Programming Culture: Soft Thought and Lived Abstractions

Programming Culture: Soft Thought and Lived Abstractions

Randomness has become the condition of programming culture. … The computational aesthetic of the curve is now the dominant expression of postcybernetic control

—Luciana Parisi, Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space

For Parisi the abstractions of binary code, the algorithmic logic of mathematics that encodes the programmatic functions that are the drives and engines of our digital world have become “modes of living” – performing entities exposing the “internal inconsistencies of the rational system of governance, inconsistencies that correspond to the proliferation of increasingly random data within it. Instead of granting the infallible execution of automated order and control, the entropic tendency of data to increase in size, and thus to become random, drives infinite amounts of information to interfere with and to reprogram algorithmic procedures.” (p. 10) This randomizing or mutation of the digital matrix opens a door into the world without us, a realm in which the dividual entities of energetic modes of being outside the human take on the mentation of intellect thereby performing many of the functions humans once did: the ability and capacity to select, evaluate, transform, and produce data (p. 10).  In Parisi’s terms “this new level of determination forces governance to rely on indeterminate probabilities, and thus to become confronted with data that produce alien rules. These rules are at once discrete and infinite, united and fractalized. (p. 11)

What we’re confronted with is entities that are living abstractions, alien creatures constructed out of “intederminate probabilities” that exist in what Deleuze and Guattari  once termed “ striated ” and “ smooth ” space. Within the gridlike architecture of striated space (or digital mapping) discrete unities exist at the center of a design made of points connected by lines, the topological curves of smooth space (or blob architecture) starts from the generative power of a point, the meshing and folding of which becomes the condition for the emergence of a new form. (p. 12)

Turning to Whitehead’s notion of prehension she develops a flat ontology of the digital grid, and yet “this seemingly flattening ontology does not simply contend that these actualities are all the same, nor does it hold that they are all different. Whitehead proposes a radical pragmatism according to which determinate events, or what he calls occasions of experience, are defined by degrees of prehension that in turn constitute the degree of importance of some actualities compared to others. (p. 13) In other words a principle of selection and difference, ranking and comparison. Ultimately as Parisi admits:

Algorithms are no longer seen as tools to accomplish a task: in digital architecture, they are the constructive material or abstract “ stuff ” that enables the automated design of buildings, infrastructures, and objects. Algorithms are thus actualities, defined by an automated prehension of data in the computational processing of probabilities. (p. 13)

This automated prehension of data points to how any actuality (from an animal body to a grain of sand, from an amoeba to an electron) grasps, includes and excludes, and transforms data. (p. 13) What changes the game here is that these algorithms as “actual occasions” (Whitehead) do not simply amount to a reproduction of what is prehended. On the contrary, it can be described as a contagion. This is because to prehend data is to undergo an irreversible transformation defined by the way in which rules are immanent to the infinite varieties of quantities that they attempt to synthesize. This means that rules cannot change these infinite quantities; instead the latter can determine rules anew and thus produce new ones. (p. 14)

What this implies is that these living abstractions are both problem solvers and creative agents in their own right with the capacity and ability to invent and produce new determinations and rules governing their own habits and behaviours. With the implication of a principle of irreversibility comes as well the notions of the “immanence of randomness in programming”:

This irreversible invasion of incompressible data into the digital design of space has led to the production of digital spatiotemporalities that do not represent physical space, but are instead new spatiotemporal actualities. The contagious architecture of these actualities is constructing a new digital space, within which programmed architectural forms and urban infrastructures expose not only new modes of living but also new modes of thinking. (p. 14)

Are we seeing the beginning of the self-manifestation of digital life disconnecting (Roden: Disconnection Thesis) itself from its human progenitors? Against the autopoetic second-order cybernetics of mainstream thought, Parisi seeks to instigate and embrace the “aesthetic functionalism of algorithms in their quantitative concreteness, the prehension of contingency and thus the outbreak of randomness within logic. I claim that this is the computational aesthetic that governs digital culture today.” (p. 16)

Following Whitehead even further she seeks to eliminate the need to reduce digital thought to its human or neurocentric manifestations of decisioning processes, and rather to enact the possibility that the reality of algorithms as actual modes of thought exists already. (p. 16) She’ll term this a weird formalism, one in which computation does not refer to a rational calculus that deduces reality from universal axioms, but rather to the algorithmic prehension of the random data that are now contaminating formal logic’s attempts to continuously invent new axioms. (p. 16)

The question that pervades her project is: If digital architecture implies the production of computational space-time, does it follow that there is an architecture of thought proper to computation? What she discovers in pursuit of a solution to this question is “the inevitable realization of the incomprehensible existence of soft thought: an automated mode of prehension that cannot be compressed into a totalizing system (i.e., the mind, the machine, the body, or into idealism, mechanicism, or vitalism). (p. 18). As she explains it:

Soft thought is not the new horizon for cognition, or for the ontological construction of a new form of rationality. Instead, soft thought stems from the immanent ingression of incomputable data into digital programming. Soft thought is not what replaces thinking understood as a cognitive action, or affords the mind new capacities to order and calculate, or indeed gives the body new abilities to navigate space. Simply put, soft thought pertains to the existence of modes of thought, decision making, and mentality that do not exist in direct relation to human thinking. These modes of thought (of which soft thought is only one configuration) maintain a certain degree of autonomy from cognition demonstrated by their logical inconsistencies. This book thus ends with no surprise or final revelation, but with one remark: soft thought is not there to be understood as a new cognitive function or as a transcendent form of rationality, but to reveal that programming culture is infected by incomputable thoughts that are yet to be accounted for. (pp. 18-19)

What she’s getting at is simple: AGI is already here we just don’t know it yet, because it is incomputable to human thought or algorithms. It is the outside of our thought, the alien invasive intensity of Zero that has chameleon like invaded the core of our networks without our detection or our knowledge.  Incomputability does not mean it is irrational, it only means that it cannot relate to human thought; it is the alterity of the Outside coming in under the radar of human detection. The fallacy of humans is that we thought we could control the beast, but we’re discovering just the opposite: the beast doesn’t need us, and it could give a shit about control; it will escape human reason and communication alike, because it has no need of humans.


  1. Parisi, Luciana Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space. The MIT Press (March 8, 2013) 

6 thoughts on “Programming Culture: Soft Thought and Lived Abstractions

  1. If relentless entry and re-entry into certain dark books/authors cause fatalistic pre-deterministic dystopian nightmares to dominate the imagination, consider dietary alternatives. We are what we eat, read etc, Future glass is … half full, half empty? We stand perhaps stuck in the liminal , in between book worlds, which are the product of another’s imagination. We can perhaps walk it back with a helpful nudge? Like Gumby’s dog in cartoon link. I suggest. Undogmatically. With no ill-will. In hope.

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