Dingpolitik and an internet of things

On: September 11, 2008
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About Tjerk Timan
During the last couple of years, I have been involved in Industrial Design at the Technical University of Eindhoven, both on the theoretical as well as the physical/practical side, always working on the boarder between the digital and physical. After an internship at Mediamatic, I wanted to get more involved in the digital side of new media. Currently, I am investigating the complex realm of new media [at] the master course New Media, UvA. With a thesis focus now on ‘objects that blog’ within the context of an internet of things, the challenge is to investigate the agency and influence of things. Especially when these things, being digital or physical, are capable of sharing, posting, editing, deleting content. And on who’s account? Within that same line of thought, the digital is often taking itself for granted maybe too much, where often the step towards WHO and HOW data is manipulated is left out of the loop. Taking these things back into the (design) loop is one of my missions, with the statement in mind that the way content is created and consumed has at least as much importance as the technology driving it. Furthermore, I am currently active within the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam. Also, I do some occasional freelance work, where disciplines differ from web-design to workshops to product design.

Website
http://www.tjerktiman.nl    

The relevancy of performing research into the topic of an Internet of Things lies in the fact that, although seemingly the concept has faded into the background, reality might be catching up.
Where the web 2.0 bubble keeps on growing within the natively digital, a slow but steady growth can be seen in, amongst other things, near-field –communication devices, such as mobile phones, retail, and even passports. Often presented within the argument realm of security, or marketing efficiency, these ‘old’ concepts of ‘connected things’ are emergent. How these connected things are going to play a role within society remains little or undiscovered territory.

Bruno Latour presents an interesting view on this matter in his work “ From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, or how to make things public”. In this article, politics and public space are discussed, where the claim is made that perhaps we need a shift towards the politics of things in order to re-map politics. This can be achieved via the introduction of Dingpolitik (as opposed to Realpolitik), combined with a set of experiments to research the question “ what would object-oriented democracy look like? “.
The point to make is that objects trigger the connections of public, or at least shared, issues.
“Each object gathers around itself a different assembly of relevant parties” , and triggers discussion. All these objects, with their issues, are binding us into a ‘public space’. Where this has up to now never been looked into as being political, objects are. Latour continues by strongly criticizing political philosophy due to its “strong object-avoidance tendency”.
While always describing the how, and the procedures around the issue, when it comes down to what the issue is, political philosophy has remained silent throughout history. Within the res publica, the only focus until now has been on the procedures; not on the things that allow for politics; the “matters that matter” .

Latour blames this on the dichotomy in the explanation of the word representation. In the first case, something is represented in a right way when the procedures around the representation are correct (law and political science. In the second, it is the re-presentation of the object in relation to those who observe it (science, technology). There is a need to investigate how and through what medium the matters of concern are discussed. How are all involved parties, people and things assembled?
While one might claim that the actors in this setting are the human beings organizing this assembly, Latour claims that the influence of things have an even role in creating this assembly. To continue, this brings in another problem: “ to assemble is one thing; to represent to the eyes and ears of those assembled what is at stake is another. An object-oriented democracy should be concerned as much by the procedure to detect the relevant parties as to the methods to bring into the center of debate the proof of what it is to be debated” . In this proof finding, lots of problems occur: when is something proven and, when is there still room for discussion? Is there something like a matter-of-fact? Here, he introduces a new approach, by suggesting to look into matter of concern, rather than matters of fact. Where objects used to be looked at as a literally matters-of fact, this is false, or at least too narrow of a view on the matter.

But how to get form objects to matter-of-concerns to things? Latour points out how the Ding has been around for centuries, referring to “thingmen” dating back from old northern peoples. It has always been ‘things’ that brought people together, because things divide. It is time to go back to things. Now, the question rises how things should be shaped; what is the aesthetic of these things within current society?
Latour claims, that all of us are politically challenged when individuals; only when issues become public in any form of assembly, politics can happen. While often in history, this advice has been taken too literally in the shape of spheres and domes, maybe it is time to look for other places of publicity, than the rather archaic town halls, churches and parliaments. These “palaces of reason” are no longer sufficient places for our issues.

Latour continuous by pointing out that another mistake made in Western political history is that it focused on settling differences, instead of trying to co-evolve with a set of indifferences. Here he makes the argument for disagreement and cohabiting, especially with indifferences. How can this be achieved? Well. First of all by altering the view on the form and metaphor of state. Where the focus used to lie on body politics, imagining the state as something to be formed with one General Will , we should be looking into politics of pragmatism. (‘pragmata’ being Greek for ‘things’).

In further discussing the political Western history, the next and important point to make is that of the shift from politics of time to politics of space. Where paradigm shifts of ways of thinking in politic, art, or science have always been labeled chronologically, one following the other, we now enter a time where time itself is condensed. Everything has become contemporary . Although ordering things in time has been quite sorted out, we now have to move into anew territory: that of ordering in space.
With a whole set of point made, the question of how Dingpolitik can take shape now remains. How can we re-order the balance and get involved in Dingpolitik?
Here Latour ends by providing a set of guidelines if you will, or parameters for success of dingpolitik, summed up in my own interpretation:

1) Politics go beyond humans, and have to involve everything they are linked to.
2) Matters-of-fact have to become more than that- they have to find a way to get more attention and become matters-of-concern.
3) The traditional ways of assembling for politics, and matters-to-be-discussed have to be altered into ‘virtual parliaments”, probably way more distributed than the current situation.
4) We have to accept flaws of human capacity and accept ‘help’ from all kinds of systems around us.
5) There are more and alternative ways of government-mechanisms over ‘speech’.
6) Old bodies of politics must give way to a more fragile ‘phantom’ public to assemble.
7) Dingpolitik can exist only if we let go of a chronologic way of thinking and revert to a ‘politics of space’.

The value of this dingpolitik in the light of networked objects/ an internet of things becomes clear immediately. Where static objects were sometimes altered into ‘things’ or ‘matters-of-concern’, this still happened passively. In such a sense that the decision of assembling, of gathering so to speak ‘around the object’ was in the actor’s hand of humans. What if objects themselves can gather, spread and claim issues, turning each other into matters-of-concern?

Latour, Bruno. “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik – or How to Make Things Public.” In Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005

(crossposted on www.tjerktiman.nl)

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