Bruno Latour, "There Is No Information, Only Transformation"

"There Is No Information, Only Transformation"
An Interview with Bruno Latour
By Geert Lovink and Pit Schultz

[From Hybrid Workspace, Documenta X, Kassel, August 16, 1997]

Bruno Latour (Paris) is a philosopher, specialized in the anthropology of
science and technology. He is a professor at the Centre of the Sociology
of Innovation at the l'Ecole Nationale Superieure des Mines de Paris.
He is called "one of today's most acute, if idiosyncratic, thinkers about
science and society." Amongst his books, published by Harvard University
Press, one can find "We have never been modern", "Aramis, or the love of
technology" and "The Pasteurization of France". His Documenta lecture can
be seen or heard at:

Geert Lovink: At the moment there are two concepts of the computer: an
abstract, computational machine, based on mathematics and language.
Opposed to this we have the future computer as an image processing device,
an interactive television set. How do look at this distinction between the
language based machine versus the image based medium?

Bruno Latour: I do not believe that computers are abstract. There is a very interesting article, 'On the Origin of Objects' by a computer philosopher called Brian Cantwell-Smith, in a book about digital print.

He made the comment that the fact that there is (either) 0 and (or) 1
has absolutely no connection with the abstractness. It is actually
very concrete, never 0 and 1 (at the same time). The distinction you
suggested is slightly misleading. The origin of this (distinction) is
lying in the notion of information. There is only transformation.
Information as something which will be carried through space and time,
without deformation, is a complete myth. People who deal with the
technology will actually use the practical notion of transformation. From
the same bytes, in terms of 'abstract encoding', the output you get is
entirely different, depending on the medium you use. Down with
information. It is a bad view on science and a bad rendering of
contemporary critique of images, all this fight against the

GL: Still are the two views of the computer: either it is a machine which
is still owned by the scientists, or it is going to be an image processor,
which will soon enter popular culture.

BL: I am not sure if I agree with the terms of the divide. To say that the
computer is a scientific, abstract machine is largely misleading. There is
a book called 'The Soul of the New Machine'. That is the right expression.
You can find that in the work of Brian Smith on the embodiment of the
computer. Afterall it is made of sillicon. It has its own embodiment on
the level of digits and bytes. The computer is not a reservoir of
abstraction, scientificity and technicity. Science and technology for me
does not mean abstract. It means highly socialized, extremely embodied and
localized. There might be badly designed computers, or interfaces
that are not ergonomic. But the idea of an abstract computer that, so
to say, falls in a humane dimension which will be threatened by this
eruption is absurd. Computer as a foreign body, a meteorite. Even
since Pascals first calculating machine, the socializing has been
going on.

Michel Serres made the argument that all what we are talking about
concerning computer is Leibniz' dream, finally materialized. The idea
of a universal language that will code and encode everything, the idea
of free accessibility of gigantic libraries is Leibniz' idea. So
finally are doing what Leibniz has proposed. But it became a machine
that never works exactly the way we want and was dreamt of in
17th century. It is the history of what I call the history of the
immutable mobile. The notion of the true contradictory function of
immutability and maximum mobility. It is linked of course to the
history of the West, to maximize these two contradictorary functions.
Elisabeth Eisenstein makes this same point in her history of the
printing press. Digitality is the extension, one step further of
mobile types. It is not a revolutionairy element. The moving pixel is
added to the movable type. I always react negatively against the idea
that technology is a foreign body inside the humane. It does not come
from another planet, it is highly socialized and connected with a long
history. Negating this typifyes the danger of techno-enthousiasm. I
would add to the Peoples Communication Charter that is hanging here on
the wall: 'Do not believe that the computer has a short history.'
The computer is a perfect example of how non-modern we are. The
possibility of shifting boundaries between images, text and things and
virtuality is a completely classical antropological feature. Now in Paris,
people are using a visualized 'Second World', where you can rent
flats. People who are living in the drab 'banlieues' at the periphery
can now have virtual flats on the Champs Elysees. But that is nothing
compared to what it is to live in the society, which is a virtual
reality from scratch. It materializes on the screen, with the notion
of avatars and second reality. But it is not a revolutionairy break
from being in the society. My argument is exactly anti-Virilio, if you

GL: At the end of your lecture you suggested that we should step back,
out of flow of images. Do you also think that there is the danger of
information overflow?

BL: My argument was always the opposite. There is a heritage of the
iconoclastic dispute, which is nowadays renewed around this notion of
the overload of images. Lots of images were destroyed because people
were overloaded. That was exactly Luthers argument. Too many images
which hide the important features which is itself not visible. My
argument is an iconophilic one, which is always the opposite. One
image, isolated from the rest, freeze framed from the series of
transformation has no meaning. An image of a galaxy has no reference.
The transformation of the images of the galaxy has. So, it is an anti
information argument. Pictures of a galaxy has no information content.
Itself the image has no meaning if it cannot be related to another
spectography of a galaxy. What has reference is the transformations of
images. Being iconophilic means following the flow of images, without
believing that they carry information. It is neither iconoclastic in
the sense of: let us get rid of the image because what we want to
access is the invisible, the innefable. On the contrary. If we follow
the logic of the images, they themselves past into one other image.
Images demonstrate transformation, not information. But then there is
the contradiction the very daily practise of transformation and the
talk, the hype about information flows, internet universality etc. It
is the same with money. When you talk with financial specialists, it is
highly localized, confidence based, small networks of people calling
one another by first name. Again, if we go outside, we talk about hugh
flows money going from New York to Hong Kong in a second. We have a
tremendous hype about globalization, immediacy, unversality and speed.
On the other side we see localized transformations and there seems to
be not connection between the two. Somebody like Paul Virilio is
interesting because he, rightly, attacks the hype. This is good common
sense critique. But we never study the practise.
So the computer is not an abstract machine. Nothing is chewing like.
Everything is highly incarnated and situated in sillicon chips. There
is this bizarre love-hate relationship. Virilio is typical in this. He
loves to hate the techno hype. And the technicians very often hate to
love. But there is another way, in between.

Pit Schultz: But there is the notion of secrecy and hermetism.
Specialists and technicians do have secret knowledge about the
implementation of the modes of transformation. Average people do not
know how financial markets work, how currencies are transformed from
on into the other. But these tranfers have a lot of impact on the
society. The transformations become myths and are causing fear.

BT: But is it secret or is it localized knowhow? My feeling is that we
should not add to the myth. No myths about local knowhow! The notions
of information, universal immediacy, globalizations, add to the myth.
It is not very surprising for the common public that you need a lot of
work in order to produce an image. Look at the cloud chamber which is
here at the Documenta, or Hamilton's display. When you talk about
particles, no one will understand it. When do speak about bubble
trails in the bubble chamber, invented by Wilson to study clouds, it
becomes extremely simple to understand. Secrecy exits in research labs
for legal reasons, for pattent reasons, but it is much less
important than is usually being said. A lot of mystery in
the science practise, which I know best, comes because we render things
more obscure. And intellectuals should not render things more obscure
than they are. It is a mystery we like to have in order to debunk it.
The notion of localized practise is so common sense. I do not know how
sausages are made. Sausages are obtained through a lot of
transformations as well. And since I do not make a hype about sausages
I do not see why we should make one out of computer images. Like what
you do here in Hybrid Workspace: introducing groups week after week in
the practise of technology. That seems a perfectly sensible thing to
do. Nothing is hidden, expect through our love to hate.

GL: Universities are now closing their public part of the internet and
are building up their own, closed, parallel intranets. A lot of data
that were publicly available will be drawn back. This goes together
with the privitization and commercialization of much of the scientific
research. How do you look at these developments?

BL: I am not enough of an expert in this. What I know is that you
cannot ask scientists to work publicly, immediately connected to
millions of people. The notion of openness and immediacy is a complete
nightmare. But this is different from the notion of private knowledge.
This is process, again, has been going on for centuries in chemistry.
One of the aspects is the legal one. How much is private and how much
is appropriated? Openness is not very productive. You need to have
local niches. Isolated, provincial, unconnected disciplines have been
shown very successfull in the past. You need to have your own little
corner and we will see what the consequences of the internet will be on
scientific work. Scientists keep on subscribing to very expensive
journals because they need the stamp of hierarchical knowledge. As long
as the Net does not find a way of providing this, it will not achieve
the authoritative status with the scientific community. Publications
on the Web are still very traditional. It has not moved much, with
the exception perhaps of e-mail.

GL: How would you then judge attempts, like nettime, to develop a so-
called 'net criticism', locating itself inside the technology, no
longer judging it as an outsider, in order to overcome the phase of the
hype, without going back to cultural pessimism.

BL: If you find a way to deterritorialize, to dissolve localities and
hierarchies, there might also be ways to reconstruct hierarchies and
come with filters, tastes, judgements and values. Everybody is
complaining about the lack of hierarchy in the Net. The more unmediated
access you have, the more closed and highly hierarchical and critical
sites you will find. In our centre we invented a system called
'semiotext' which gives maps of internet texts by clustering the words
into a system called Leximap. It gives you highly hierarchized maps.
This sort of system will proliferate. It gives you depth of vision,
which can be given a critique. It will be a highly elaborate site if
people know that they can find good critiques there. Again, everything
which runs against the notion of information will happen just by
itself. Universality, fastness, immediacy will not suddenly be there,
despite the hype.

On the contrary, local transformation, hierarchy, taste, critique:
that will happen. The idea of information as immutability and mobility
being non-contradictory, being able to flow everywhere, does not work
at the level of science, nor at the level of the computer or politics.
We can make a save bet that it will not happen.

GL: How do you see the relation between real and virtual spaces, the
ruptures and possibilities to connect them, like we do here, in
Workspace? Do you believe in the so-called synergy of all media? Here
we work with video, the Net, we have the tradition of film, and print
of course. We have all these different media here. Should we encourage
the hybridity of all these machines?

BL: Hybrid is a word I like. But you know also there this no
instantaneous access to these machines. You need to train people. it
will never work exactly the way you want it. You need a lot of
different cables. They are hanging on the wall here. Sometimes
television works with another medium. In France we never get something
done because we have the SECAM standard. Everytime the hype is deflated
and you say that you will locally connect media to produce a few new
effect, is a perfectly reasonable statement for me. To connect all with
connect is pure ideology. When it comes to multimedia... I was was in
Colmar, looking at the Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Gruenwald. It
is hypermedia: the different panels are openening and closing,
depending on the days of the week and the feasts. It includes painting
plus sculpture plus the reading of the gospel, the mass. The rule is:
whatever medium there is, you will always find someone to make a
connection with them. But this is not the same as saying that there is
an instantaneous connectibility. The digital only adds a little speed
to it. But that is small compared to talks, prints or writing. The
difficulty with computer development is to respect the little
innovation there is, without making too much out of it. We add a
little spirit to this thing when we use words like universal,
unmediated or global. But if way say that, in order to make visible a
collective of 5 to 10 billion people, in the long history of immutible
mobiles, the byte conversion is adding a little speed, which favours
certain connections more than others, than this seems a reasonable
statement. To say that we are living in a cyberworld, on the other
hand, is a complete absurdity.

(edited by Patrice Riemens)