Understanding the “Experience” of Objects

Ian Bogost

ibogost-colbertTo understand the nature of the universe, let’s accept two new principles: first, everything whatsoever is alien to everything else. And second, the experience of a thing can never be verified or validated, but only speculated, even if through deduction. In addition to science and philosophy, we need poetry too.

In addition to science and philosophy, we need poetry too.

We usually understand “alien” either in a political or a cosmological sense: a terrestrial alien is a foreigner from another country, and an extraterrestrial alien is a foreigner from another planet. Even when used to refer generally to otherness, we assume that aliens would be legible to humans. Whether from another nation or another galaxy, the other is someone we can recognize as enough like ourselves to be identifiable.

But why should we be so self-centered as to think that aliens are those beings like us? As Nicholas Rescher has observed, a true alien might not even have an intelligence akin to our intelligence. Rather than wondering if alien beings exist in the cosmos, let’s assume that they are all around us, everywhere, at all scales: dogs and penguins and magnolia trees; cornbread and polyester and Orlando. Then we can ask a different question: what do objects experience? What is it like to be a thing?

I came to this question by accident. Several years ago, I learned how to program the 1977 Atari Video Computer System, the console that made home videogame play popular. I was working on a book about the influence of the Atari’s hardware design on creative practices in those early days of the videogame.

To produce television graphics and sound on the cheap, Atari designed a custom chip called the Television Interface Adapter (TIA). The TIA made bizarre demands on game makers: instead of preparing a whole television picture all at once, the programmer had to alter data the TIA transmitted in tandem with the scanline-by-scanline movement of the television’s electron beam. Programming the Atari feels more like plowing a field than like painting a picture.

For its part, the humanities have revealed the diversity of human experience, but only by straining all of reality through the sieve of culture.

You can see the effects of the TIA’s line-by-line logic in Atari games: the rows of targets in Air-Sea Battle or the horizontal bars of horizon in Barnstorming. But I felt enchanted by the system’s parts as much as its output. The Atari was made by people in order to entertain other people, and in that sense it’s just a machine. But a machine and its components are also something more, something alive, almost. I found myself asking, what is it like to be an Atari or a cathode ray tube television?

Such a question may seem far-fetched. But is it really so strange to ponder the experience of objects, even while knowing that those objects don’t really have experiences like our own? To be fascinated with the things, from peach pies to microprocessors, and to embrace such fascination as philosophers as much as engineers? To do so, we must culture a new alliance between science and philosophy grounded in speculation.

From a common origin in Enlightenment rationalism, human culture spread in two different directions. On the one hand, science broke down the biological, physical, and cosmological world into smaller and smaller bits in order to understand it. On the other hand, philosophy concluded that reason could not explain the objects of experience but only describe experience itself. One extreme led to scientism, the belief that we can know the world completely by taking it apart, the other to relativism, the belief that we can never escape the mind, and that the world conforms to thought, language, and culture.

Despite this split, for the last four centuries science and philosophy have ultimately agreed on one fundamental principle: humanity is the ruler of being.

Science embraces the Copernican decentering of human beings, but it also assumes that the world exists for the benefit of humankind. Animals and plants too, perhaps, but certainly not toasters or Television Interface Adapters.

For its part, the humanities have revealed the diversity of human experience, but only by straining all of reality through the sieve of culture. Religion, politics, science, and engineering become expressions of human will or ideology, and reality becomes a myth. In its place, semiotics and society were crowned the rulers of existence.

The philosopher Graham Harman has given the names “undermining” and “overmining” to these two positions. Underminers focus on firmament, be they quarks, DNA, or mathematics. Things like sheep and battleships become tricks that deceive minds too naive to understand their depths. Overminers take objects as less real than the processes and circumstances that produce them. There are overmining and undermining sciences and philosophies alike, but generally speaking the sciences have a tendency to undermine while the humanities have a tendency to overmine.

Instead, what if we took all things as equal—not in value, but equal in existence? If ontology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of being, then we need a flat ontology, an account of existence that takes nothing to be more or less extant than anything else.

Why hold such a position? The philosopher Thomas Nagel famously pondered what it is like to be a bat, concluding that the creature’s experience could not be reduced to a scientific description of its method of echolocation. Science believes it can answer any questions through observation and verification. But despite our obsession with scientific answers, the experience of alien objects cannot be explained through experimentation.

The same is true of everything—not just bats, but also Atari Video Computer Systems. It is not enough to ponder the role things play in human enterprise, nor to limit empathy to living creatures such as dogs and forests. Once everything is on the ontological table, human choices become more complex. Grand challenges like health, energy, climate, education, and poverty can no longer be addressed as problems for humans alone. The world is not just ours, nor is it just for us. Existence is for microprocessors or petrol derricks as much as for kittens or bamboo.

A new humility and earnestness might emerge from this metaphysics, one that embraces science and humanism while acknowledging the limits of both. Instead of a world of knowledge or progress, let’s instead imagine a world in which everything possesses as rich and fascinating an existence as anything else. Characterizing that existence requires a new breed of philosopher-engineer-poets who would observe the operation of things while recognizing that any description of their experience will always remain metaphorical.

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