I've been a fairly vocal critic of social games, particularly the Zynga-style games that some have compared to behaviorist operant conditioning apparatuses. Since your readers may not be aware of it, last year I made a Facebook game that satirized and commented upon this state of affairs, called Cow Clicker
. The gist of the game is that you click on a cow, and then click again after six hours, or you pay to click more frequently. I made the game to embody a concern with the way these games treat friends (and customers) as resources to be maximized, and then create compulsive feedback loops for players to enact that maximization. I've written about this game in considerable detail, and Edge magazine recently published a feature
on the game, so readers who want the whole story might want to consult those two sources.
There are lots of things I could say about Facebook games and Cow Clicker and Zynga and the like, but in the interest of being concise and concrete, I'll say this: I think we're still not really sure what Facebook is doing to contemporary culture and social practice. We think we know, to an extent, whether that thought is positive or negative. And certainly its undeniable that the Silicon Valley high tech industry believes that whatever technology provides and people use is virtuous by definition—that's the fundamental precept of technolibertarianism. But as McLuhan says, we don't fully understand a medium until we begin to move beyond it.
That provision in mind, I suspect Facebook has more in common with Archer Daniels Midland than it does with Microsoft. Just as ADM invented methods for processing grains and oils into cheap, flexible food products, so Facebook invented methods for processing human relationships into cheap, flexible social products. If you think about it that way, then companies like Zynga are more like Coca-Cola or Heinz, taking the enzymatic sociality that Facebook has provided and using it to create processed experiences. So, just as corn sweeteners, oils, and starches have become cheap, simple, and even compulsive ingredients in so many packaged foods, so the equivalents "processed relationships" are now being synthesized and deployed across platforms like Facebook.
If we take this analogy between Facebook and ADM seriously for the purposes of a thought experiment, the question that we now face is something like this: are processed relationships somehow fundamentally insidious (like high fructose corn syrup), or are they just raw materials that can be fashioned into unfamiliar yet meaningful experiences (like, say, ethanol)? We don't yet know the answer.
Q: How did you become involved with object-oriented ontology and how does it influence your overall body of work?
I had read Graham Harman's Tool-Being the moment it was published—in fact, I remember writing to pester the publisher about when it would ship, since its publication date had been moved once or twice (by no fault of Graham). So I was familiar with the fundamental ideas that Harman gave the shorthand "object-oriented philosophy" back when I was still writing my dissertation. By happenstance, Graham found me via an Amazon.com search for his books (since Amazon searches inside books for references). We exchanged emails for a time, remaining fond of and interested in each others' work from the perspective of outsiders.
Then two things happened. First, I in 2007-2009 I researched and wrote Racing the Beam
with my MIT colleague Nick Montfort. It's a book about the Atari Video Computer System (aka the Atari 2600), the first in a series we conceived of and now edit, called Platform Studies
. The series invites books that discuss the relationship between the hardware and software design of computer platforms and the creative works produced upon those platforms. Nick and I dug deep into the Atari, a platform we both know and love. I'd been teaching with it for several years already, and I also use it in my creative practice (my latest game, A Slow Year
, is a set of "game poems" for Atari).
After we published Racing the Beam, I felt content but incomplete. The book covers the weird hardware design of the Atari VCS in considerable (but accessible) detail in the book, discussing the way the programmer has to negotiate between the MOS Technologies 6502 microprocessor and a strange, custom-designed graphics and sound chip called the Television Interface Adapter. I had been programming this weird computer for years by then. It's an alien experience—since the Atari has only 128 bytes of RAM, there's no room for a frame buffer, and the programmer must interface with every scan line of the television display, timing instructions to take place before the electron beam passes over particular parts of the screen.
I found myself wondering about all the other actors in that system, besides the electrical engineers and the programmers and the marketers and the players. What about the microprocessor, the RF transmitter, the cathode ray tube? What is an Atari game like for them? What is it like to be a computer? That was my first move toward becoming a practicing object-oriented ontologist.
The second event made that intention more concrete and less theoretical. In 2008, I was invited to keynote the Philosophy of Computer Games conference, held that year in Potsdam. All my books up until then had been philosophically motivated to some extent—Unit Operations presented an ontology of procedurality across different media, and Persuasive Games was about rhetoric. But I hadn't yet explored the being of computational objects in earnest. So I took the opportunity to work on that project for the keynote, the beginnings of what would become my forthcoming book Alien Phenomenology.
In the years since, I have generalized my approach so it would apply to more than just computer parts, but my take on OOO remains concerned partly with the being of specific objects, be they media objects or more ordinary ones. I sometimes call this a "pragmatic" or "applied" OOO, but only to contrast my method with the more first-principles approaches of Harman or Bryant. Of course, all of us are interested in specific objects as well as general theories about things. In some ways OOO brings me full circle, allowing me to close the loop on some of the ideas I first advanced in Unit Operations, but to extend those beyond the corner of media and technology where I've spent most of my academic and professional career.
Q: I'll ask you the same question I asked Levi Bryant: What is your take on the ontological status of fictional objects, as well as their ability to interact with so-called 'real' objects?
I don't distinguish between fictional and real objects, at least not at the ontological level. Both Levi Bryant and I adopt the term flat ontology to describe our position; this just means that we consider all objects to exist equally. At the metaphysical level, there is no difference in the existence of warthogs, polystyrene, and Harry Potter. Clearly there are many important differences between these objects in their relation to other things in the world, but in a purely metaphysical sense, one exists no less than another.
My ontology is really, really flat. So flat that I sometimes describe it as a point instead of a plane: tiny ontology rather than just flat ontology. For me, it's important that we take being as seriously as possible, which rather counterintuitively involves letting just about anything in the club, including signs, ideas with no referent, concepts and otherwise intangible things, things that are contingent or counterfactual, and so forth. These sorts of objects interact with "real" objects all the time—I think Levi Bryant did a commendable job explaining how this works in his recent interview on this site, and I see no reason to say more about that than he did already.
Another very curious and magical thing happens when we admit the existence of fictional objects along with tangible ones: Whole swaths of being open up that we might otherwise have missed. I'll use a videogame example for kicks: Consider Pitfall Harry, who appears in the famous 1982 game Pitfall! It's tempting to think of Pitfall Harry as a fictional character, one commensurate with Harry Potter or Jay Gatsby. And that's true, that's one of the registers on which Pitfall Harry exists. But Pitfall Harry also exists as a pattern of focused electrons striking the phosphorescent surface of a cathode ray tube. And Pitfall Harry also exists as a segment of a set of signals modulated by an RF transmitter between the Television Interface Adapter and the television antenna. And Pitfall Harry also exists as several sets of eight-bit binary data tables stored on program ROM. And Pitfall Harry also exits as a set of 6502 assembly instructions that determine when, where, and in what pattern to adjust the player sprite register settings on the Television Interface Adapter such that he will appear on the screen. And at another level, Pitfall Harry also exists as a printed character on a product box, as an actor depicting him on a television commercial, and as a pen-and-ink drawing in a tie-in comic book.
Which is the "real" Pitfall Harry? Rather than undermining him into nothing more than the material structures that form him in any given case, and rather than overmining him into the perceptual, cultural, or social apparatuses that create or comprehend them, I'm content to allow all of them to exist equally, although we may have different reasons for being concerned with any one example at a given moment.
Q: Finally, given your work in object-oriented thought and computer games, what utility does the relationship between humans and technology have for conversations about human finitude and causal relations in an increasingly posthuman world, if any?
The example of Pitfall Harry above may have seemed silly at first, but I think it offers a useful lesson in the strange overlaps between the world of technology and the world of humans. We have long imagined the world as one split between human and world, nature and culture, technical and natural, living and inert, among other categories. But it doesn't take much pause at all to see that the real story of existence is much stranger and more wonderful than those coarse categories allow us to see. There's no reason that everything can't be considered a technology, just like everything can be considered an equipment (as in Heidegger, but via Harman's interpretation that extends it beyond Dasein) or a medium (as in McLuhan, whose anything-goes ontology of media has still not been fully grasped). Then everything whatsoever has a strange, secret, withdrawn existence that we can't fully grasp, but about which we can speculate.
Technology shows us that posthumanism isn't a statement about a machinic future (transhumanism), nor is it a kind of all-encompassing virtual mush (antihumanism). Instead, a true posthumanism would be one that accepts that humans exist no more or less than catacombs, erector sets, and papadam. Humans can use our relationships with technology to understand this situation better, through speculating on the weird existence of things. If anything, my own close encounters with technology have only served to make me even more attuned to a greater range and number of other things in the world. Philosophy should be a kind of tinkering as much as a kind of thinking. And not just an abstract, idealist mental bricolage, not just the deconstruction of ideas and comportments, but a literal tinkering, the actual disassembly and creation of things of all kinds. Metaphysics should be the practice of metaphysicians, who get their hands dirty with the details of being. Philosophy thus becomes a kind of engineering.