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The knowledge grab

This is a three-part, in-progress postaiming to identify meaningful features of culture today how to take a regenerative, symmasthetic approach to studying it. Here are the first and third posts.


In the postdigital age, many aspects of lived culture are fabricated into so many standardized datapoints, seized from the knowledge that we externalize through our digital tools.

I write “seized” knowledge after Bernard Stiegler’s understanding of how it is that humans grasp knowledge that is exteriorized, or external to the human body (exosomatic). Such knowledge is a form of “tertiary” retention, which I will explain by quoting from the chapter I am writing:

Primary retention is the synthesis of apprehension which is seized hold of by secondary retention. Secondary retention is the synthesis of apprehension and is “itself the condition of the concept of understanding”: grasping data “which is data only insofar as it is so seized“. Tertiary retention is the exteriorization or exosomatization of this memory (Stiegler 2018).

Exteriorized knowledge is used to train models in machine learning that then makes decisions about our lives. This affects culture because technical tendencies become concretized as technical facts—because they are no longer ethnical facts!

This is to say that they no longer belong to the memory of social organizations, which is characteristic of the “ethnicity” that causes the human species to develop differently from the animal species. In humans, endosomatic memory—memory internal to the organism—can be exteriorized through the use of the artificial tool, allowing, through the accumulation of knowledge, for human development.

Exteriorized knowledge being seized mechanically leads to another cultural predicament. Almost no ethnic community remains isolated from algorithmic idiomatic expression. Smartphones and computers are ubiquitous.

Where exteriorized knowledge is “seized” by other humans, it is returned to the social body as the codification that takes place through institutions of certification, publication, and education. Psychic individuals can continue to create with and elaborate on knowledge in this way. But it can also be seized by machines, leading to a cultural predicament—the word predicament meaning trying situation but also ‘quality, category, something predicted’.

The predicament was predicted by Socrates, who reminds us that a tool can be both a poison, causing us to forget what we know, and a cure: it is on us to administer it correctly:

Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an φάρμακον not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem [275b] to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

People working in tech are thinking and talking about this. Discussion includes: the difference between a crutch and a tool; commercial packages for consumption vs. building for a community; exploring computing history to unearth programming gems like homoiconicity; my own consideration of sharpening our tools.

It’s a fascinating time to be alive—if we’re not falling asleep at the wheel but present.

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

— William Carlos Williams

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