Perhaps one of the most influential paradigms of the genesis of computers is the idea of a 'general problem solver'. Etymologically, we consider a 'problem' a forward-inclined projection-which-is-to-hit-a-target, from Latin pro - 'for, forward' and ballein - 'throw, hit' (as in 'hit a target'). Consequently, a solution is anything that can reliably bring about a palpable hit from such a throw. Therein lies a very common and recognisable definition of what to us ordinarily appears as technology. Proportional to the increasing success of modern science and its technical explications we are experiencing a reduction of problems to simple and safe solutions. And this with undoubtedly enormous success. We ourselves wouldn't - our criticism of current global conditions notwithstanding - want to miss these cultural and technological achievements, which enable many more people to live infinitely better lives than ever before.
But crises on a global scale show us that our planet has become too small for simple solutions based on formulas. In the context of mechanical construction, this observation seems obvious. But even in our daily dealings with information technology do we act according to prescribed procedures or 'recipes'. Whether we follow programmes or implement them in a procedural, object-orientated way, according to the rules; and be this via agents or neuronal networks: all these are ways of accelerating and perfecting, ever more dexterously, the implementation of self-reflexions which we have been pursuing since the advent of modernity. But this short circuit between problem and solution, between cause and effect, limits our existence to the status-quo. Because by reducing problems to quick fix solutions, we reduce our projective space of the imagination, since we keep having to negotiate what exactly it is that this forward-inclined-projection-which-is-to-hit-a-target is supposed to hit. This is what makes our world so small and also, as it happens, increasingly boring.
What was it that drove the heroes of modernity, such as Galileo or Bruno? What is the foundation that Descartes and Newton lay for this 'space of the imagination'? Without a doubt, they broadened the concept of a problem by a methodological path; they formulated an approach by which solutions could be found fast and with certainty. What part then does the 'programme of contrast' of Leibniz and Spinoza play opposite it? Their relationship to each other presents itself in an unusual way if we assume that they were all capable of thinking up a fantastical space of solutions first and only then developed different approaches to moving within that space and to formulating rationales for these movements. Picking up on this gesture, we therefore no longer want to think about the forward-inclined-projection-that-is-meant-to-hit-a-target as a problem, but as a project. Our focus thus shifts away from problems and moves instead towards the question 'how can something new come about?' Something that has not already been inherent in the chosen methodology, something that doesn't respond to a problem yet still may present a solution. Something that we therefore neither can, nor want to, ascribe to chance.
This may sound like a paradox, but we have in Google an impressive example of the kind of technological direction we can look towards. Google works exclusively with purely formal indices that are abstract from any content or meaning. And this is exactly the reason why Google is so powerful: at the moment, Google communicates information on the basis of 1,000,000,000,000,000 indeces, approximately 140,000 for each and every one of us 7 billion people. As a result, we are now able to find with Google virtually any document, as long as we ask the right question. Which in turn means, of course, that we get frustrated as soon as we are unable to ask our questions in a sufficiently differentiated way. (In quantitative terms, this corresponds approximately to the level of irritation we used to experience before Google, when we simply didn't know an answer.) What's interesting to us is that these indices, as a result of their density and availability, form a new kind of substance which, from a classical perspective, leads to new, paradoxical constellations. For example, the very reason Google is so good at finding specific texts is that it doesn't know their content: it is, in a sense, a meaningless 'text finder', and all the more efficient for it.
Just as is the case with the index infrastructure used by Google, so the technological and economical development of computer hardware progresses at breathtaking speed, because it too ignores any reference system. Mobile telephony too follows this path and it has succeeded in what no mechanical infrastructure, no technocracy, no bureaucracy and no development project, however well intentioned, has ever achieved: within 10 years, mobile telephony has enabled 5 out of 7 billion people to effortlessly communicate with each other, almost entirely irrespective of where on the planet they are. This has allowed it to penetrate particularly also the poor areas of new mega-cities, for example, which have never before been served by either any meaningful infrastructure nor, as it happens, by institutional law. And there are even technological solutions which come back to us from these social strata, for example micro banking. These are strong indicators for an emancipation taking place, on the basis of technological developments.
We are fairly certain that we will witness similar patterns in photovoltaics, even though it is still early days and we are looking at first signs only. In photovoltaics we have thin foils of printed matter, not entirely dissimilar to newspapers, really, but capable of converting solar energy into electricity. Photovoltaics put behind us any territorial or mechanical considerations, and will shortly be giving us an abundance of clean energy. Photovoltaics spells kilowatts as kilobytes: a rhizome, intelligent mesh of energy generation that bypasses centrally controlled providers and hierarchical infrastructures. From the breeding ground of indexable quantities emerge new qualities.
What these examples illustrate is that we can't, in the long term, maintain stabilities by referencing, individually and securely, that which is territorial, explicit, countable and that which we can visualise. It is no longer 'correct' answers obtained in a context of scarcity that can provide us with any kind of security, but rather a contest for interesting questions, formulated in a context of abundance. We have to learn how to bundle global indices of material, energy and knowledge, and set them up in qualitative competition with each other. Biology provides a model for this (although, as it happens, biology, like many other things, is often described in terms that are in fact reductionist and therefore, it could be said, 'unbiological').
So what have we actually been doing in our research group? We have implemented a general indexer and bundler in the technological context of, for example, self-organising maps and reaction-diffusion diagrams. An abstraction from the programmable, we call this 'Non-Turing Computing'. The same question directed at the same software only potentially delivers the same answer, in practice it delivers a different one each time. If it is in fact still possible to talk about a software at all. At the lowest level there are still digital processors and machine codes at work, but above them there have long been evolving historically determined dynamic structures, of which we can't even say any longer that they are in any specific 'condition'. We are now able to provoke newness and find solutions in it by bypassing existing problems. And because we don't want to leave the outcomes of this up to chance, or anything resembling chance, we do it in such a way that these 'new things' do in fact embody concrete solutions.
Once we thus put the mechanical infrastructure into the background, the question that poses itself now is no longer, 'what are the problems we have to solve next, and what is the order of priorities in which we should approach them?', but rather, 'how can we take care of cultivating the new on a lasting basis?'
In the context of an agricultural way of life, which had until recently been the dominant one, it was cities that fulfilled that role. Our text books, our buildings, our philosophy and our literature, the methodology, formulas and the machines, our political and judicial organisations, our economies, in short our cities can be understood as symbolic products that stem from the surpluses of an agricultural mode of living, one that is still practiced by a large proportion of the global population.
The modern city is where the new is being installed. But an urban mode of living, which, in the very foreseeable future will become the dominant one, can not just be about symbolically installing the new in the cities while at the same time protecting the agricultural recurrence of the ever-unchanging as their basic resource. Rather, we have to ask ourselves the question how we can cultivate the possibility of harvesting novelty, in other words, how we can cultivate culture itself. In answer to entropic mega-cities, we face the challenge of differentiated meta-cities.
© ETH Zürich, CAAD, 01.2012