Any room left for freedom in a programmed world? – Vilém Flusser and the Digital Humanitites

Now, if one accepts the basic thesis that the world is experienced, recognized and evaluated in the network of codes, […].

Flusser thinks history as a sequence of codes of an alphabetical order. This suggests a linear historical world. In contrast, Flusser sees the computer as a phenomenon of post-history. It dissolves structural oppositions such as subject and object, nature and culture. Now adays this Decentration is seen as a network phenomena.

Actually, Flusser, a theorist on media, sees communication as a fight against entropy, a “trick against the loneliness to death”. With the dissolution of the fundamental opposition between nature and culture we risk to lose this fight, Flusser says. He believes that our subject-object thinking is lost. What is left? Some sort of projects, Flusser says. For him this is the crisis of the transition from history into post-history. Literally, it will be the permanent present. So, it would be interesting to compare Flusser and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht who speaks about the enlargement of the present, The Big Now.

To work against this risk Flusser wants to understand apparatuses as the computer, the film and all the other machines that dominate our lives. We need to know them so good that we can write their meta-program. Because: If we do not manage the way out of the history into the post-history we will be some sort of robots, Flusser says. Aesthetics should help us to get out of this.

The other way to get out of that crisis is to understand the code of the post-history. “It is advisable, not to objectify nor to anthropomorphize computers, but to summarize them in their absurd, random necessary functioning.” That way only we can hope to control them and to incorporate them in a meta-program of men.

For Flusser, a computer is the defining element of our society. He understands it as a calculator and notation system. What status as a thing that is producing Big Data has it? This remains rather unclear with Flusser and it would be interesting to compare it to Friedrich A. Kittler’s Truth of the Technical World.

For the Digital Humanities, it is important to realize, that, actually, a computer is a mediator of other things, other worlds. It stands between us and the world. So it is not the apparatus that counts but the programmes running on it. Algorithms change our world. With Mercedes Bunz we say: they are the silent revolution. In this regard, Vilém Fusser’s critique of apparatus is outdated but his essential question in his book originally based on lectures in the early nineties is still very relevant: Is there any room left for freedom in a programmed world? It will be worth to read his book Post-History that has been edited by the Flusser Archive Collection 2013.

Bild Vilem Flusser

Vilém Flusser, Rodrigo Maltez Novaes, Post-History, Flusser Archive Collection, 2013


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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2 thoughts on “Any room left for freedom in a programmed world? – Vilém Flusser and the Digital Humanitites

  1. Pingback: Digitization is not research: Theories and practices in the Digital Humanities | We think History

  2. Pingback: Theories and practices in the Digital Humanities | We think History

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