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Thursday, May 02, 2019

Human Organs: On Ernst Kapp’s “Elements of a Philosophy of Technology” | Reviews - Los Angeles Review of Books

Photo: William Stewart
A review of Ernst Kapp's 1877 work, which represents "an important forerunner in theories of media and culture." recommends William Stewart, PhD candidate in the German Department and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University.

Elements of a Philosophy of Technology: 
 On the Evolutionary History of Culture (Posthumanities)
ONE OF THE STRIKING things about the canonical “failures” in the nascent fields of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and big data is how human they all are. Facial recognition and Google imaging algorithms are notoriously racist. Microsoft’s chatbot Tay is a Holocaust denier. Chinese systems of social credit are oppressive forms of surveillance, pace whatever resemblance they bear to a metastasized Yelp.

It is possible to conceive of this list as a catalog of human mistakes (for instance, on the part of the programmers) or a projection of human wrongdoing onto patterned calculation. But it is equally plausible to wonder if these algorithmic failures aren’t also “successes” in artificial intelligence in their indistinguishability from average human thought. The frontiers of digital science might often be closest to us when they are nearest to error. As far as a computer passing the Turing test goes, bigotry is pretty convincingly human. One could ask to what extent these examples reveal the darker mechanics of the mind, the specific ways that: our visual senses are discriminatory; we peddle as fact conclusions drawn from faulty evidence around us; and we use reputation as a vector for passive violence and hegemonies of shame. Perhaps the algorithms are not an allegory of human behavior, but rather reveal something real about the operation of our thoughts and actions.

This, at least, would be the explanation offered by the 19th-century German philosopher of culture and technology Ernst Kapp in his 1877 book, Elements of a Philosophy of Technology: On the Evolutionary History of Culture. The book, long known in German-speaking media and technology circles though virtually absent from those of the Anglosphere, is now available for the first time in an English translation, edited by scholars of media history Jeffrey Kirkwood and Leif Weatherby and translated by Lauren K. Wolfe. Over the course of 12 chapters that address topics spanning from prehistoric hammers to telegraph systems to language to the state, Kapp lays out a theory of culture and technology rooted in humans’ instinctual drive to make tools, a faculty that he calls “organ projection.” While Kapp’s refrain might be understood as a variation on the old adage that man is the measure of all things, his isn’t a purely anthropocentric position. The way Kapp imagines it, the human scale orients all knowledge, but it does so unconsciously. Our “humanness” only becomes apparent to us through the study of the outside world, an outside world that paradoxically reveals the human interior. “Self-consciousness,” he writes, “proves to be the result of a process in which knowledge of an exterior is transformed into knowledge of an interior.” Remarkably prescient, Kapp makes an argument that subtly anticipates the current discourse of the posthuman, presenting the conditions for knowledge as always external to the knower...

But Kapp’s work deserves renewed study today not simply on account of its canonical place in German media-studies traditions or because of an antiquarian interest in the prehistory of contemporary theory. Kapp’s arguments encourage a reflection on just what it is that lends tools their significance in the first place: his notion of a tool-being emphasizes not our fundamentally teleological relationship to the technical — in other words, that the hammer was invented in order to hit the nail, or the computer in order to send emails — but rather that we are tool-beings because tools not only condition our existence, but reveal its essential facts. We are as much tools as the tools that we make. Kapp reminds us that an understanding of the human begins and ends with an understanding of what it makes and uses, because the tool it employs is nothing — that is, neither intelligible nor useful — if not a reflection of the human employing it.

Source: Los Angeles Review of Books