Notes on the Great Dematerialization
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It must have been around 2014 that I first saw a sign over our office copier announcing a new policy of dématérialisation — don’t print it out or copy it if an electronic version would work just as well. I thought this was just the French being characteristically abstract about something really just as mundane as not wasting paper, as similarly for example when they refer to an ethics board as a “deontology commission”, or to the work of a demolition crew as déconstruction.
It turns out I was at least in part right this time. It was about saving paper. But it was also, I’ve come to think, about a lot more than that besides. The switch to paper-free pedagogy is just one small part of the defining motion of our era, from the physical to the virtual, which I see as having begun in the mid-twentieth century, and as rapidly accelerating since the mid-2010s. And once we understand this motion, we are better positioned likewise to understand much of its discursive accompaniment as well, especially those accompaniments that take the form of fashionable philosophical arguments denying, in some way or other, the independent existence of the external world, or of various of its classical ingredients. Notable among these are atoms, and persons, and money. I’ll have something to say about the first two today, and perhaps about the third on some later occasion.
Some philosophers, notably Nick Bostrom and David Chalmers, have written of the so-called “it-from-bit” hypothesis that subtends the “simulation argument” they favor concerning the “true” nature of the external world. This argument holds that the things we ordinarily experience as couches and trees and so on are in fact reducible in some way to the elementary units of information processing; reality turns out to be “virtual” rather than “objective” (the scare quotes here flag the constantly evolving character of these two terms, whose current usage regrettably takes them as fixed and stable).
It seems to me, rather, that we may identify a vast process currently underway whereby we are moving, in our efforts to understand reality and to harness it to our ends, from its to bits. It seems to me the real story of the past few decades, a story that easily explains the rise in popularity of the simulation argument, but does so much else besides, is of a fairly total regime change, from physics to informatics —here I am adapting the French informatique, which names the research domain in question far more appropriately than “computer science”— as the Prima Scientia or ultimate science of reality.