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· 75 ·· CHAPTER 2 · Digital Objects and Ontologies The Origin of Digital Objects In the previous chapter, we introduced the subject of this book—digital objects—and analyzed its technical lineage in terms of markup languages. But the investigation cannot end here, because what we have discussed is only a partial interpretation of Simondon’s understanding of technical evolution. The goal of this book is rather to investigate the existence of the digital object, mediating on its production, its implementation, and its use. We may diagrammatically grasp the “life cycle” of the digital object in terms of a triangle of processes (Figure 6). The first process is that in which the ontologists and computer scientists create a metadata scheme or ontologies for digital objects; the second process is the implementation of these schemes in databases and pieces of software, which creates a milieu for the digital objects. The digital object can hence be seen to exhibit its modes of being by situating itself within the digital milieu. The third process to be understood is that by which these objects and the machines construct a technological system, which further integrates human users into it. This triangle is composed of different technical ensembles. We may want to address the first step concerning the origins of these objects: where did they come from? I said “origins” instead of “origin,” because they are always plural. One lineage entails multiple origins, and each origin presents us with philosophical thoughts concerning the existence of objects. The quest for origins is a method for discovering the knowledge (for example, Husserl’s The Origin of Geometry) that we already established at the very beginning and that has already been obscured by historical developments. Some origins still have effects in the present, but their sources are largely forgotten. A discussion of what Simondon calls the “absolute beginning” of technical objects will serve as the first step for our discussion. In the evolution from diode to triode, and then from to tetrode and pentode—the typical technical objects that Simondon used 76 DIGITAL OBJECTS AND ONTOLOGIES for illustration—he proposes that the absolute beginning is not the diode but is to be found “in the condition of irreversibility of the electrodes and the phenomenon of the transport of electric charges across the vacuum.”1 This absolute beginning is the irreducible technical principle that serves as the foundation of technical objects. Can we pose the same question with regard to digital objects? How can we define their absolute beginning? If we trace the footprints, we can always find several different histories, for example, the digital object’s origin in military technology, in AI, or in the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) for humanities data, but these can be considered relative origins. They certainly deserve books within the field of history, but here we need to take a different position. Concerning this absolute origin, I propose two directions, one purely technical and the other philosophical. The former is concerned with the syntactic operation of a machine, that is to say, a grammatical structure that machines can interpret ; the latter has been an ongoing philosophical quest for ontology since Aristotle. First, we shall look into the notion of ontology. By the end of the preceding chapter, we had arrived at an understanding of web ontologies as the current phase of concretization of digital objects. It is also necessary to make the remark here that ontology has been around long before the web ontologies. Ontology was first formulated by Aristotle as “being qua being,” or more precisely, “a discipline which studies that which is, insofar as it is, and those features that it has in its own right.”2 The development of ontology can be summarized, as we have already seen in the introduction to this book, in terms of ontologies and Ontology. The former designates theory of formalization and representation; the latter refers to what Heidegger calls fundamental ontology. The former concerns being (Seiendes); the latter concerns Being (Sein). On its surface, this constitutes an opposition between Ontology and ontologies (or ontics, in Heidegger’s terms). We can probably say that Ontology is a critique of ontologies; however , we will also see later how ontologies become the material support of Ontology. Second, we shall address the “syntactic nature” of computation. Computational machines are generally described as “syntactic” rather than semantic machines; syntaxes are derived from forms rather than contents. The computer doesn’t actually understand the meaning of the sentence but only its syntax. John...


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