We had a book launch at c:o/re, as Ulrik Langen and Frederik Stjernfelt‘s book The World’s First Full Press Freedom: The Radical Experiment of Denmark-Norway 1770-1773 is being published this week. Frederik Stjernfelt gave a thorough presentation of the book on 25.05.2022. This was a particularly appropriate date for a discussion on press freedom as, on the same day, in Aachen, there took place the ceremony of conferring the International Charlemagne Prize to the leading Belarusian political activists Maria Kalesnikava, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veronica Tsepkalo, who lead the fight for democracy in Belarus.
This is an adaptation for international audiences of their previous book written in Danish, also together with Henrik Horstbøll, comprising two volumes, Grov Konfækt. Tre vilde år med trykkefrihed, 1770-73. To address an international audience, Ulrik Lange and Frederik Stjernfelt both reduced the size of the initial text and, also, approached some new topics, to do with the international reactions to the episode of the history of Denmark-Norway (The Oldenburg Monarchy) that the book discusses.
The book offers a historical investigation of the interesting episode in the history of Denmark-Norway when Press Freedom was introduced by the German Radical Enlightener J.F. Struensee, who was hired in 1768 to take care of the mental health of King Christian VII. Struensee became the King’s favourite and achieved political power, backed also by a small group of reform-oriented top officers. This allowed Struensee, for a brief 16-months period, to effectively be dictator of Denmark-Norway and, as such, to introduce close to 2000 pieces of new legislation, many of them with Radical Enlightenment inspirations.
In this context, the book zooms in on the implications of and reactions to the law of 14 September 1770 that stated that censorship is abolished in order to facilitate the ”Impartial Investigation of Truth”, to go against ”Fallacies and Prejudices of earlier Times”, and to ”attack Abuse and reveal Prejudices”. This was an Enlightenment ideal. Struensee could not have foreseen, probably, the many types of social implications of absolute press freedom. He was, eventually, ousted and executed by coup-makers in the middle of the Press Freedom period.
Showing simultaneously how press freedom is crucial for democracy and human rights and how it is also dangerous, the exploration of this historically first case of full press freedom is highly relevant for contemporary debates on freedom of expression online and post-truth attitudes. The detailed investigation that the book offers relies on an impressive categorisation of about 1000 pamphlets published during this press freedom period.
As the first book on the matter, in Danish, covers in great detail the events in Denmark-Norway of this historical episode, the new English adaptation also compares the Copenhagen pamphlet storm of 1770 with the pamphlet storms that took place in Vienna in 1781 and in Paris in 1788.
The authors explain that, in all three cases, Enlighteners introducing Press Freedom were disappointed with the result. The population hardly became more moral and enlightened, but rather used freedom to split into warring factions, to print and buy cheap entertainment, libel and obscenities. Also, in all three cases, an immediate explosion of prints waned over a number of years, finally to be restricted again by different means, such as post-print censorship, prohibition of anonymity, signal cases, taxation, licensing requirements, among others. However, very importantly, all three cases made clear the modern consequences of Press Freedom as it would spread in Western democratic constitutions through the 19th Century.
The book draws many relevant conclusions on freedom of speech in general. As particularly relevant for contemporary issues, the book argues that press freedom is not natural, nor automatic. There is always a pretext to curtail it, and every government may find reasons to do so.
Press freedom is unpredictable and cna involve many types of of drawbacks, such as libel, threats, calls for sedition, fake news. To this day, (full) press freedom is contested: there is no agreement about its limits. Press freedom creates a public sphere, drawing people to consider political options and to conceive themselves as political subjects.
Summarising, the book highlights the importance of accepting conflict as part and parcel of the democratic process and the pursuit of human rights. Press freedom is instrumental in this regard, as it connects to a conflictual view of society: there are and always will be different social strata, different political positions, different interest groups, different power centers and their conflict is better waged in the open.
At his talk, part of the Philosophy of AI: Optimistic and Pessimistic Views, Professor Kim Guldstrand Larsen reflected on how far (or near) are we from developing fully autonomous cars. This is a priority challenge for explainable and verifiable machine learning. The question is not easy to answer directly. One certainty, though, is that the answer lies in the cooperation, or lack thereof, between academia and political agents (municipalities). The mediating agent, which, none of these two seem to favour, stems from industry: what can commercial companies deliver to improve traffic? Companies seem to speak both the language of research and of politics. How much will we smartify traffic in the next, say, 10 years? The question translates, as Professor Ana Bazzan asked simply, “What will companies do”?
What companies do, in this regard, will impact not only policy but also academia. Success in delivering smart solutions for traffic is expected to guide curriculum development in computer science programs. For example, the commerical solutions will focus teaching on either neural networks, Bayesian networks or automata based models.
Getting the Measure of Humanity: or, Taking ‘Life is a Work of Art’ Literally
What it means to be ‘human’ and whether the human must be the measure of all minds inevitably returns us to Kant. Kant himself was drawn to the concept of ‘judgement’, which he interpreted in terms of the then-emerging science of ‘aesthetics’. Aesthetics positioned the human as a being called to integrate diverse and often contradictory sensory inputs into a coherent whole in the name of ‘autonomy’, which is in turn exercised through judgement, which of course is also informed by reason. What modern philosophy calls ‘epistemology’ and ‘ethics’ reflects Kant’s view that human judgement forms two rather different but coexistent wholes as part of its ‘worldview’, another term from the aesthetic lexicon. The trajectory out of Kant to the German idealists, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche was largely about trying to achieve a higher, more synthetic aesthetic vision of the world, which typically involved what Nietzsche called a ‘transvaluation’ of the way we see the world from either a strictly epistemological or ethical standpoint.
Nietzsche’s somewhat ironic conclusion, already intimated in Kant, is that such a transvaluation would supplant the human with some other kind of being, which we nowadays might call ‘transhuman’ or ‘posthuman’. In effect, the sense of ‘judgement’ that defines the human for Nietzsche is not focused externally on the ultimate cosmic order but internally on the endless, perhaps even Sisyphean task of managing – if not reconciling – what we know and what we want. In this respect, Nietzsche continues to secularize Kant’s original theologically inspired vision of humans as fallen creatures. From this standpoint, the act of passing judgement on another’s humanity – as in the Turing Test – poses a challenge. It is outward looking but it treats the larger world – or more precisely, a candidate alien being – as a canvas on which to project the human; yet the human remains itself a bundle of contradictions, not a template that can simply be imposed.
Recent aesthetic theory offers an interesting angle on this dilemma. Nelson Goodman famously proposed that art may be divided into those works that can be forged (because they constitute a unique completed object) and those that cannot be forged (because they can be completed in many ways). He had in mind the distinction between a painting or sculpture, on the one hand, and a musical score or dramatic script, on the other. Against this intuition, Arthur Danto proposed imagining that two artists generate paintings that appear the same to the observer but one used Rembrandt’s method and the other Jackson Pollock’s. Goodman might claim that subtle differences between the two paintings could always be found, based on which one painting might be judged superior and the other perhaps a forgery. However, Danto argues that Goodman’s judgement would probably be based on suspecting that the two paintings had been produced at different times and by different means. For Danto, if you like one, you should like the other. If anything, knowing that they were produced differently should enhance not detract from your aesthetic experience. The Pollock might even be valued more, given the prior improbability of its result.
Danto’s point was designed to undermine the idea of forgery. For him, unlike Goodman, an aesthetic judgement involves treating not only the future but also the past of a candidate work ‘performatively’. Just as we potentially learn something new about music or drama with each new performance, the same applies to our unlearning ideas about the ‘unique craftsmanship’ of a painting or sculpture upon realizing that it can be (and could have been) brought about differently. This sense of temporal symmetry dissolves Goodman’s original distinction. Of course, aesthetic judgement then gets more squarely placed on the shoulders of the judge – and in that sense, becomes more ‘subjective’. Indeed, Danto’s championing of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box as art led many critics to claim that Danto dissolves the concept of art altogether.
Now applying Danto to Turing, does entertaining a comparably free — ‘morphologically free’, if you will — conception of the human undermine the very concept of humanity? Nietzsche believed that it might but remained agnostic about the consequences – and he was thinking only about how Homo sapiens might be transformed in the future. But why could we not also, á la Danto, discover ‘humans’ who never were Homo sapiens? Moreover, a practical question is attached to the idea of a morphologically free ‘human’. Is a more open conception of what passes as human sustainable in a world with finite resources in many different senses? Kant’s ideal of ‘cosmopolitanism’ suggested an indefinitely expanding circle of humanity, which he associated with collective self-improvement through sustained interaction with ‘alien’ others. Without denying the attractiveness of this ideal, its realizability remains an empirically open question, as non-stereotypically candidate ‘humans’ come forward for recognition.
Danto, A. (1974). ‘The Transfiguration of the Commonplace’. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 33(2): 139-148.
Featured Image: Le Penseur by Rodin, CC BY SA.
Proposed citation: Fuller, Steve. 2022. Getting the Measure of Humanity: Or, Taking ‘Life is a Work of Art’ Literally, https://khk.rwth-aachen.de/2022/05/10/3243/3243/
Last semester in our Lecture Series, our Fellow Joffrey Becker gave a talk on Humans, Machines, and Anthropology of Cybernetic Pracitces where he also screened parts of a visual ethnography study that he conducted at a dairy farm. At the upcoming conference “Anthropology, AI and the Future of Human Society”, organized by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Joffrey will dive deeper into the routines of a robotic dairy farm from an anthropological point of view. Tune in to this virtual event on June, 6th to 10th, 2022 if you want to learn more about what Anthropologists think about the Future of Human-Machine interactions.
Part of the c:or/e Philosophy of AI: Optimis and Pessimist Views, Jean Lassègue’s talk showed that (digital) literacy is intrinsic to digital justice. His minute comparison of the modern notion of justice and what digital justice may be suggests that, aside many compatibilities and ways in which digital technology can help juridic processes, there is one point of divergence. Namely, this is the despatialization implied by digitalization. In appearance, digital media takes human societies onto despatialized virtual media. However, through an encompassing and thoughtful historical investigation, Jean Lassègue traces the long (cultural) process of despatialization all the way to the emergence of the alphabet as a dominating means of social representation in the West. The alphabet is the beginning of the social practice of “scanning”, eventually fostering computation. In light of this long historical process, questions on digital justice invite the problematization of digital literacy, spatialization and, we would add, embodiment.
As part of the Philosophy of AI: Optimist and Pessimist Views c:o/re lecture series, Ana Bazzan delivered a very rich talk on “Traffic as a Socio-Technical System: Opportunities for AI“. It is beyond the scope of this entry to cover all arguments advanced in this talk. Here, we reflect on one matter that we find particularly interesting and inspiring. Namely, two interrelated central ideas in this talk are human-centredness in engineering and the network structuring of human societies. Ana Bazzan’s work contributes to understanding newly emerging social networks, in their many dimensions, and to usher the smart city by engineering and designing traffic as a socio-technical system.
Ana Bazzan highlighted the importance of mobility for equality, in many senses of these two words. Simplifying, a transportation system that facilitates mobility is congruent with democratic and transparent institutions. This realization comes from a user experience manner of thinking or, more broadly, placing the human at the centre of engineering. Stating that traffic and, in general, engineering “should be about the people”, Ana Bazzan further asked: “How to mitigate traffic problems by means of human-centered modeling, simulation, and control?” This question echoes the rationale of the environmental humanities, as posited by Sverker Sörlin (2012: 788), that “We cannot dream of sustainability unless we start to pay more attention to the human agents of the planetary pressure that environmental experts are masters at measuring but that they seem unable to prevent.” It is highly insightful that many sciences find ways for progress by reflecting on human matters. It may pass unnoticed, as a detail, but very different problematizations stem from thinking of either technical or socio-technical solutions for, say, traffic. The endeavour of engineering solutions in awareness of social and cultural context is typical of “the creative economy”, being ripe with a creative conflict, as emerging from “where culture clashes most noisily with economics.” (Hartley 2015, p. 80)
In this interrogation, Ana Bazzan referred to Wellington’s argument that we are now in a century of cities, as opposed to the last century, which was a century of nation states. Indeed, research from various angles shows that digitalization transcends the borders, as imagined through print (Anderson 2006 ), of nation-states. In a similar vein, defining industrial revolutions as the merging of energy resources with communication systems, Jeremy Rifkin (2011) argues that to achieve sustainability, it is necessary to merge renewable energy grids with digital communication networks. This would result in overcoming the dependence on the merger of motorways, powered by fossil fuels, and broadcasting.
Particularly through reinforced learning, digital technology and AI are the instruments of the transition towards smart cities. Smart cities do not merely span over a geographical territory but are better identified as (social) networks. They are incarnate in traffic. Ana Bazzan also insists that broadcasting the same information about traffic to all participants to traffic is not useful. Drivers exhibit a rational behavior, according to pragmatic purposes. More than simply targeting pragmatically useful information to specific drivers, a smart traffic system or, better, a smart city is constituted by multiagent systems, not a centralized and unidirectional top-down transmission of information. As such, while not broadcasting uniformly, this approach is, actually, anti-individualistic. It makes evident the benefits, particularly, the cumulative rewards, of seeking solutions in light of people’s shared and concrete necessities. To apprehend these networks and serve the needs of their actants, Ana Bazzan advocates a decentralized, bottom-up approach. Indeed, this is a characteristic of ‘network thinking’ (Hartley 2015). The resulting networks render obsolete previously imagined community boundaries, revealing, instead, the real problems of people as they find themselves in socioeconomic contexts. The city is these networks and it becomes according to how they are engineered.
Anderson, Benedict. 2006 . Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.
Hartley, John. Urban semiosis: Creative industries and the clash of systems.
Rifkin, Jeremy. 2011. The Third Industrial Revolution: How lateral power is transforming energy, the economy, and the world. New York: Pallgrave Macmillan.
Sörlin, Sverker. 2012. Environmental humanities: why should biologists interested in the environment take the humanities seriously? BioScience 62(9): 788-789.
We are grateful for Professor Nico Stehr‘s visit at c:or/e during April 2022. It was a pleasure and most interesting to have with us a pioneer of the “knowledge society”, who has been at the forefront of research on culture, society and sustainability for many decades and, as such, is a defining figure for this disciplinary intersection. In an excellent talk titled “Competition among forms of knowledge or the limits of the power of scientific knowledge”, Professor Nico Stehr introduced the breadth and depth of his notion of knowledge as capacity for action. By construing knowledge as model both of and for reality, Nico Stehr offered a timely reflection on the relation between representation, interpretation and factuality. Surely, his work will remain essential to STS, as well as to other akin areas of research.
Very kindly, Professor Nico Stehr donated some of his books to our library. This collection of books is a glimpse of his scholarly legacy.
The immediately obvious insight that the Enlightenment now workshop, organized by Frederik Stjernfelt and Steve Fuller at c:o/re (21.04.2022), provided is that the Enlightenment was as complex and historically eclectic as its approaches in intellectual history are. Not only was consensus difficult to find in the rich discussions that the workshop generated, but it felt that each talk was a world of its own. Yet, at the same time, all speakers discussed the Enlightenment in a distinctively recognizable way. Frederik Stjernfelt historically unfurled the first case of full press freedom. Jonathan Israel scholarly discussed Spinoza’s role in ushering the Enlightenment. Observing two contrasted tendencies in the long history of Western philosophy, Rens Bod remarked that “the exceptional can not exist without patterns”. Steve Fuller shared his ideas for understanding modernity by writing theatre plays. Pondering on the contemporary social conditions, Cheryce von Xylander observed that a common interest of these approaches on the Enlightenment is how cognition is imagined.
An uninterrupted thread that the workshop arguable followed is the concern of the Enlightenment to ‘fix’ how it upset the assumptions of Western metaphysics. Why, though? It seems that to this day, cultural taboos still bear on what philosophical and scientific inquiry can (or rather, may) pursue unhindered, without upsetting public opinions. “In Denmark they call me a free speech fundamentalist,” said Frederik Stjernfelt, while also remarking that free press does not come with benefits only, as we can clearly see in post-truth attitudes.
Today’s c:o/re workshop on Interdisciplinary Research in Robotics and AI, organized by Joffrey Becker, insightfully showcased the mutual relevance between scientific and market research, particularly in the concern of design. It convincingly posited that materiality and physical properties are intrinsic to learning. The talks by Samuel Bianchini, Hugo Scurto and Elena Tosi Brandi showed that learning is a matter of designing. We do not make stuff out of nothing. Elena Tosi Brandi explained that “when you design behaviors, you have to put an object in an environment, a context.” Humans appear to notice this by interacting with robots. For example, machine learning processes offer opportunities for humans to reflect on their own learning. Animated (digital) objects acting independently from humans and thus, arguably, having agency, in so many words, make us wonder. Observing relations between software, bodies and non-organic matter places humans in a new position to understand how materiality is intrinsic to knowledge. Director of c:o/re, Stefan Böschen noted that experimental research on robotics is often open-ended, aiming to stimulate innovation in a “what may be” interrogation. To this, Hugo Scurto shared that for him “it is a privilege to be able to do research in a messy way”
The consideration of the epistemic qualities of material properties urges the reconsideration of Western modern philosophy, which we shall dive into in tomorrow’s workshop, Enlightenment Now, hosted by Steve Fuller and Frederik Stjernfelt. As Steve Fuller already remarked, listening to Elena Tosi Brandi’s work on design, it is possible “that machines and humans might both improve their autonomy through increased interaction. But this will depend on both machines and humans being able to learn in a sufficiently ‘free’ way, regardless of what that means.” If Hume woke up Kant from the dogmatic slumber, it seems that robots can wake us up some more.
Joffrey Becker and c:o/re RWTH Aachen University are hosting this workshop on April 20th 2022
Interdisciplinary Research in Robotics and AI
This workshop addresses interaction design by focusing on the notion of Behavioral Objects. Based on robotics and artificial intelligence, these non-anthropomorphic, non-zoomorphic objects are endowed with capacities for expressive movement, actions and reactions and are also able to elicit observers’ behavioral interpretations (intentional and emotional attributions). They are therefore of interest to many fields of research like social sciences, humanities, robotics, computer sciences, art and design. The workshop will address the interdisciplinary framework opened by Behavioral Objects and the experimental perspective that brings together and combines these disciplines.
To take part online, please register with events[at]khk.rwth-aachen.de
The Apprentices: Objects with Interacting Behaviours
Samuel Bianchini (Reflective Interaction Research Group/EndsadLab, École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, PSL University), Elena Tosi Brandi (Xdlab/Art Directions Nods, Orange), Hugo Scurto (Inserm-Sorbonne Université and ISIR, CNRS Sorbonne-Université and Reflective Interaction Research Group)
The Appprentices is a design research project led by multidisciplinary teams from Orange Innovation and EnsadLab (the laboratory of the École des Arts Décoratifs, Paris). Following an experimental approach that combines human sciences (notably anthropology and cognitive sciences), robotics and computer sciences (machine learning) with digital creation and innovation, this project explores new relational modalities between humans and our robotic environments enhanced by artificial intelligence techniques. If our everyday objects might be empowered with abilities of movement and learning, action and reaction, and a behavioral dimension, how can we design new relationships with these robotic artefacts but also between them? This lunch talk will describe The Appprentices, an instrumental “dispositif” to experiment with such “behavioral objects”, focusing on an original dimension that allows movement and sound to be strongly paired: vibration, vibratory space as a system of communication and interaction. Specifically, the talk will detail the participatory design process that enabled practitioners and researchers from diverse disciplines to collaborate in the prototyping of the dispositif, in an attempt to entangle technical components of these robotic objects with concepts of agency, animacy, learning, and vibration.
05:00 – 07:00pm
Behavioral Objects, Agonistic Objects. How and why to design art robotic objects fighting against and for their being conditions?
Samuel Bianchini (Reflective Interaction Research Group/EndsadLab, École nationale supérieure des Arts décoratifs, PSL University)
Created in an artistic context that also belongs to the wider field of robotics, “behavioral objects” are defined by their capacity to express a “personality” thanks to the quality of their movements and their actions and reactions, which are, in this case, regarded as “behaviors.” Non-figurative, these art objects have no need of being useful – their activity does not have a specific function or usage – and they have built-in energy sources that are, generally, not visible, making it impossible to attribute to a third party the energy directly required to make them move, the physical cause of their activity. If their expressive capacities can be provided through the ability to move and interact dynamically with the environment, what kind of interaction could we design to stimulate the attribution of behaviors and even personality? How to build an emotional and reflective relation with this robotics object through an aesthetic dimension in operation? Based on the presentation of several art projects developed in the framework of our Behavioral Objects research and creation project, we propose to consider the design of this objects through an agonistic approach. Even in operation, these objects are still in construction: in a kind of new homeostatic perspective, they are always seeking for their balance. They need to fight for that, against and for their being conditions. Exhibited such objects it is to exhibit this fight. It requires now to configure relations of forces, internal as with the environment. This new kind of settings as to consider aesthetic, symbolic and technical dimensions gathered in real-time operation. It raises the possibility of an agonistic design, a way to set conditions for a sensitive and reflective experience for objects and humans.