Alberto Romele: Digital Hermeneutics: Philosophical Investigations in New Media and Technologies

Digital Hermeneutics: Philosophical Investigations in New Media and Technologies Book Cover Digital Hermeneutics: Philosophical Investigations in New Media and Technologies
Alberto Romele
Routledge
2019
Paperback
168

Reviewed by: Eddo Evink (Faculty of Philosophy, University of Groningen)

Introduction

It is a commonplace to say that digital media and communication technology have thoroughly transformed the world we live in. This is obvious to all of us. The impact of the digital revolution, however, is so immense that philosophy, in spite of a multitude of books and articles, has only started to get a grip on it, as far as that is possible at all. Although one might expect a large number of contributions of the hermeneutic tradition to the philosophical reflections on digital media, since these are mainly information and communication technologies, philosophical hermeneutics has remained relatively silent with regard to the new media.

Alberto Romele’s monograph Digital Hermeneutics is therefore a more than welcome intervention in the philosophical reflections on the new media. Romele has written a rich book that discusses many aspects of this complicated field of research. His book does not only develop a hermeneutic approach to digital media, it also shows the mutual influence of hermeneutic interpretation theory and the new media technology.

Renewing Hermeneutics

Romele’s approach is in line with the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. Especially the notion of distanciation is used to highlight how new media are both object of research and actor in the networks in which they are embedded. But also Romele’s style is reminiscent of Ricoeur: he develops his ideas in discussion with many other theorists, showing ever new insights into the complicated relations between information and interpretation, internet and society, imagination and mediation, humans and technology. Also in line with Ricoeur’s style, the conclusions of the different parts of the book are more like new chapters than integrating summaries. This makes the book as a whole a dense and rich composition of many lines of thought, starting with an Overture, followed by two large parts, while ending with a grand Finale. The book has a large scope: after the introduction of its approach in the Overture, Part 1 offers an epistemological and methodological account of the digital, Part 2 is about an ontology of the digital, while the Finale discusses several ethical end political consequences.

Romele rightly argues that a hermeneutic approach of new media cannot be a matter of simply applying existing points of view of the hermeneutic tradition to the digital. The hermeneutic tradition itself needs to be taken up and renewed. In the Overture he starts with a ‘confession’ (2) that he began the project of this book with the intention to deconstruct the hermeneutics of Gadamer and Ricoeur. In Gadamer’s philosophy Romele recognizes a focus on unity, with theological roots, that, notwithstanding all the emphasis on dialogue, is a monologue of “the sole truth of the Event.” (1) In Ricoeur’s work, Romele finds what he calls an “idealism of matter”, a tendency to focus exclusively on language as the main or even only mediator of meaning. The same concentration on unity and ontology can also be found in Heidegger’s philosophy of technology that takes all technological phenomena together from the single perspective of Gestell. Instead, a hermeneutic-phenomenological philosophy of technology should not only be fixated on a general ontology but embrace the ontic plurality of many technical devices, projects and phenomena. Romele therefore makes a plea for a “minor and pragmatic hermeneutics” (1) that highlights the multi-linear and multi-medial character of interpretation, including digital and non-linguistic interpretation; a hermeneutics that embraces ideas of post-phenomenology, empirical philosophy and actor-network-theory. Interpretation does not only take place in language, but also in other media, matter and machines. It is also a matter of images, websites, cell phones and algorithms.

Of course, this approach is not a break with the hermeneutic tradition, it is a renewal. Just as post-phenomenology takes up several aspects of Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein in Sein und Zeit, Romele’s digital hermeneutics follows his ontological turn in hermeneutics that regards every relation between Dasein and world as an interpretation. Thus, instead of deconstructing hermeneutics, Romele picks up Ricoeur’s concept of distanciation (11) and uses it to reveal how, on the one hand, we are connected with the world through all kinds of digital and technical-material relations, while, on the other hand, the digital devices and networks can become object of scientific research and philosophical reflection as well. In this way Romele also transforms Ricoeur’s idea of distanciation, giving it a material deepening beyond the merely linguistic understanding by Ricoeur.

In this respect, he also uses a distinction made by Don Ihde (1998) between a ‘special’ and a ‘general’ hermeneutics. Special hermeneutics refers to the specific kind of technologies that offer a representation of the world, while general hermeneutics alludes to the fact that all technologies are hermeneutic in the sense that they selectively frame and mould the human-world relations in which they function. A philosophical hermeneutics of the digital needs to take into account the active interpretative performances of technical tools and procedures that are at work in all our engagements with it. Digital hermeneutics is a hermeneutics of the digital in both meanings of the subjective and objective genitive.

Epistemology of the Digital

Under the somewhat confusing heading “The Virtual Never Ended” Romele examines epistemological and methodological issues, disputing several lines of thought that tend to minimize the distance between the virtual and the real. In the first reflections on the internet and digital media, now a few decades ago, many theorists emphasized the difference between the virtual and the real. The virtual was a ‘second world’ in which we could easily experiment with what was not possible or harder to accomplish in the real world. Later, this perspective changed in its opposite: many researchers now maintain that no distinction can be made anymore between the virtual and the real. Romele uses the notion of distanciation to criticize both points of view. The virtual is like the glasses or contact lenses that we can see, but also through which we can see and that change the way we see, although they seem to be completely transparent.

In the first chapter Romele takes a position against those who believe that “the virtual invaded the real.” In particular, he discusses the “semantic theory of information”, formulated by Luciano Floridi. Floridi (2005) defines information as “data + meaning + truth” (27). This is a very objectivist view that includes meaning and truth as internal ingredients of information. Floridi even gives a Hegelian-style formula to express this belief: “what is real is informational, and what is informational is real.” (35) Based on this view, Floridi also develops the more practical view that in everyday life the real and the virtual are blurred, mixing ‘life’ and ‘online’ in an Onlife Manifesto (35). This leads to all kinds of problems and contradictions: thruth-values as supervening on semantic information; the difference between factual and instructional information, and more.

As an alternative, Romele sketches a hermeneutic approach of information, describing it as part of contextual communication. He draws on several other authors, as well as on etymological research that shows that the pre-modern meaning of information was ‘giving a (substantial) form to matter’ (24). For those who are well educated in hermeneutics, his criticism is not very surprising: information can only manifest its meaning in contexts, it is in need of interpretation, and therefore the meaning can never be entirely fixed. The conclusions of this chapter, however, show the importance of the material aspects in Romele’s approach:

“…the hermeneutics of information (and, more broadly, digital hermeneutics) is a material hermeneutics for three reasons: (1) because it starts from an analysis which is internal and not extrinsic to the object in question; (2) because it deals with the varieties of contexts of production and reception of meaning; (3) because it is interested in the matter (the techniques and technologies) through which digital traces are transformed into data, and data into information.” (38)

The introduction to the second chapter discusses several topics, among them the growing awareness that the real and the virtual are not two separated worlds, but are thoroughly intertwined. In terms of the title: the real invaded the virtual. This involves, besides many other issues, problems with privacy; but in this part of the book Romele directs our intention mainly to digital sociology, asking the epistemological question how society can be studied with digital methods. Several examples of data visualization, Big Data and computational sociology are discussed, while Romele underscores the view that digital methods do not give a transparent window on the world or on ourselves. There always remains “an inexhaustible gap between the self and its digital representations.” (50) So again, the virtual and the real do not coincide. In the second section Romele chooses an unexpected opponent: Bruno Latour.

One might expect, Romele rightly suggests, that Latour would show how digital representation and research methods do not simply represent the world as it is, how digital technology needs its own material structure of cables, electricity, hardware, etc., and how the internet can be seen as a dense network of actants. To the surprise of both author and readers, this is not what Latour writes about the digital. Romele shows how Latour usually combines an emphasis on matter and on networks, but with regard to the digital he seems to forget its material shapes and almost entirely focusses on how digital networks offer us a view on real networks:

“It is as if Latour’s attention to the matter of the spirit applies to everything except to digital technologies and methodologies because they allow social reality to be seen as Latour wants to see it. For him, the digital has a double function. From an ontological point of view, it is a model and a paradigm for seeing the society as an actor-network. From an epistemological perspective, it offers a new resource to study society ‘in action.’” (53)

Latour seems to try to erase the difference between map and territory: “…digital traceability has transformed reality in  a global laboratory in which entities and events can be followed step by step.” (54) However, arguing that the real and the virtual never coincide, Romele reads Latour against Latour, showing how Latour’s interest in uncovering networks in the real world conceals the matter of the digital as a web of constructing actants. In other words, with regard to the digital Latour seems to behave like the ‘modern’ scientist that he elsewhere claims we have never been:

“In his We Have Never Been Modern (1993), Latour denoted with the word ‘modern’ two orders of practices: the ‘translation,’ consisting of creating hybrids, and the ‘purification,’ which continuously hides these same hybridizations. Are we not facing such a process right here? Are we not, on the one hand, creating hybrid entities of (social) nature and (digital) culture (digital traces and the methods for their analysis as ‘presentification’ of social reality) and, on the other hand, concealing the very process of creation of these entities?” (58)

After this criticism Romele mentions several ideas and methods that are better candidates to be incorporated in a methodology of digital hermeneutics. Big Data do not simply show massive facts, but, with a reference to Rob Kitchin (2014), could better be called “capta (from the Latin capere, ‘to take’), because they are extracted through observations, computations, experiments, and recordings that have nothing immediate in themselves.” (60)

How can we develop methods that make use of the giant new possibilities of massive digital information, while remaining aware of its perspective and constructive elements? Romele refers to the work of the digital sociologist Noortje Marres (2017), perhaps “the most Latourian in this field, more Latourian than Latour himself,” (61) who indicates the impossibility to establish a clear boundary between digital methods and their objects. In her digital sociology she has decided to accept the fluidity of the distinction between methods and objects, and to investigate this unsolidified distinction. Marres’ sociology includes “the continuous effort to trace the boundaries between medium, methods, and social reality.” (62) Sociology therefore needs to combine digital and classical methods, while placing the constructive effects of digital settings in the centre of scientific analysis. Marres calls this “issue mapping.” (63)

This is where hermeneutics meets post-phenomenology. This last current of thought (Romele mainly refers to Don Ihde and Peter-Paul Verbeek) investigates how technologies are co-constitutive in the mediation between humans and the world. It offers another perspective on the same insights of actor-network-theory: “…while actor-network theory is attentive above all to the plurality of relations, postphenomenology, which usually considers only one relation at a time, addresses somewhat the different types of relations and the different types of actors involved in these relations.” (65) Digital hermeneutics thus includes the use of digital methods as well as reflections on these methods and the many ways  they participate in shaping their objects. Further investigations in this field of research will probably lead to very complex analyses of many different sorts of multidimensional and flexible networks. Romele has developed a promising epistemological vantage point for this kind of research. I would have liked to read a bit more about advanced elaborations on it, but these lie beyond the scope of this book.

In this way Romele sketches not only a material and technological turn in hermeneutics, but also a hermeneutical turn in the philosophy of technology. Digital hermeneutics is an actualization of Ricoeur’s “long route” of hermeneutics, “making existence, preconceptions, and specific worldviews emerge from an internal analysis of the methods and the objects themselves.” (74) This approach includes negotiations about the methods and terminologies that the researcher has to link his own work to, in order to keep a dialogue going. On the one hand Romele seems to join theories of information, trying to give a hermeneutic twist to them. On the other hand he suggests another terminology, developing the notion of “digital trace” as a “hermeneutic alternative to the concept of semantic information” of Floridi and others (75). Although information and communication are still relevant features of the digital, Romele writes: “I believe that today recording, registration, and keeping track represent the most appropriate paradigm for understanding the digital and its consequences.” (72) Again, he follows Ricoeur in this respect, for whom the trace was “the matrix of a difficult but possible epistemology.” (77). Tracking or following traces is a general notion for a style of research in many different practices, like medicine, hunting and art history. “A hermeneutic of the trace would therefore be much wider (both in depth and width) than the classic hermeneutics of texts, documents, or monuments.” (78)

Ontology of the Digital

The second part of this book is dedicated to the ontology of the digital. Its aim is a new ontological turn in hermeneutics, now within the context of digital hermeneutics, by investigating to what extent digital machines are able to interpret. This is a farewell to the anthropocentrism that has accompanied modern hermeneutics for centuries. In the third chapter Romele goes step-by-step from Kantian imagination to Emagination – this term is also the title of part II.

The Kantian transcendental scheme or Einbildungskraft is the famous faculty of the first Critique that brings sense data and understanding together: the transcendental construction of objects in the mind. In the third Critique Kant adds a reflective imagination that is less dependent on the twelve categories of understanding. In the twentieth century this imagination as faculty of human consciousness was replaced by Simondon and Ricoeur in a, respectively, practical-technical and a semiotic-historical imagination. Romele refers several times to Simondon, but mainly elaborates on Ricoeur. In Ricoeur’s narrative theory productive imagination is externalized in language: “The synthesis between receptivity and spontaneity happens outside, in linguistic expressions such as symbols, signs, metaphors, and narrations.” (87) Imagination is not a creatio ex nihilo, but is a recombination of already existing elements, a process of distanciation and re-appropriation, which takes place in language. Ricoeur has articulated this process with the help of the Aristotelian notions mimesis and mythos. The re-arrangement of elements of a series of events in the structures of a story takes the place of the Kantian imagination that combines sense data and the categories of the understanding. This emplotment is performed in several levels of mimesis: prefiguration, configuration and refiguration.

In a move that is analogous to his argument in the first part, Romele now transposes productive imagination from language to machines. Digital imagination, or emagination, however, is more than an extension of human imagination from language to machines: the machines work by themselves. “Digital technologies, I would say, imitate with increasing fidelity the way human productive imagination actually works.” (100) They are “imaginative machines” that work by mimesis and mythos.

With regard to mimesis, Romele refers to, among others, Don Ihde, who has distinguished several ways in which technology mediates between humans and the world. All these mediations are transparent, in the sense that, after a while, we hardly notice them anymore:

“(1) embodied relations, whose specificity lies in the high transparency of the technological artefact after a period of adaptation (for instance, glasses); (2) hermeneutic relations, which give a representation of the world that interprets the world, and that must in its turn be interpreted (for example, thermometers and maps); (3) alterity relations, in which the relation with the world is temporarily suspended, and the technology itself assumes the role of interlocutor/competitor (for instance, computer games); and (4) background relations, when a technology creates the conditions of our own relation with the world (for example, heating and lighting systems).” (100-101)

Digital technologies can perform all these mediations. In doing so, they interpret, represent and reproduce the world for us. But however transparent they may seem, we still need to be aware of the distanciation that is at work here: digital representations do not coincide with reality.

With regard to mythos, digital software is able to perform productive imagination. The emplotment is created by databases and algorithms, analogous to the Kantian sense data and categories – and perhaps also to series of events combined in narrative structures. This last comparison is suggested but not specified by Romele. A few pages further, this analogy is relativized, when he mentions differences between narrative imagination and Big Data analytics. The latter is abstracted from its context of production and, moreover: “…data mining and machine learning are based neither on narrative emplotment nor on the research of causes […], but on the correlation of heterogeneous data.” (108) Nevertheless, digital technologies work autonomously and can guide our perceptions and actions. They are “…not only interfaces to our imagination and the world but are one of the ways (probably the main one today) in which productive imagination externalizes and realizes itself in the world.” (103)

Moreover, digital machines are increasingly performing faster and on a larger scale than humans. Big Data and the newest algorithms work more and more autonomously, and with a productive imagination that surpasses human sensibility and understanding. According to Romele, at the end of the last century productive imagination could still be said to be “lower” than human imagination. In the social web of the last two decades there is rather a correspondence between the two. But today, now that databases have become data streams and because of the development of machine learning algorithms,

“the relation between human and digital imagination is going to be inversed, since the latter is overpassing the possibilities of the former. Or at least, even without wanting to confront them, it seems fair to say that digital imagination is taking an autonomous path which has concrete consequences on our decisions.” (91)

Given the fact that the analogy between narrative and digital imagination is, in my view at least, less convincing than other parts of the book, it makes sense to suggest that the latter is different from human imagination, but that it also, at least in several respects, outperforms human productive imagination.

This last observation, one of the most important ideas of this book, is not only fascinating, but also deeply worrying, as becomes clear in the example of algorithmic governmental profiling. The third chapter ends with the larger question how human freedom can be understood in this understanding of productive imagination and in relation to the digital. Romele pleas for a relatively modest view of our freedom: “Human beings are essentially hetero-determinate, and what we call ‘freedom’ is a long and difficult detour through our technological, but also bodily, cultural, and social exteriorities.” (109) Nonetheless, the newest digital technologies may have enormous consequences on our subjective sense of freedom.

In chapter 4 Romele goes further in “frustrating” our human self-esteem. He states that human imagination is not as creative and ingenious as we often think. All innovation is a recombination and further developing of what already existed. Romele combines the Kantian distinction between determining imagination in the first Critique and free reflective imagination in the third Critique with Lévi-Strauss’ distinction between the engineer and the bricoleur. The engineer looks for the right materials and can develop a large number of tools and concepts, whereas the bricoleur only uses the material at hand. According to this distinction, the bricoleur is productive and the engineer is creative. Romele criticizes the idea that human imagination works like creative engineering, following Derrida’s deconstruction of the distinction: the engineer is a myth. Thus, we have never been engineers, as the title of this chapter says (124).

In addition, Romele stresses the increasing role of Artificial Intelligence in influencing our aesthetic judgments (machines recommending us what to watch and what to listen to), as well as aesthetic production in some areas. All this means “…that digital machines are also teaching us to be modest when it comes to us pretending to be engineers.” (132)

In the conclusion of this chapter, Romele compares several phases of the relation between hermeneutics and nature with phases of digital hermeneutics. These phases are a “level zero” (nature cannot be interpreted), “level one” (nature as object or our projections) and “level two” (nature has interpretative capacities). Comparably, for a long time hermeneutics made a strong distinction between humans and non-humans, which can be called “level zero”. At “level one” interpretation “…is a result of the articulation between human and non-human intentionalities.” (138) “Level two” still mainly has to come. The question here is whether we can “…attribute to digital technologies, or at least to an emerging part of them, an autonomous interpretational agency.” (139)

A part of the answer to this last question is given on the first page of the Finale. Among the many distinctions Romele has made in his book, is a list of different degrees and kinds of interpretation. Several levels of complexity can be distinguished. The more complex the level of interpretation is, the less it can be attributed to digital technologies. Classification in already established orders can be done more efficiently by machines, whereas digital technologies cannot (yet) beat human pattern-recognition abilities (143).

Ethics and Politics of the Digital

The plea for symmetry between humans and digital machines does not make Romele blind for the political consequences it may have. He argues for a critical posthumanism that needs to address differences between humans and machines, “… while remaining within the limits of a principle of symmetry.” (144) This critical posthumanism has to investigate “…the kind of interference between human and non-human (in this case, digital) claims for meaning when the object of interpretation and eventual understanding is human subjectivity.” (145) In recent years this interference has been growing because of the collection, analysis and trade of user and consumer data. Romele speaks of a “general ‘algorithmization’ and ‘Big Datafication’” that has created a superstructure with a central role in our digital economy, culture and society (148).

What worries Romele is the indifference he finds in many people, “the most important affection in the present digital age.” (145) He tries to understand this indifference with Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus. Habitus is a “supra- or infra-cultural entity that frames our intention without us even being conscious of such hetero-determination.” (149) It shapes our behaviour, postures, wishes, etc., and makes us part of a specific social and economic class. The digital, Romele writes, “must be considered as a sort of habitus generator.” (146, 151) At the end of his book he formulates the following important question:

“The question I want to ask at this point is how it is possible to make subjects able to deal with the digital habitus in order to carve out room for manoeuvring or allowing a margin of freedom before the power and the configuring force exercised on them by and through the sociotechnical systems.” (153)

His answer makes use of three notions that are articulated by Michel Foucault. The first is the Panopticon: surveillance is an increasing problem of social media. The second notion is confession. Foucault states that Western self-understanding and expression have adopted a form of confession that gives rise to problematic power relations. The way to deal with these power relations may lie in a third notion: parrhesia, speaking freely, in a way that interrupts the usual codes. The problem is, however, that algorithmic digital technology seems to have anesthetized our free speech or to have made it irrelevant. What can speaking freely help us, if the algorithms of insurance companies or the police have already profiled us as suspicious? Romele suggests that only socio-economic and institutional initiatives can constitute contexts and situations that make parrhesia possible. The justice we would need to look for, he concludes,

“…would consist of creating sociotechnical conditions for an ethos of distanciation from one’s own digital habitus. In other words, it would mean to contribute to framing a sociodigital environment in which people can become sensitive to the insensibility and indifference of the digital.” (158)

Digital Hermeneutics is a rich and dense book that offers many views on the rapidly developing digital structures of our world. It discusses several important questions that philosophy needs to address today. At the same time it is a very good effort to re-invent hermeneutics in a contemporary setting, incorporating post-phenomenology and other philosophies of technology. In short, this is a must-read for everyone who is interested in hermeneutic philosophy and the digital.

References

Don Ihde. Don. 1998, Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Floridi, Luciano. 2005. “Is Semantic Information Meaningful Data?”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 70 (2): 351–370.

Kitchin, Rob. 2014. The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences. London: Sage.

Marres, Noortje. 2017. Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Sociological Research. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1991. From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

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