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Digital Objects and Metadata Schemes

Yuk Hui has dared to pull philosophy into the twenty-first century by asking what a digital object is. Originally from Hong Kong, he has been roaming Europe since 2006. He first did his PhD in London at Goldsmiths College, then relocated to Paris and worked at Bernard Stiegler’s Institute of Research and Innovation before moving, inevitably, to Berlin, where he is a postdoc at Leuphana University (Lüneburg). His first book, On the Existence of Digital Objects, arranges a dialogue between the technophobic metaphysics of Martin Heidegger and the French technology thinker Gilbert Simondon (author of the neglected 1958 classic On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects). In his debut, Yuk Hui elegantly plays with the double meaning of the word “ontologies”: on the one hand, the eternal level of the question of Being ; on the other, the technical meaning of the word used by computer science to describe the hierarchies inside representations of knowledge such as metadata.

Ontology in the context of the internet is often associated with the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, and his term “semantic web,” a set of standards for data formats and exchange protocols. One way to describe
On the Existence of Digital Objects is to say that it gives the touching yet superior engineering mindset of Berners-Lee a solid continental European foundation. Programmers do not just hang out on Slashdot, 4Chan, and Reddit; they also read Husserl. Indeed, some hyper humans might … My question is why the geek establishment didn’t foresee the rise of platform capitalism, with monopolies such as Google and Facebook. Information science’s approach to ontology has proven naive, if not shortsighted. The internet as a public realm that the engineering class takes for granted has all but disappeared, leaving no space to implement experimentation on the fundamental (indeed ontological) level. This raises the question of whether ontological adventures such as this one can be successful without a political angle.

According to Yuk Hui, “The idea of the philosopher as a figure who stands outside as mere critic and defends the purity of thought has been washed away in the flux of technological progress.” The nature of technics needs to be taken into account when talking about being. That’s an ambitious starting point. However, the real existing social media dominance puts on the table the question of what role philosophical investigations (such as Hui’s) can play. Should research become more technical (and necessarily more traditional in order to be accepted)? Or should it go against the grain and refuse to build foundations in the service of an insular engineering class that is in dire need of a Žižek-style political provocation? Another approach could be to compare Hui’s surprisingly Deleuze-free style with American programmer-theorists such as Alex Galloway and Wendy Chun, who have never dug as deep into classic philosophy in search of the foundations of our digital existence. Who’s ready to read XML syntax alongside Schelling and turn knowledge of Python and C into action, thereby changing the language of philosophy itself?

At times, On the Existence of Digital Objects falls into the obligatory comparative exercise of explaining how author A is unlike author B—but then it recovers quickly, giving us a sense of things to come. What’s really upsetting about the future of this digital philosophy-in-the-making is the “black box society” (Frank Pasquale), the secretive algorithms that cannot be read, let alone changed. How can philosophy become technical when it, once again, can only speculate about its object?

Let’s praise Yuk Hui for his priceless effort to practice what Friedrich Kittler always proposed, yet towards the end of his life drifted away from, escaping to Ancient Greece. Bernard Stiegler’s preface to Hui’s book is equally appreciative. Next stop for Yuk Hui is a similarly ambitious study on the nature of technology in China, which he has just finished. Let’s now get to the subject: the digital objects that surround us, and steer us, in such virtual, invisible, and intimate ways.

Read the full article here.