Signal, Image, Architecture II: Automation, or the Politics of Very Large Numbers

If the first version of this seminar sought to understand computational images through an anthropology of the disappearance of “orthographic life”—and, in doing so, radically differentiate electronic images from drawings and chemical photographs—this semester we will take up a series of questions posed by the now-established ubiquity of electronic imaging. In general, these questions will involve two fundamental but often vague concepts: automation and programming.

Computational images place the fact of automation at the center of our lives, but not in ways relatable to our historical traditions. The methods of automation that emerged during the age of orthography belonged to the technical logic of mechanization. With imaging, automation is released from the constraints of mechanistic thought and moves into thinner realms, into the topological and electrical arena of signalization, in processes concealed from perception by their size and speed. Our contemporary condition is thus one in which these two forms of automation are continually fused with one another, making their effects on thought and life often difficult to understand. Programming, understood as far more than merely a branch of computational culture, will be treated as the theoretical plane on which the innumerable gestural-mental routines that shape our lives—technical routines that dissolve apparent subject/object distinctions—are imagined, organized and realized.

Our intensifying engagement with electronic imaging is driving us exponentially deeper into what Alain Desrosières has called the “politics of large numbers”—a politics whose foundations remain mostly concealed within the technical vagaries of statistical reasoning. The course aims to build up a sensible horizon from which to view the political implications of imaging for the design fields, through an historical-philosophical exploration of: the distinctions between mechanization and signalization; the genealogy of mnemotechnics and the industrialization of memory; the routinization of so-called “non-routine mental activities;” the emergence and basic character of what historian Theodore Porter calls “statistical thinking,” and the spatialization of that way of thinking, through various techniques and instruments; etc.

The course readings—drawn from anthropology, media theory, engineering literature, science and technology studies, and the history and philosophy of technology—cover a period ranging from 1870 to the present. Taken together, they mean to show that what at first appear to be merely technical issues are in fact epistemic, evidentiary, political, and ultimately existential questions, whose outlines have only recently begun to appear.