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Ontology into Technology Peter Weibel Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said “Let Newton be!” and all was light. Alexander Pope (c. 1730) Our experience of the world reflects itself in the medium by which the world is recorded. How one sees the world depends on the constitution of the eye that perceives it. The human eye can only register certain frequencies of the natural light (380 – 780 THz; 380 – 780 nm), just as the human ear can only hear certain frequencies. Animals with different eyes and ears perceive the world differently. The first reports in which humans recorded their world experience are signs, drawings and writings. The medium thus forms the world’s horizon. Since the primary medium is writing, it stands to reason that the origin of the world, the cosmogenesis, just as the origin of humankind, the anthropogenesis, is interpreted in the reflection of the medium of writing. Initially the world could only be described in the medium of writing and thus could only be described and interpreted as writing. From the bible “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1) to Ludwig Wittgenstein “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (TLP, 5.6) we get to see how extensively the medium of writing serves as the model of the world. The ancient Greek’s distinction between the knowledge systems episteme and techne is the philosophical formulation of the medial world experience. The tools of technology form the techne, the minor forms of crafts, that are necessary for agriculture, architecture, painting, sculpture, music, etc. The superior science is formed by the language-based sciences, the episteme, such as theology, philosophy, rhetoric, grammar, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, etc. The era from the Bible to Wittgenstein demonstrates a 2000-year long hegemony of the medium of language as the world’s model. However, the philosophers of enlightenment have nobilitated the crafts in their encyclopedia. It is Denis Diderot (1713-1784) who turned his attention to crafts and technology as the „langue des arts“. With the encyclopédistes the philosophical promotion of the tool-based sciences began, which had already started in modern sciences in the 16th and 17th century with the invention of the telescope and the microscope. The apparatus-based perception has extended the limits of the world far beyond language. The natural sensory organs, with which we had been perceiving the world so far, were expanded by artificial sensory organs, the machines and media. Media and machines form artificial interfaces between men and their environment, which not only sustain the function of the natural interfaces, of the natural organs, but also change it. In the age of the apparatus-based perception, from the electron


microscope to the particle accelerator, the triumph of the apparatus-based natural sciences began, from astronomy to medicine. In the view of apparatus-based physics the world is a particle zoo. In the medium of language, in the beginning there was the word, in the medium of particle physics, in the beginning there was the big bang. The respective medium reflects the world’s origin and the world’s experience. The science of being and the “knowledge of being” (Parmenides) is similarly not only a matter of ontology but of epistemology. The methods of knowledge and the media of knowledge determine what Being is. Being and the experience of Being are dependent on the medium of the experience of the world and of Being. If the medium of knowledge is language, then language is of course alpha and omega. In that case knowledge and Being will be one and the same, just as thinking and language. From the outset there was a tendency that ontology is dependent on the respective epistemic medium. With Sigmund Freud, writing can be described as the initial medium.1 Technology continues the work of writing as the medium of absence. Writing is a primal technology. It becomes obvious how already in the preSocratic philosophy a technology of the Being had been covered in the garment of language. Language was the first technology, the first tool of cognition. When Parmenides says “Thought and being is the same,” he simultaneously states that language and being are the same, and that furthermore technology and being are the same, because writing is a tool, a technology. With the progress of media, from writing to the electronic tools, a level of identity of epistemology and ontology has been achieved where a distinction is no longer possible. The formalization of thinking that could be noted down by logical and mathematical symbols started with Boolean algebra. In 1854, George Boole published An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on Which are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities. In this book he wanted to discover “those universal laws of thought which are the basis of all reasoning.” Boole proposed that logical propositions should be expressed by means of algebraic equations. Algebraic manipulation of the symbols in the equations would provide a fail-safe method of logical deduction. Thus logic is reduced to a type of algebra. In 1937, in his paper A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits Claude Shannon showed that the composition of combinatorial circuits and sequential circuits is a specification of Boolean algebra. The states of the switch that determine if electricity flows or doesn’t flow, 1

Sigmund Freud, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, Wien, 1930, S. 49.


namely if the switch is open or closed, are binary states. The states of switches in a switching composition can be defined as terms and operators of propositional calculus. Technical and mathematical elements are thus isomorphic. When the immaterial laws of thought (Boole) are identical with laws of material technologies (Shannon), then logic and Being are one and the same. When relay technology and switching operations can be described by logical terms and when the electromechanical construction methods follows mathematic logical rules, then not only thought and Being are one and the same but so too are technology and Being. That is exactly what the Church-Turing-Thesis (1931) argues: Everything that can be said can be formalized. Everything that can be formalized can be mechanized. Walter Pitts and Warren McCulloch’s A Logical Calculus of Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity2 (1943) was the fourth stage of the rocket, that catapulted technology into the digital orbit. The biological justification and embedding of the formalization of the thought process, the embodiment of mind, is the crucial operation in the switchover from ontology to technology that started with Boole and finds its temporary completion in the present-day digital revolution. In the analog world a plus ‘+’ was only a sign on paper. One wrote the signs and figures and mentally calculated a result, which one reported on paper as a character string. In the digital world a plus ‘+’ is not only a sign on a machine but at the same time a command for execution (the software) and the execution itself (the operation). The result is computed by the machine itself. Thus, signs are elements of an operative ontology. No longer do they only depict reality, they also produce it. Technology becomes an operative ontology. With that substitution of ontology by technology men become freed from nature, from evolution.

2

Walter Pitts, Warren McCulloch, „A Logical Calculus of Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity,“ Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics, Volume 5m, 1943, S. 115–133.


Ontology into Technology, by Peter Weibel