Das Neue Alphabet / Det nya alfabetet / The new alphabet

Begin dit jaar was ik in Berlijn om de openingsconferentie te bezoeken van het nieuwe meerjarige programma Das Neue Alphabet / The New Alphabet. Ik had het plezier daar te kunnen bijkletsen met Andreas Engström, redacteur bij onder andere Critical Point, die me overhaalde om een stukje te typen over de bijeenkomst. Inmiddels vertaald en gepubliceerd in het Zweeds: Det nya alfabetet – vad är det, och hur många? / The new alphabet – what is that, and how many?

De Engelse versie is ook hieronder te lezen.

What is an alphabet? I like questions that are at once stupefyingly simple and yet confusing. In that sense, the opening days of the new long-term project of the HKW in Berlin called ‘The New Alphabet’, are satisfactory enough. But seriously, what is an alphabet? And can new instances of alphabet be born?

The alphabet as we colloquially know it is one of the first things that children learn in school, remarks Julia Voss. It’s available to all and used by all. The ‘new alphabet’ on the other hand, is rather closed, a code only few have access to: trade secret algorithms or hidden data profiles that describe us in more detail than a novel from the 19th century.

Both the old and the new alphabet have to be learned. Where do adults go for their training? Events like ‘The New Alphabet’ offer retreat, albeit in the form of lectures, discussions and arts, film and music, and not in the practical sense of a course on computer programming. That’s alright. I don’t agree with the dictum that everyone should know how to code, that’s a profession that requires professionals. In this sense the two alphabets differ.

Is it then even sensible to collect the jumble of technological, societal and cultural developments under this one umbrella of alphabet? Talking about alphabets has some advantages: it shows how no alphabet, whether closed or not, is natural; and, it shows how an alphabet is meaningless in and of itself. We do not conceive of the alphanumerical as magical or cabalistic anymore, notes Sybille Krämer. The meaninglessness is precisely why it works, the fact that for example the 0 and 1 of binary code do not carry weight of themselves, is what allows them to be functional and generate a lot of money.

The shadow of this meaninglessness of alphabets is their artificiality. As natural as they seem to us now, the ABC and 123 was once invented. Alright, we can discuss whether mathematical laws are invented or rather discovered. However, the latin alphabet is manmade, just like all the other scripts out there. And therefore they are fundamentally incomplete. Perhaps they’re even filled to the brim with meaning. This goes not just for Chinese characters, but also for the latin alphabet. It has a profound influence, for example in the description of DNA, as Guiseppe Longo explains. A description that is limited, as a result of using this incomplete set of 26 letters. A case of alphabetic determinism that potentially costs lives. Algorithmic bias may be quite well-known by now, but apparently there is a thing like alphabetical bias as well.

The alphabet – including its numerical cousin – calls for demystification, as part of algorithmic literacy training. Its openness should be propagated and made to use. Throughout the event the call for a renewed Enlightenment can be heard, just as we do in the media or even politics. The era of post-truth and fake news has awakened a longing that I cannot help but feel is somewhat reactionary. Back to the Enlightenment? What does that even mean? Didn’t ‘the new alphabet’ of calculation and quantification grow huge precisely through the advancements of the Enlightenment? Will we just throw all accomplishments made since – e.g. (randomly generated list) postcolonialism, feminism, thought on embodiment or materialism, heck, even psychoanalysis – overboard?

According to Yuk Hui, ‘what comes after the Enlightenment’ is a question that should open up to new futures, not a return to an old, western one that is progressively imposed on the rest of the world. His ‘multiple cosmotechnics’ offers a framework for thinking about the new alphabet – or rather, new alphabets. What is an alphabet? It’s never just one.

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