University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
336 pages, 21 b&w illustrations
It is difficult to imagine Yuk Hui’s On the Existence of Digital Objects being written by another author. This is not because the subject matter or questions asked are not of interest to many in the field of digital and media theory, far from it. It is rather that it is hard to identify another scholar who would possess the requisite background, an impressively thorough understanding of computer science and both continental and analytical philosophy, to approach the topic as Hui has done in the pages of his first book. Hui’s investigation of the fundamental nature of the digital objects that have become such a ubiquitous element of our daily experience engages with equal adeptness the theories of computer and information science developed by figures such as Brian Cantwell Smith and Tim Berners-Lee, the philosophy of technology explored by Martin Heidegger and Gilbert Simondon, and a wider history of thought from Kant to Hegel to Husserl. The book suggest that it is only by bringing these distinct forms of disciplinary knowledge together, uncovering what Hui identifies as “a reciprocal relation between computation and philosophy” (3), that we may begin to understand both the system of logic that underpins contemporary digital objects and the ontological and political stakes involved in determining how to live amongst them.
Hui clarifies that the kind of digital objects he is addressing are the data and metadata composed objects we encounter on the Web – the online videos, images and text files that make up our experiences on Facebook, YouTube and other online platforms. While it could be argued that this leaves out quite a lot of digital material (from hardware to operating systems), it does provide Hui’s study a useful specificity. Hui’s digital objects by definition “exist both on the screen, where we can interact with them, and in the back end, or inside the computer program” (2). They are, therefore, simultaneously human and machine-oriented and it is this dual status of existence that Hui attempts to adequately account for. Hui’s object focus, selective as it is, steers him away from any tendency to privilege or even fetishize the non-phenomenological or non-human nature of digital objects. He thus distinguishes himself from the object oriented philosophy of figures like Ian Bogost and Graham Harman (who emphasize the “alien phenomenology” of the technological black box or the withdrawal of objects from human understanding), exploring instead the network of relations that form between and around digital objects and humans. Following Simondon, Hui is seeking precisely a kind of “technological humanism” that would bring together two spheres of existence (culture and technics) that have become increasingly alienated from each other in the industrial and post-industrial age. The philosophical argument developed by Hui through the chapters of the book is an intricate one and it would be neither possible nor productive to fully summarize it in this short review. I would like instead to highlight several significant threads that run through On the Existence of Digital Objects, before concluding with a few questions perhaps still left unanswered by the text.
With English translations of Gilbert Simondon’s major works fast appearing, the importance and uniqueness of the French philosopher’s system of thought is being more extensively recognized. Hui’s book is one of the most compelling contemporary applications of Simondon’s methodology of “ontogenesis” yet available. While philosophers from Kant to Husserl have attempted to understand the existence of objects from the perspective of the “knowing mind,” Hui adopts Simondon’s reversal of perspective, seeking instead to account for “the object’s own existence and how its existence conditions the process of knowing and being itself” (11). He thus approaches digital objects as Simondon approached technical objects, by analyzing their own evolutionary processes of establishing causal relations between their internal elements and with their external milieu or environment. Simondon calls this relational process of gaining internal and external coherence the “concretization” or “individualization” of the technical object and Hui adopts a similar vocabulary.
In the first chapter of On the Existence of Digital Objects, Hui seeks to map a process of individualization occurring through the increasing relational complexity of markup programming languages, from GML to HTML, XML and the developing Semantic Web proposed by Berners-Lee and others. It is through the evolving protocols of coding languages that digital Web objects become increasingly meaningful to and legible by both human and machine. Hui explains how the pre-Web development of IBM’s Generalized Markup Language (GML) in the late 1960s initiated the standardized “tagging” of information in documents allowing applications to be “able to process the data as an object and parse useful information” (60). This important step in the genesis of digital objects through the development of new data organization schemas eventually leads on to the establishment of HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and its online system of meta-data tagging. Still in use to this day, HTML remains a relatively weak relational language from the point of view of computation. It distinguishes basic metadata forms such as titles, images and hyperlinks, while leaving the human-oriented content of Web objects unreadable by the machine. Hui traces the development of increasingly sophisticated languages such as eXtensible Markup Language (XML), which increase the diversity of object attributes and thus allow for a “greater ‘objectification’ of data” (67) from the perspective of machine readability. These developments lead in turn to Berners-Lee’s proposition of a truly Semantic Web in which “all objects are represented by standard ontologies” such that “not only do the objects have identities, but their components or predicates also have identities and are thus subject to control and manipulation” (68). Berners-Lee envisions a Web in which not just the forms of digital objects are legible by software agents, but also their semantic content (previously meaningful only to human readers), ushering in much more advanced forms of data processing and AI.
Understanding the evolving nature of digital objects is therefore for Hui dependent on appreciating their connection to a surrounding external “associated milieu” comprised of coding languages, databases and network protocols. He interprets the ontogenesis of digital objects as a gradual expansion of their relations to users, but also (and increasingly) to machine agents. Hui explains: “Throughout the concretization process from GML to web ontologies, a digital object can be described in a more and more detailed manner, at the same time establishing material connections over a broader milieu across platforms and interfaces” (69-70). If Web 2.0 ushered in a new age of human-digital object relationality, then the Web 3.0 of the Semantic Web promises a similarly revolutionary shift in terms of machine-oriented relations.
Interpreting digital objects from the perspective of their own internal dynamics of evaluation is, however, only a starting point for Hui’s investigation into the nature of their existence. Having established this technical understanding of their relational nature, Hui moves to a different “order of magnitude” and attempts to then analyse the embeddedness of digital objects in wider social, economic and psychological networks where “they take up the functions of maintaining emotions, atmospheres, collectivities, memories, and so on” (57). This is an attempt on Hui’s part to supplement Simondon’s notion of “individualization” with that of “individuation” (a concept the philosopher never himself applied to technical objects). Individuation is, according to Simondon, the process by which a metastable system reaches a new equilibrium through a “transductive” phase change into a different state of organization. Applying Simondon’s psychic and collective concept to considerations of technology, Hui devotes the remainder of the book to considering what forms of organization are taking shape through contemporary human and digital object relations and what potential still exists for alternative processes of individuation to occur.
In the chapters that follow Hui therefore attempts to complicate the foundational logic that underpins contemporary digital objects. One of the strengths of Hui’s approach is that he acknowledges the often shared terminology of computer science and philosophy, while carefully distinguishing the different perspectives and assumptions of the disciplines. He highlights, for example, the tension between the formal ontologies of computation and information sciences and Heidegger’s notion of fundamental Ontology. While the ontologies of meta-data schemas introduce standardized representations of knowledge that lend coherent structure to informational systems (allowing data to be organized within a formalized database, for example), Heidegger’s Ontology seeks instead a recognition of Being itself, a ground of existence prior to the epistemological categorization of individual beings. Heidegger suggests that our prioritization of ontologies over Ontology causes us to misconstrue the nature of things, always understanding objects through an imposed and limiting system of predication, rather than through their self-manifestation in the world. But Hui insists that the solution to this opposition cannot simply be the replacement of one mode of thought for another, some kind of straightforward move from categorical ontologies to the more fundamental ground of Ontology. He claims instead that it is precisely these formal ontologies and logic that provide digital objects with the ability to generate the relations that ultimately define them as objects. Furthermore, these forms of computational relation instantiated by such things as online systems of meta-data have substantially altered our own ways of relating to each other and our milieu. The technical nature of digital ontologies and formal logic is now therefore, according to Hui, inseparable from the question of Ontology as it relates to both humans and machines. He thus claims, “The concretization and materialization of relations give us a new mode of being-in-the-world” (142).
The goal according to Hui is less a Heideggerian one of moving outside the limitations of our technical system and more a Simondon inspired objective of finding a resolution from within by attaining a higher level of convergence between humanity and technicity. Hui calls these efforts a “reconstitution of reticulation,” involving the reconfiguration of our current network structures so that tendencies towards overdetermination and automation are effectively countered (185). As Simondon himself stated, “true technical progress might be considered as implying human progress if it has a network structure, whose mesh is human reality; but then it would no longer be solely an ensemble of objective concretizations” (in Hui 186). In an age of extensive and ubiquitous networked relations that Simondon could hardly have imagined, Hui suggests we must seek ways of building in a margin of indetermination and openness that resists the formal closure of computational ontologies. This would involve, according to Hui, a shift from the formal logic from which computational networks are derived to a transductive logic capable of disclosing different meaning structures. He explains, “We should be aware that the semantic web, including its architecture and the standards that it enforces, is only one way to organize digital objects: there are other organizations that we can imagine even within the technical system that we are in” (220).
The final chapter of the book, entitled “Logic and Time,” brings Hui closest to the thought of his mentor Bernard Stiegler (who provides a useful foreword to the volume). Building on Stiegler’s concept of “tertiary retention,” the exteriorization of memory through technical objects and systems, Hui develops his own theory of “tertiary protention,” the influence of technology on our experience and imagination of the future. Here Hui argues that the logic of computational relations (the algorithm being the central focus of this chapter) succeeds in patterning not only our structures of meaning, but also our structures of temporality. He writes, “The organization of digital objects through the standardization of data structures and the invention of algorithms is not simply what has fashionably been called the ‘organization of knowledge’ but is also the organization of time” (247). It is the processes of algorithmic analysis, Hui explains, that transforms digital objects from the status of being mere retentions to that of active data mobilized within a system of anticipation and prediction, leading us towards particular normative futures. Here Hui has in mind the pre-determining effects of such technological tendencies as online user profiling, targeted recommendations and marketing analytics. Bringing Heidegger’s thought back into the frame, Hui claims that this algorithmic synthesis of time is a particular “making-present” of the future that could potentially block the imagination’s access to a more meaningful relation with temporality. Algorithmic synthesis thus stands in for our own organic processes of “orientating” ourselves within the world and “threatens to replace care structures (both individual and collective) with the machine form of ‘care’” (248).
Hui concludes by briefly introducing a realized project (worked on in collaboration with Stiegler and Harry Halpin at the Institut de Recherche et d’Innovation) that attempts to address some of the problems of relation outlined in the book. The project described by Hui involves the development of an alternative social network to Facebook, one he claims is directly inspired by Simondon’s concept of collective individuation. Unlike Facebook’s atomizing focus on already existing relationships, individual status updates and targetted advertisements, Hui’s social network prioritizes the formation of new groups and facilitates collaborative work on shared projects. The typical online network of distraction and data extraction is re-oriented towards meaningful attention to collective forms of creation. “In the projection of a project,” Hui claims, “we are already ensconced in the questions of care . . . that reorganizes the structure of time in favor of its own integrity” (251). The book thus ends, fittingly enough, with an example of a project that promises to generate a rearrangement of the standard organization of online relations and produce an alternative form of convergence between humans and technology.
With its detailed forays into a multiplicity of nuanced philosophical debates, On the Existence of Digital Objects is a demanding read, but it is also an extremely rewarding one. As mentioned at the outset of this review, there are a great many things in simultaneous motion within these pages: technical descriptions of programming languages, debates within computer science, histories of logic and mathematics, genealogies of philosophical concepts. In delving into each of these discussions, Hui demonstrates an impressive degree of theoretical care and precision. Given this level of philosophical rigour, one feels Hui has earned the right to speculate more often that he does on the social, material and political implications of his developing theory of relation. While the underlying logical and ontological structures of digital objects are masterfully established, descriptions of particular objects, their everyday usage and social context, appear relatively infrequently within the book (the first chapter being perhaps an exception). The compelling account of Hui’s alternative social networking project, for example, is provided just a few paragraphs and would certainly seem to merit a longer engagement. There is a sense that Hui’s admirable commitment to philosophical exactitude sometimes comes at the cost of overshadowing the wordly existence of the objects themselves. When Hui does allow himself to comment more freely on specific materializations and practices of digital culture (from online surveillance to platform capitalism), these passages are original and insightful. As a result of remaining primarily within a philosophical register, Hui’s promise of developing a “political agenda of individuation” feels perhaps only partly realized in this particular volume (33).
Yet On the Existence of Digital Objects presents a rich system of thought that is far from exhausted in these chapters alone. Hui successfully delineates a philosophical path for considering human beings as always and necessarily technical beings while avoiding both the alarmist and celebratory tendencies of much contemporary theorizing of the post-human condition. With this book Hui has established himself as a formidable young digital scholar and he will undoubtedly continue to draw from this substantial conceptual foundation for many years to come. And indeed he is already addressing some of the aforementioned political concerns more explicitly in his recent writings. His second book The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics provides a direct confrontation with the many dilemmas of technological globalization and a substantial critique of both conservative reactionary movements and overly enthusiastic affirmations of digital acceleration or “sinofuturism.” The strength of Hui’s thought is precisely in his refusal to accept the simplification of these false polarities. He maintains crucial commitments to mitigating the opposition of culture and technics and to re-orienting, rather than rejecting the relational power of contemporary digital networks. In On the Existence of Digital Objects Hui provides significant philosophical ground for establishing the form of technological humanism he insists our current situation requires and I look forward to following the next phases of this evolving transductive project.
Hui, Yuk. 2016. The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics. Falmouth, Urbanomic.