Star Trek, Marx and Time Travel
Alan Shapiro - Star guest of the next Transmediale - on new computers, 1968 and anarchism
Interview in the Berlin daily newspaper "Neues Deutschland," January 5, 2010
Translated from the German by Dwight “Doc” Gooden
As a software specialist, Alan Shapiro would like to set the digital world on a new footing. As a philosopher, he wants to introduce new thinking into the world. And as an "anarchist reader of Marx" (self-description), he not only steers Marx's critique of capitalism in a new direction, he also believes that alienation and exploitation can be dragged and dropped to the trash of history. Shapiro, who at one time worked at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has been active for 20 years as a software developer and media studies scholar, especially in Germany. In February, he will be a signature speaker at the Berlin Transmediale media and art festival.
Neues Deutschland: You want to develop a completely new kind of computer, and found a New Computer Science. How are we to understand that?
Existing computers are based on the scientific norms of the 17th century. They go back to the mechanistic philosophy of René Descartes. Their goal is to reduce complexity. A problem is broken down into smaller, more manageable units. This works for a kind of machine-like software. There is no holistic relationship between the parts and the whole. The parts and the whole are related to each other like the parts of a car. In 20th and 21st century philosophy, by contrast, a lot of emphasis is placed on an integral perspective. I am thinking above all of the French thinkers like Deleuze, Baudrillard and Foucault. The New Medicine and the New Biology are also characterized by an integral approach.
What does that mean when transferred to Computer Science?
New computers should come closer to this integral approach. Biology teaches us that each individual member of a species, in every second of its existence, is reading its genetic code. From this body of knowledge that belongs to its species, the singular individual decodes information in real-time for its own existence. Transferred to computer science, this means that we must develop a new relationship between the executable program and the database elements.
Will that lead to better, faster, and more powerful computers?
Computers will themselves become more complex rather than being engineered as tools for the reduction of complexity. Let us face this fact: with existing software, nothing surprising can happen. There can be no surprises and no emergence. Only what the software developer has pre-programmed can occur. New computers will be more flexible.
What we intend to do can be described as a new relationship of patterns and similarities. It’s like in music, where, for example, each single note in a symphony has resonance with the entire symphony.
You take your examples from science and art. Do you believe that artistic approaches are helpful in technology development?
Absolutely! I am very influenced by the cultural revolution of 1968, by the student rebellions, the liberation movements in all areas of society, also New Age and Buddhism, the whole panorama of holistic ideas for happiness.
I published a book about the technologies of Star Trek. It has been recognized as an important work of sociology. I believe that we are very close to a new paradigmatic breakthrough where art, science, and philosophy will be unified. Then we will be able to develop the Star Trek technologies. In the middle term, in about 20 years, time travel will also be possible. The first step towards that is the New Computer Science.
At the present time, almost everyone who believes himself to be in touch with the times wants to bring art, science, and philosophy into harmony with each other. What is different about what you are doing?
We unify theory and practice. That’s what Karl Marx said. I have done an anarchistic reading of Marx. We will replace work with play, enjoyment, friendship, creativity, and diversity of activities.
This is a new anarchistic Marxism that we will first try out at Shapiro Technologies as a radical-pragmatic utopian experiment.
What will Shapiro Technologies develop?
We will be active in technology, media, futuristic design, and ecology. The basis of our advanced technology is a new mathematics that has been developed by the Irish mathematician Alexis Clancy. He is a genius, a new Einstein.
The individual products can be very diverse. We are trying at the present time to get contracts at the Deutsche Bahn in the area of logistics, at Volkswagen or another automobile manufacturer in the areas of Spoken Dialogue Technology and the Car of the Future, with Computer Games developers working on emotions and storytelling/narrative, in Japan with interactive talking comic books, and at Pixar/Disney in America with Artificial Life characters at theme parks.
In February, you are going to present a new car at the Transmediale. Can you tell us something about that?
The car should no longer be reduced to the transport function of getting from Point A to Point B. Here it is also about taking an integral approach. Speech capabilities should be integrated. The car will become a new game platform. Video projections can be made on all the car's windows with a new glass technology. The car becomes a cockpit for all kinds of virtual reality simulations which are at the same time experienced physically. The car becomes a vehicle for traveling into cyberspace. Additionally, the car should be turned on its side, be transformable into a vertical car, its width should be decreased by 45%. As they are now, cars take up much too much space in the urban environment.
Interviewer: Tom Mustroph