Payoshini Pandey recently graduated from Western University with an MA in Theory & Criticism. Influenced by the work of Benjamin Bratton, her MA thesis explored the concept of computation as an epistemological machine that operates on a planetary scale. While Critical Digital Humanities has produced abundant scholarship on computation’s uses for control and surveillance, her interest in its ontologically and politically generative potential is driven by the conviction that computation as a planetary-scale infrastructure cannot be addressed in its full complexity without attending to its productive nature.
Payoshini’s approach to computation is multidisciplinary and borrows from media history, media philosophy, science and technology studies, and Earth systems science. Besides this, she also enjoys reading and writing on love and political theory.
Outside of research, she enjoys watching a good film, listening to heavy music, and taking photographs. She aspires to continue her research in and outside of academia.
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How does a computer “see” the world? For Alexander Galloway, computational vision surmounts the singularity of a point of view and “takes it as a given that objects and worlds can and will be manipulable from all sides.” Computation sees as though it were omnipresent. While the humanist may object to the claim that it surpasses subjectivity, it is not enough to question the truthfulness of this claim: this principle, regardless of truth or falsity, already underpins computation’s epistemological ambitions at a planetary scale.
As a planetary-scale infrastructure, computation operates by addressing every object possible across spatial and temporal scales, “from the infinitesimal to the astronomic,” and “instantaneous to geologic duration” (Benjamin Bratton, The Stack). Addressability underpins all computing as we know it, and we are beginning to grasp the essential role that vision plays in computation’s capacity to address and assimilate whatever it may (Ranjodh Singh Dhaliwal, 'On Addressability, or What even is Computation?'). Models, interfaces, maps, diagrams, cameras, telescopes – vision is how computation sees into distant spaces, collects and assimilates information, and enables us to act.
Ontologically, however, the appetite to address what is tips over into a generative capacity. “Deep address is not only a mechanism for the capture of what exists and a formalization of its space of juxtaposition; it is also, as conceived, a medium for the creative composition of those relations, positions, and interrelations” (Bratton, The Stack). Its epistemological use entails not simply discovering what is, but constructing its object of discovery. This constructive aspect, I’d argue, hinges on philosophical and scientific speculative approximations and is a prominent feature of all knowledge-production in the present day.
While Science and Technology Studies has always been cognizant of constructive nature of scientific inquiry, the ubiquity of computation in commercial and public life now enables us to constantly act on knowledge that is inherently imbued with speculation: we engineer novel infrastructures based on models that claim to “represent” the world, but in reality, exist on a plane of their own.
Unlike people who bemoan unreliable models, I’d like to consider the creative potential of letting this “difference” run amok; is there philosophical and political value to found in embracing the difference between model and reality? Can infrastructures be engineered that engage with the speculative, rather than suppress it?
To go back to the operations of visions in computation’s epistemological excursions, the first part of this paper will attempt to demonstrate that the speculative already exists at the heart of how computational vision operates. Consider, for instance, the intermediary steps that precede a picture of the cosmos we obtain through James Webb Space Telescope: “raw” data collected, interpreted, and converted into an intelligible picture exhibiting colour that is added only retrospectively. Vision, here, is already an operation beyond representation; except in its final outcome, computational vision is nonrepresentational through and through.
The second part of the paper will inquire into the possibility of seizing the speculative, and the plausible ethical and political consequences of engineering infrastructures that play with it, rather than suppress it. Can the generative capacity of this play counter the imperialistic uses of computation on Earth or beyond? Or does it only amount to destructive accidents? What possible implications does this have for the human and nonhuman subjects of computation?