Descartes, Substrate Independence & Other Matters

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


March 5, 2013

Descartes, Substrate Independence & Other Matters

I waded into the digital dualism debate over a year ago and regretted it. The term is vague, it’s applied more or less indiscriminately, and my sense is that no one is really learning anything by continuing to debate it. It’s true that digital technologies are often spoken and written about using a metaphor that incorrectly implies that they are part of a separate universe, but I remain unconvinced that such a framing is anything more than a rhetorical trope.

This way of talking about technology is shared by people who’ve adopted a huge range of positions and beliefs, from Singularitarians to unrepentant Luddites. Maybe there’s something that we’re all missing by using this kind of language, as the critics of digital dualism never tire of repeating? Great! What is it then? Augmented reality is proposed as a more correct metaphor for framing humanity’s relationship with technologies, which may well (or may not) be true, but accepting it seems to have no impact on the discourse beyond forcing everyone to update their metaphors.

Almost every existing substantive opinion can be articulated without resorting to dualistic metaphors. We might have a touch less bombast and a few more caveats and qualifications in our debates about technology, and that might be a modest improvement, but nothing to lose a lot of sleep over.

Having said that, I very much appreciated Nicholas Carr’s contribution to the topic and Michael Sacasas’s response. Carr made some excellent points that I liked, and a few that I didn’t, like this one: “Wilderness existed before society gave us the idea of wilderness. Offline existed before online gave us the idea of offline.” (This reminded me of Latour, who has claimed that Ramses II couldn’t have died of tuberculosis because it hadn’t been invented yet. Latour is probably trolling us, saying something not so controversial but phrasing it to cause maximum outrage—I have no problem with this.)

Denying that offline precedes online is only to draw attention to how new technologies have retroactive effects, changing our perception of what has always been. And this goes as well for the dictum “We have always been cyborgs.” Possibly true, but even so we became always-cyborgs quite recently. Steve Jobs said “The future isn’t what it used to be.” But neither is the past.

On Carr’s blog, one comment in particular stood out to me as brilliant and hilarious. Replying to the idea that there’s no difference between letters, telegrams or facebook letters, Josh Wimmer says:

This old chestnut is one of my favorite arguments. “There’s no fundamental difference between walking and driving a car, except for how much more quickly and easily you can move things with a car, but it’s not like that changed the way we live at all.” A little like the guy who told me that “Information is just information,” but grew evasive when I asked if it would upset him to be notified of his girlfriend’s death by text message or singing telegram.

I remembered this point when Carr posted yesterday on Singularitarians and their apparent belief in Cartesian mind-body dualism. Some of the following points are paraphrased from what I originally wrote in the comments:

A key tenet of the Singularity is the theory of substrate independence. This is the view that the mind is not specifically dependent on the body, and can be understood in principle as a program that can run on other hardware—another substrate. The theory is perhaps the clearest expression of Cartesian dualism in Singularitarianism, and since adherents hope to one day upload themselves to a computer, it is obviously crucial.

Josh Wimmer’s joke about choosing to be notified of a death by text message or singing telegram came to my mind, and I realized that this is just another version of the same idea of substrate independence, where information is believed to be independent of the specific medium that carries it.

What’s most interesting to me is how the proponents of augmented reality traffic in this same Cartesianism even while they make vague gestures in the direction of rejecting it. They continually claim that a given aspect of humanity can’t be fundamentally affected by changes in the underlying technologies which mediate it — for example, that there can be no differences in moving from face-to-face interaction to Facebook interaction because these are essentially equivalent substrates. Paper is equivalent to e-ink; MOOCs are equivalent to in-person lectures; and on and on.

Although this is presented as destabilizing the tired Cartesian understanding of the mind, something much more subtle is going on. Our augmentists deny any deep differences among technologies or modes of communication, allegedly to avoid falling into the dualist trap. But in denying the differences between technologies, they implicitly support a kind of Cartesian substrate independence of the technology from whatever effect or purpose it has. Social life is independent of the specific substrate of telephone or social media; information is independent of the medium; and ultimately, mind is independent of the body.

To me, this is a much more compelling example of implied theoretical Cartesianism than observing that someone relies on common metaphors. Augmentists allege that critics who dismiss “online” interactions as inferior to “offline” interactions are guilty of Cartesianism. Let’s grant this, and then ask: of the two terms, which corresponds to “mind” and which to “body”? It is clear that cyberspace refers to the mind, while its opposite—”meatspace”— is the realm of the body. Then the hated critics reject the mind in favor of the body, which is a very strange kind of Cartesianism indeed.

One augmentist invoked Derrida’s concept of logocentrism to claim “Just as speech was privileged over the written word in ancient Greece, we tend to privilege the physical over the digital”—a pure example of postmodern bluffing if there ever was one. In all likelihood, this is total nonsense. In at least the first step towards deconstruction, Derrida would be much more likely to reverse the traditional hierarchy and instead prioritize the body over mind and the physical over the mental/digital.

The anti-digital dualists have a habit of writing this way, throwing around references to Descartes and Derrida without very much knowledge or concern for what they actually mean. It appears that at least one goal is to cynically link critics of digital media to privilege, racism, homophobia, patriarchy, etc., by making spurious and wrong-headed connections to the postmodern critique of logocentrism.

This is not serious work, and in my opinion, not worth engaging with. I hope to not have to come back to it.