Digital Hermeneutics
eBook - ePub

Digital Hermeneutics

Philosophical Investigations in New Media and Technologies

Alberto Romele

  1. 168 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Digital Hermeneutics

Philosophical Investigations in New Media and Technologies

Alberto Romele

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Informazioni sul libro

This is the first monograph to develop a hermeneutic approach to the digital—as both a technological milieu and a cultural phenomenon. While philosophical in its orientation, the book covers a wide body of literature across science and technology studies, media studies, digital humanities, digital sociology, cognitive science, and the study of artificial intelligence.

In the first part of the book, the author formulates an epistemological thesis according to which the "virtual never ended." Although the frontiers between the real and the virtual are certainly more porous today, they still exist and endure. In the book's second part, the author offers an ontological reflection on emerging digital technologies as "imaginative machines." He introduces the concept of emagination, arguing that human schematizations are always externalized into technologies, and that human imagination has its analog in the digital dynamics of articulation between databases and algorithms. The author takes an ethical and political stance in the concluding chapter. He resorts to the notion of "digital habitus " for claiming that within the digital we are repeatedly being reconducted to an oversimplified image and understanding of ourselves.

Digital Hermeneutics will be of interest to scholars across a wide range of disciplines, including those working on philosophy of technology, hermeneutics, science and technology studies, media studies, and the digital humanities.

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Part 1

The Virtual Never Ended


As I have said in the overture, among the mediators that exist between the subject and the world, hermeneutics has generally favored the language, while neglecting other mediators, and ignoring the materiality and the technicity of the multiple supports for transmitting meaning—starting from vocal expression (Cavarero 2005).
And yet I do not believe that one should underestimate the importance of language, both in the philosophy of technology and in the philosophy of the digital. Technologies are always embedded into systems of signs and symbols that mediate their understanding and uses, individually and socially. In this case, one can talk of technical or sociotechnical imaginaries such as those analyzed in Jasanoff and Kim (2015). In a recent article, Johnathan Grey presented “data worlds” as horizons of intelligibility. According to him (2018, np), “[j]ust as industrial technologies of the past were accompanied by new social, cultural and political imaginaries, so we can trace the ascent of ‘data imaginaries’ and ‘data speak’: visions and rhetoric concerning the role of data in society.” Taine Bucher (2017) has introduced the concept of “algorithmic imaginaries,” that is, the ways of talking about what algorithms are, how they function and how they should be. For the author, such an imaginary has a generative role in molding the algorithms themselves. After more than twenty years of empirical turn in philosophy of technology, it is now time to readmit what has been brutally defenestrated in the past.
But even while remaining within the limits of the empirical turn, as it will mostly be the case in this book, the digital is deeply concerned with language, because in the digital everything (sounds, images, et cetera) is translated into writing or, to be more precise, ‘transcoded.’ As previously said, the specificity of this writing and its symbols is to be both representative and performative, readable (after a certain amount of training) by a human being and executable by a machine. As the French philosopher and computer scientist Bruno Bachimont has stated (2010, 153), information and communications technologies have determined a hybridization between writing systems (intellectual technologies) and production systems (material technologies): the articulation between an expertise about expression, contents’ transmission and their consultation, and an expertise about the transformation of the matter. Cybernetics allowed us to understand the physical systems in terms of information; Hilbert’s formalism helped us to grasp expression and representation as techniques of formal manipulation, thus making possible informatics and algorithmics. Incidentally, to readmit the language in philosophy of technology does not mean to return to the idea of a radical difference between signs and technologies, which would be a specific declination of the even older distinction between spirit and matter. The difference between signs and technologies is not ontological, but entirely material and technological: “The symbolic polimorphism is a particular material politechnology” (Hottois 2017, 95). It is precisely for this reason that, I believe, hermeneutics still has a role to play in understanding the digital. As I have already argued, digital technologies are hermeneutic in the sense of the hermeneutic relations described by Don Ihde (1990, 80–97), in which the technology offers a representation of the world that must be interpreted to access the world. This is the case, for example, with maps, thermometers, and flight instruments. This also holds true of digital technologies, which offer representations of the world that are interpreted by a human, a non-human, or, as it is most often the case, by a combination of both.
However, digital technologies are hermeneutic technologies of a specific kind since they seem to have the capacity of minimizing the distance between the world and its representations. To put it differently, the digital might be seen as the technological ensemble that has the power (and the pretention) to undo the gap between the “map” and the “territory.” I am referring to the famous short text by Jorge Luis Borges “On the Exactitude of Science,” attributed to the fictional author Suárez Miranda:
In that empire, the art of cartography attained such perfection that the map of a single province occupied the entirety of a city, and the map of the empire, the entirety of a province. In time, those unconscionable maps no longer satisfied, and the cartographers guilds struck a map of the empire whose size was that of the empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following generations, who were not so fond of the study of cartography as their forebears had been, saw that that vast map was useless, and not without some pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the inclemencies of sun and winters. In the deserts of the West, still today, there are tattered ruins of that map, inhabited by animals and beggars; in all the land there is no other relic of the disciplines of geography.1
Less famous is probably a text by Umberto Eco (1994), in which he takes seriously Borges’s story. For him, to have a map of the empire on a scale 1 to 1, it would be necessary that the map (1) not be transparent, or (2) not lie on the territory, or (3) be adjustable in such a way that the reference points of the map lie on points of the territory that are not the ones they indicate. But each of these three conditions involves insuperable practical difficulties and theoretical paradoxes. For instance, from a practical point of view, he shows the limits of different solutions such as an “opaque map spread out over the territory,” a “suspended map,” and a “transparent map, permeable, extended, and adjustable.”
The digital seems precisely to be able to overcome most of these difficulties, firstly, because there is a high degree of dematerialization. Although the digital is undoubtedly not merely spiritual, it is evident that its material substructures or infrastructures are less bulky than those that would be necessary to have the same results on printed paper. To use one of Eco’s images, one could say that for the digital there is still a vast desert, whose limits have not been explored or seen yet, where the map can be fold and unfold at will. Secondly, there is the high information resolution. As I will argue in the following pages, what most characterizes the digital today is not information and communication, but registration and recording. Digital traceability has become “a total social fact.” There is no aspect of reality that cannot not be digitalized; this is also because the digital is pure calculation and manipulation. According to Bachimont (2010, 155–156), the digital has two main properties: (1) a twofold independence of its signs from sense and meaning—they are defined independently of each other, and they have no specific signification, and (2) the fact that the rules of manipulation of signs are formal and mechanical. Recently, he has also spoken of computer science as “a spiritual asceticism of meaning”: “A difficult exercise for us human beings, who are above all semiotic animals that approach what surrounds us by its significance, as a message that we must interpret since the world is not merely reduced to what is shown here and now” (23). Thirdly, one could argue that no matter how big the map is, our perceptive and cognitive capacities are limited. And yet, the digital offers also several instruments to render such vastness and complexity graspable for us, for instance, data visualization techniques. Also, web browsers, news aggregators, et cetera, are tools the digital offers to make itself more bearable to us.
The thesis I would like to defend in this part of the book is that the frontiers between the territory and the map, between the reality and its digital representations, are now more porous, but they exist and still resist. In other words, my thesis is that ‘the virtual never ended,’ an expression which is a tribute to Philip K. Dick and his idea that the Roman Empire never came to an end. Between 1974 until his death in 1982, the American writer kept a journal, the Exegesis, in which he documented and reflected on his religious and visionary experiences (a volume of excerpts of 944 pages has been published in 2011). One of the recurrent themes of Exegesis (which is also at the center of Dick’s novel VALIS) is that history has stopped in the first century CE and that “the Empire never ended.” The Roman empire is keeping the population enslaved, and its apparent demise plays a fundamental role in its continuous flourishing.
The notions of virtual and virtuality used to indicate a “spaceless space,” that is a dimension separated from real life and its physical and social constraints. According to several digital pioneers, people could experiment with new interactions and configurations of oneself in the virtual without much risk. Such experimentations could even have empowering effects “IRL, in real life.”2 Today, nobody in the field of digital studies would dare to resort to this old-fashioned concept. And yet, what if the virtual was still there and most scholars were duped, victims of an illusion or, to be less drastic, of a dominant digital worldview? And what if part of the power and fascination of the digital was precisely coming from this concealment?
Hermeneutics and, more specifically, the hermeneutic dialectics between distanciation and appropriation can be used just to defend this thesis. The problem is that hermeneutics is not particularly liked by many: too ‘soft’ to be admitted among the philosophies of substance, but still too ‘hard’ to be part of the philosophies of becoming. It is precisely because of its mixed nature that hermeneutics has not been able to find space of its own in the contemporary debate on the digital, with a few exceptions that I am going to discuss. Indeed, if the Internet, the digital technology par excellence, is a network of networks, why should one use a theory that has undoubtedly given importance to relations, though not enough? It is easy to understand why today one prefers to approach the digital through postmodern thinking rather than through authors such as Ricoeur, Gadamer, or Heidegger—who also accused, in his 1962 conference “Traditional Language and Technological Language” (1998), information cybernetics to be the most violent and dangerous aggression against the logos. It is also understandable that one favors fluid conceptualities rather than the mechanical terminology of hermeneutics, because eventually the hermeneutic circle remains a gearing, entangling as much as maintaining distinctions.
As I have said in the overture, while Gadamer mostly perceived distanciation negatively, as a form of alienation and estrangement from the object of interpretation, Ricoeur understood it positively, as a counterbalance to the too quick appropriation and “fusion of horizons.” For the French philosopher, distanciation is the middle term between an immediate and a more reasoned form of appropriation. On the one hand, distanciation indicates the ‘cold’ (or let’s say ‘scientific’ and ‘hard’) methodologies that an interpreter might use to approach her research object. On the other hand, it is used to stress the independence of this object, mostly a text, from the intentions of its author and reader, observer, et cetera. While referring to methodologies for understanding texts, Ricoeur was thinking of semiotics and linguistic structuralism. Today, digital humanities and methods have a prominent role. But what interests me most here is that digital technologies are always based on a process of symbolic distanciation from the world, and it is only on this basis that they appropriate the entire world and become effective into it. Those who believe in ‘the end of the virtual’ are victims of an illusion of transparency. And it is precisely the often-invisible hermeneutic dynamics of distanciation and appropriation of the digital that makes room for interpretation in the digital. In other words, it is because the digital is structurally based on a performative distanciation from the world that the digital cannot realize its aspiration of being the world, but rather continues to need the world as its interlocutor and as its ‘otherness.’


1. Accessed June 10, 2019.
2. In the literature dedicated to online environments between the 1980s and 1990s, the term “virtual” indicated, more or less implicitly, three things at once: firstly, a “spaceless space,” as Manuel Castells defined it. Secondly, the virtual was viewed as an opportunity to experience new possibilities, options, and actions without the risks of “true life.” This second meaning is closer to the etymology of the word. Indeed, “virtual” comes from the Latin virtus/virtualis, a direct translation of the Greek term dynamis, which can be transcribed as “ability,” “potentiality,” or “power.” In his commentary to the beginning of the ninth book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Heidegger (1995) translated dynamis with Kraft, “force” in English, as well as Vermögen, a word which means “ability” but also “capacity” and “capability.” As such, the virtual is not opposed to the real, but rather to the actual—actus is the Latin translation of energeia. And this is precisely the third meaning of the term: virtual as individual and social empowerment.


———. 2010. Le sens de la technique: le numérique et le calcul. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
Bucher. T. 2017. “The Algorithmic Imaginary: Exploring the Ordinary Affects of Facebook Algorithm.” Information, Communication & Society 20(1): 30–44.
Cavarero, A. 2005. For More than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Eco, U. 1994. “On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale 1 to 1.” In How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays. San Diego: Harcourt, 95–106.
Grey, J. 2018. “Three Aspects of Data Worlds.” Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy. Accessed June 1, 2019.
Heidegger, M. 1998. “Traditional Language and Technological Language.” Journal of Philosophical Research 23: 129–145.
———. 1995. Aristotle’s Metaphysics 9, 1–3. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hottois, G. 2017. Philosophie et ideologies trans/posthumanistes. Paris: Vrin.
Ihde, D. 1990. Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Jasanoff, S., and Kim, S-H. 2015. Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

1 The Virtual Invaded the Real

In this first chapter, I will take a position against those who more or less explicitly defended the idea according to which ‘the virtual invaded the real.’ I refer to the theorists who somehow believe in the total digitalization of our human condition in the present or next future. I could have criticized transhumanism. I could have chosen, for instance, the easy path of an analysis of the problematic notion of singularity in its different meanings. But I have decided to tread a harder path and to deal with Luciano Floridi’s semantic theory of information (STI). In some sense, my approach to the digital wants to be a hermeneutic reply to such a theory. In other words, my approach is the communicational counterpart of the informational approach to the digital. Although it is certainly more complex and philosophically convincing, I have the impression that some ethical and ontological consequences of Floridi’s theory of information entertain more than a few resemblances with the transhumanist suppositions about the present situation and the destiny of the humankind. I would like to introduce now the debate by making a few remarks on the notion of information in general to justify the importance I attribute to Floridi’s approach in this context.
The term “information” derives from the Latin informatio, which has two meanings: “the action of giving shape to something material” and “the action of communicating knowledge to another person.” The prefix in- indicates the fact that we are dealing with an action that consists in giving form or knowing it and/or making it known. The link with the Platonic and above all Aristotelian notion of form, which has both an ontological and epistemological significance, is ev...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Series
  4. Title
  5. Copyright
  6. Contents
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. Overture: The Idealism of Matter
  9. Part 1 The Virtual Never Ended
  10. Part 2 Emagination
  11. Finale: The Indifferent Ones
  12. Index