Arie Altena

Some rambling thoughts about Reality Engineering

Arie Altena

Slightly edited remarks, used for introducing the symposium: Better than Fantasy, Reality Engineering and the Computer which took place in Amsterdam, from 31th August to 2nd September, 2001 and was organised by Mediamatic Magazine, in collaboration with the Amsterdam-Maastricht Summer University.

I messy issues
How could you deal with the internet, master-infrastructure of our world, and totally escape from contemporary society? It's impossible. As soon as you think twice about computertechnology, you end up thinking about how technology structures, shapes, engineers, designs society, your life, your interactions. In talking, thinking and making computerart you can't escape the messy issues of politics, infrastructure and protocols. At least: as long as you're not content with just being mad at your irritating word processor, and keep on using it, or, without further thinking, embrace the Open Source Ideology.

You all know the stories: the succes of the peer-to-peer networks, the copyright issues that came from that and from the use of samples made easy by all the digitizing equipment. The sometimes horrifying stories concerning the regulating of the Internet; the spying possibilities built in software; the demand for better filtering. Or, on the other hand, the success of Open Source and Linux. You cannot but ask the question - also if you don't understand a lot about computers -: wait a minute, how do we want to work with this, how do we want to organize this world [1]?

Working in this field, you end up talking and thinking about questions concerning standards, protocols - how are they designed and how should they be designed? How open are the standards and protocols, what do they allow and what not? And since you're not only dealing with the building blocks of your computer and your own little network, but with the protocols that shape or engineer the basic infrastructure of contemporary society, you get to the question: how's the Reality engineered by these protocols, these standards, this software, this infrastructure? What exactly is the connection between protocols and society? How should we conceptualize that interaction?

II cutting edge became clichee
Mediamatic has always been a place to research not only the artistic possibilities of new media, but also the effects of technology on culture, like the new knowledge-dispositions that are made possible by, for instance, the linking structures of the web and the possibilities of programming. This used to take place in a predominantly artistic environment and context; the interest is now directed also to much more politically charged issues.

What Mediamatic has learned in the past ten years is that a jumble of technological things that was pretty cutting edge for some time and that gave one the aura of being on the forefront of things - on the avantgarde side of thing one might say - has become the most general thing, most normal thing, sort of the basis-structure of contemporary society. Cutting edge became clichee. Which doesn't mean that it became less interesting.

III engineering infrastructures and protocols
We did use the word engineering in the title on purpose. Because 'engineering' points to the legacy of the technicians, the programmers, the engineers - the legacy of a kind of 'making' that only interested in the question if things 'work', work technically.

You could say we live in a society in which the 'engineering'-idea is dominant. You can see this also in the dominant conception of communication, namely as a procedure for getting the message across as optimal as possible. Art, one could say, or human interaction, is quite a different kind, or richer? kind of communication.

Our interest in the metaphor "Reality Engineering" was also spawned by Paul Edwards' book Closed World - a cultural & technological history of computers & computernetworks. What we thought up on infrastructure and protocols, mostly derives from his books and articles.

This is Edwards definition of infrastructure: (1) "an underlying base or foundation, especially for an organization or a system," and (2) "the basic facilities, services, and installations needed for the functioning of a community or society, such as transportation and communications systems, water and power lines, and public institutions including schools, post offices, and prisons."

Edwards rightly states that "computers have become the control, information storage, and information processing technology of choice in many other, pre-existing infrastructures. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how such fundamental systems as telecommunications, electric power networks, banking, stock markets, air traffic control, or government could function if all computers were suddenly to vanish from the face of the earth." This is our clichee.

"Computers have become, as it were, the infrastructure of our infrastructures. As such, they exhibit properties different from those of more traditional infrastructures, which might be characterized as large technological systems."

This is again Edwards, now on protocols: "The basis for this massive interconnectivity is a set of protocols, or software and hardware standards, developed over three decades by an anarchical but surprisingly effective community of hackers and computer professionals. By analogy to Hughes' "system builders," we might call these people "protocol builders." Whereas the network builders who preceded them worked to ensure interconvertibility of data and programs within networks of heterogeneous computer systems, the protocol builders went one step further, creating techniques for exchanges among heterogeneous networks."

Protocols, can be seen as the bits of technology that regulate; in a broader sense, they are formulas, or formats for interaction, including social interaction. We will talk about these protocols that make possible our society. And since, as we all know, the Internet and computernetworks are connected to all parts of our society, the protocols - either software, hardware or sets of social rules - of the Internet seem to engineer our reality.

IV socio-technological systems?
This sounds suspiciously like technological determinism. Technology determining society, technology determining humans. Engineers engineering protocols that make technology work that engineers humans. Would this really be the case? Shouldn't we learn the right lesson from all the philosophy of technology, that often shows so rightly that human and non-human actors, society and technology reciprocally construct each other? Because we're talking socio-technological systems - aren't we?

What we hope to do at this symposium, is, for instance, ask the questions that engineers do not ask; ask what is left out by science, what artist are unaware of. What we will now try to do is letting the different fields have their say, let them meet, and see what comes out of that.



This poses problems as well: it often happened to me that in trying to theorize about open source, free software, Linux, OS's and user interfaces, I thought I got the picture right, only to later realize - after learning more about the technology -that I was wrong on a lot of points. How may artists and academics have written about open source without actually understanding what a kernel is? And, on the other hand, how many programmers theorize about society, and apply their engineerlike ideas from the open source world, unto an unproblematic conception of society ("what works for machines will work for society"). This is what we have to deal with. [back]

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Arie Altena, 2001