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Truth in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Position by Dr. phil. Regula Stämpfli

Dr. phil. Regula Stämpfli (born Swiss, living in Munich and Vienna) studied in Zurich, Bern, N.Y., Berlin and finished her master´s degree on “Mao´s China 1945-1950”. Her PhD at the University of Bern focused on gender construction during the great wars (1914-1945). In Brussels she worked as an independent expert for the European Commission, as a consultant for the European Parliament and as founding member of the “European Citizen´s Initiative ECI”. She has taught politics at the Lucerne School of Journalism MAZ (1989-2012) and served as director of the International Forum of Design (IFG) in Ulm (2007-2013). Stämpfli also lectured and worked in Paris (a.o. with Prof. Dr. Ruedi Baur at Design2context/ZHdK and Ruedi Baur Intégral), Zurich, St. Gallen, Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne and Berlin.
Furthermore, she is a columnist for major Swiss media and was nominated in 2016 among the 100 most influential women in Switzerland. She does a weekly Clubhouse Show on “Das Design der Woche” and hosts the podcast “Die Podcastin” with Dr. Isabel Rohner. She is also on the board of swissfuture and in collaboration with the Swiss National Technology Assessment, she produces the “Future Podcast” series on data and digital transformation. In Vienna Regula Stämpfli is involved in “artcare”, an auction house for contemporary art, featuring in 2021 the “Most Wanted Female Art Auction”.

Truth and Internet are no siblings. Truth, following Hannah Arendt’s paths on thinking reality, is always linked to worldly actuality. Searching for synonyms for the term “truth” in English offers actually “reality”. So it is pretty obvious but rarely discussed that truth in the digital realm is literally lost in space. There is no real world in the net: the internet is worldless – weltverloren in German terms, worthless so to speak when it comes to finding truth. Truth is what remains when all coding stops.

Digital reproduction is never true, but at its best: objective, correct, logic, comprehensible, intelligible, transparent. Googleplex for example – in its form of digital thinking within one of the most powerful machinery – is nothing of the above since ALL decisions are made behind closed doors. The power to include and to exclude, to rank and to measure, resembles the position of a film director who decides not only on images, actors and cuts but on the storytelling beneath. Nosedive by Black Mirror, Netflix

The Big Nine, as Amy Webb calls the major actors in the digital space, do not produce truth, but automize value laden, power driven decisions.Amy Webb, The Big Nine, How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Maschines Could Warp Humanity, New York 2019 They create the world they claim to merely show us. Unlike its first promises, the Internet has not guaranteed democratic participation of all but ruling by a new digital aristocracy. Digitalization has brought us Trump and ‘Trumpism’ in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdogan in Turkey, Xi Jinping in China, Isis in the Arab World – just to mention a few very antidemocratic developments in global affairs. After 2011 there is only one country that – thanks to digitalization in the uprise of the Arab Spring – has achieved democracy, however flailing: Tunisia.

All other systems have been gravely undermined by the Big Nine and pushed towards trumpism, polarization and authoritarianism globally. Quite a few would argue that digitalization also brought us wokeness, Black Lives Matter, MeToo, the liberation of the Trans- and LBTQ Community, Kim Kardashian, Gigi Hadid, Instagram Influencers and the ability for young people to connect globally. This is all true but weighing benefits and disadvantages one has to admit that the net nowadays is not promoting progress, but code fed indignation, polarization and thriving antidemocratic trends. UN Women Campaign, 2013 see also: Regula Staempfli, TEDx VADUZ: Why Winnie the Pooh is right and Google is wrong, 2013.

Digital reproduction is NOT “common sense” as Hannah Arendt would put it. It is the automatization of power structures, clichés, world views, prejudices, biases. Truth, according to Hannah Arendt, Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Penguin Modern Classics Part One, P. 38 ff. Explanations of the works by Hannah Arendt can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  cannot be found in objectivity but in the worldly perception of many, in the “common sense” in its actual meaning. Evidence is evidence not on its own but must be agreed upon with a certain legitimacy: All processes have to be transparent, intelligible, comprehensible, to be evaluated by multiple sources and by many. Everything else is just mere claim.

Visual concept:
Ruben Marques Cassiano, CA student 2021

Max Bruinsma

Concept & coordination:
Evert Ypma

What happened with trumpism for example is that postfactual truth by Trump and other Selfism-politicians Regula Stämpfli, Trumpism. Ein Phänomen verändert die Welt, Chapter X, Selfism as a political concept. have fed mere repetition of claims digitally. Therefore, Fake News, if repeated enough times, becomes “truth” by mere automatization in the social media. Hashtags, trends, tweets, followers, influencers, codes are not by themselves objective but shaped by the new programming elites. This is, in part, due to a conception of converting complex real-world processes into code, which comprises fallacies and methodological gaps from the very start. Computer programs are not representations of reality; they are essentially stage directions. The transcription of the real into the algorithmic automatically leads to fiction. The methodological oversights of privatized digital infrastructures transform the real world and its inhabitant creatures into subordinates of Big Data, and no one knows exactly how these infrastructures function.

Due to their black box methods, much of the server-side code propping up the tech sector consists of huge anti-truths as in anti-reality and inhumane data gaps. The code-driven futures of the Big Nine, for example, do not serve the common good and therefore common truth finding, but are designed as tools to enrich a tiny, global elite. Regula Stämpfli, Die Macht des richtigen Friseurs, 2007, p. 34.

Democracy Data Gaps are the omissions of essential data from algorithms: they are missing or incorrect data that erode reality, worldly truths, and democracy. For the masses, digitalization, unlike the historical promise of universal “freedom, equality, and solidarity”, means enslavement obfuscated by code. Joseph Weizenbaum once very aptly called this the power of the computer and the powerlessness of reason, emphasising the shift from judgment to calculation. Joseph Weizenbaum, Die Macht der Computer und die Ohnmacht der Vernunft, p. 74. The holistic world and sensual realities are not present in the digital space, so these truths are hidden. In best practice they may be approximated, but most of the time they construct digital worlds in order to control real worldliness. This already should have been clear by 1992, when the computer scientist David Clark bombastically announced: “We reject: kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.” Süddeutsche Zeiting, 7.1.2018 With this, he proclaimed an understanding of democracy that for Silicon Valley is still valid today, based on wordlessness. Regula Stämpfli, Das Grosse Datenloch, Swissfuture Magazine, 9/2020

The new IT colonizers follow a mechanistic conception of the world in which methodological criticism, vital to the social sciences and humanities, no longer has a place at all. In the age of digital automation, political communities are no longer made dependent on existing constitutions, the separation of powers, and the rule of law, but on lines of code. Such notions of political society as a digital order are iconoclastic, Regula Stämpfli, Political Iconography as in Hfg IUP IFG. Ulm 1968-2008 edited by Rene Spitz & Regula Stämpfli., p. 113. since their autonomous virtual world no longer strives to be measured against any real-world yardstick – and, due to its complexity, often no longer can be. And despite this, or precisely because of it, incomplete and erroneous computer programs increasingly construct and determine reality. Algorithms design self-fulfilling prophecies about possible futures according to their program specifications, which, in accordance with mathematical logic, always have deficiencies.

In the prevailing age of digital reproduction, Regula Stämpfli on “Digital Reproduction” at the swissfuture conference on “Digital Democracy”, 23.9.2020 scripts that are programmed based on narrow experiences, and full of clichés, serve as information used to bring about exactly those futures, which they themselves predicted. Futuristic methods like monitoring, simulation, and scanning have found daily applications that reproduce existing power dynamics automatically. The techno-capitalists are further empowered when the unquestioned, artificial, data infiltrate and influence people’s lives without their consent, forcing them into a denial of reality. Again: Truth in the Digital Age is therefore an oxymoron: Reality cannot be coded. Just because correlations are impressive, they are neither true nor binding or as my mother would have it: “Just because everybody screams HEIL, the HEIL is never right.”

Following the concept of truth linked to worldliness and common sense, I would therefore argue that truth cannot be coded or calculated but must be linked to reality, plurality and common sense. Truth in the Age of Digital Reproduction desperately needs the classic “reality check”. Truth is not singular but plural. Truth is common, never private. Truth is out in the open and has a strong support of facts based on comprehension, legibility and understanding. It draws its legitimation from a plurality of sources, backgrounds, and voices. Truth cannot be found in repetition but in the plural power of evaluation and judgment. Information that is based on codes does not guarantee truth but mirrors all the data gaps produced by the digital rulers of the 21st century.

Margret Mitchell from Google Research, someone who ought to know, says it in a nutshell: “If we put prejudices in, prejudices come out.” as quoted by Cody O´Loughlin in the New York Times, 15.3 2021 I would take that phrase as an analogy: If we program repetition rather than content, we get a fake world based on automatization rather than democratization. The first victim on the way is TRUTH. Loss of reference and resonance within democracies feeds immensely powerful and antidemocratic fictions indeed: fictions that pursue the goal not only to automate information flows about human beings but to automate humans themselves.

Or as Shosanna Zuboff has it: “We are no longer the subjects of value realization. Nor are we, as some have insisted, the “product” of Google’s sales. Instead, we are the objects from which raw materials are extracted and expropriated for Google’s prediction factories. Predictions about our behavior are Google’s products, and they are sold to its actual customers but not to us. We are the means to others’ ends.” Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, PublicAffairs, 2018

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