasks we perform, then it is the case that the kinds of tasks that we increasingly use technology to solve also change us. The ‘positive’ or humanistic complexity of the past, linked individuals intimately to their environment and the locality in which they lived and worked. This was a reflection of a more familiar and resolvable human complexity, since it required an adept human mind to master one’s immediate natural environment and 'tame' it using the resources available. Modern technological complexity however, tends to dislocate and detach us from our immediate environment. We enter in to an illusion of being simple consumers rather than masters of humanly resolvable complexities. This is one crucial concept that can be mapped more clearly through the proposed analysis of changes in ‘contextual geography’ where individuals and groups are dislocated from the context of their own locality and relations by technological complexity. Consequently, the 'New Wild’ is bound up with human-created digital technology. Its fundamental wildness and impassive nature is largely hidden from view, behind simple interfaces. Yet, it is argued that even while new technology insulates us and connects us to each other, ironically it is in fact mostly 'untamed' and wild as an environment, in a similar way that nature itself used to be.

An important aspect of modern complexity that makes it directly analogous to the wild is that we know less and less about it. This is because modern technology is a ‘black box’ that simply provides us with our apparently desired solutions. We know less and less about where the products that we consume were made, and the way they are provided to us. The 'New Wild' is therefore mostly invisible to us, its users. Part of this picture is that as Borgmann argues about techno-capitalism, the ‘Means’ has become entirely divorced from the ‘Ends’ which are conceived of as the act of consumption. It is argued that this results in new and different skills to tackle and thrive in the digital societies in which we live, to re-construct and re-build our sense of place and our relation to physical environments. This process of 'adaptation' is, however, in response to what is fundamentally a disruptive, unpredictable process. The philosopher Michel Puech for instance, argues for ‘Technologies of the Self’ in reference to Foucault, in order to tackle these problems of disruption to and loss of understanding and transparency in our relations to the world around us. He also argues against a dichotomy of ‘reductive’ versus ‘complex’ models of our relationship to each other and the environment. Puech includes in this approach the need to build bridges between Eastern and Western cultures and perspectives. These themes will be discussed below in terms of Eastern design and philosophy which is rooted in a more submissive and pragmatic approach to nature or, more generally: 'The Wild', and so may be appropriate to our modern problems of living in high technology environments.

Changes in ‘Contextual Geography’

The changes in the character of complexity that exists can be partly understood in terms of ‘Contextual Geography’. Techno-capitalism turns us in to ‘consumers’ of technological 'solutions' and simultaneously extends and expands the technological environments that exist in order to ‘serve’ us as consumers. The main drivers of these changes are identified:

  1. The ‘Device Paradigm’ (of Albert Borgmann)

  2. The growth of technological networks, culminating in the Internet

  3. Huge increases in the availability of computational/digital resources

The Device Paradigm

The philosopher Albert Borgmann’s ‘Device Paradigm’ consists of an argument about how technology, including computer technology, leads to the hidden nature of complexity created via consumption relationships. Borgmann argues that the use of technology, including the use of computational resources to produce consumable services, has a profound effect on consumption relationships, power relationships generally, and the way we relate to each other and our environment. Borgmann’s argument can be summarised as describing changes which can perhaps be thought of as changes in ‘contextual geography’ (my terminology). For instance, he takes as an example, the craft of the ‘Wheelwright’, and describes how this skilled job required a detailed knowledge of both the natural world, and mastery of the craft of working with natural materials. It was an example of a human resource (our minds and understanding) used to master nature. Borgmann describes how simple technologies which were introduced in the 19th century dramatically reduced the need for such knowledge and understanding. As a result the contextual geography changed; complex social relationships and complex knowledge of the natural world both became obsolete, and so disappeared with the introduction of a new, more mechanised production process. Borgmann argues that one reason for this is that the Device Paradigm drastically changes the means to achieve an end. The Device then both hides the means of the solution from us, and relinquishes from us the need to relate to the world around us in a human way, to understand and master our environment in a meaningful way. Borgmann shows that the 'limit case' of this pattern of technological change, the ultimate ‘Device’ is, of course the digital computer. The computer is the ultimate Device because it has the means to take data as an input and add an almost unbounded number of transformations to produce a given output. It takes an end (the desired output) and makes the means (the transformations from the input) almost completely inscrutable to its user.

Technological networks

The change in social relations and our relation to the world around us is also in large part due to the growth of various technological networks, with the digital network of the Internet being the last and most definitive contribution to the technological environment of the 'New Wild'. Networks are created to serve users and consumers. They make many more non-local contexts available, either through cheap travel in the case of transport infrastructure networks, or cheap forms of communication and connection. The notion of the 'wildness' of a network is new, however, and applies only to the most modern network, the Internet and networks found in nature. The Internet itself now represents almost insuperable challenges to governance and creates substantial new threats to societies and individuals, even as it enables and supports economic and technological growth. It collapses international borders, and is fundamentally 'wild' in the sense that nature used to be. It is untameable and fundamentally unknowable due to its vast scale.

Increase in digital resources to tackle ‘complexity’

A third area of technological change that signals the emergence of ‘The New Wild’ is the sheer size of digital resources that now exist and continues to grow, unabated. The growth of modern digital complexity is enabled by the cheap use of computer resources as part of any proposed solution to almost any problem. Scientific and technological problems have now become far more likely to be deemed ‘complex’ (technological) problems. At the same time, due to Moore's Law, digital solutions that are unaffordable become affordable in a few years. Yet those digital solutions are therefore always guaranteed to create more complexity than the digital solutions of a few years before. Hence Moore's Law is also a law of ever increasing digital complexity. This constant growth of complexity which is 'out of control' is another key aspect of the 'New Wild' and its profoundly digital character.

Summary

The main argument of this web article has been that digital complexity is in some ways more problematic in terms of its effect on our environment than nature itself, and can be said to constitute one part of a 'New Wild', things we struggle to understand, explore and control. One component of this analysis is the idea of studying the emergence of digital complexity. Changes in ‘contextual geography’ have been argued to be useful conceptually as a means to analyse the impact of the emergence of the 'New Wild'. This changing contextual geography has several dimensions: The Device Paradigm (of Borgmann), Networks culminating in the Internet, and the ever-expanding availability of more digital resources. All profoundly change our relation to each other and our relation to nature. This new hidden environment of digital complexity is in a real sense vast, impassive and in a certain sense ‘untameable’ in terms of some of the problems it leads to, so giving the wild aspect of the concept of the 'New Wild'.

Bibliography

Borgmann, Albert (2009) 'Technology and the character of contemporary life: A philosophical inquiry'. University of Chicago Press.

Puech, Michel "BEYOND DIGITAL LITERACY: TECHNOLOGICAL WISDOM FOR THE GOOD LIFE." http://michel.puech.free.fr/docs/2014cepe.pdfPuech, Michel (2010) 'The Four Cultures: Hybridizing Science and Humanities, East and West'. In Center for Applied Ethics and Philosophy (ed.), Applied Ethics: Challenges for the 21st Century., Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan. 27--35.

Snow, Charles Percy (1959) 'The Rede Lecture 1959'. Cambridge University Press.

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