Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a ThingAlien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing by Ian Bogost
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found this book to be quite accessible and totally incomprehensible at the same time. It was kind of a surreal joy to read. I liked how it flipped the artificial intelligence research agenda of getting machines to think (like people), to getting humans to imagine what it was like to be a thing. I also came to appreciate Bogost’s variation on Latour’s litanies, so called tiny ontology. And I really appreciated his emphasis on making things to guide thinking or philosophical carpentry … and the importance of cultivating a sense of wonder. His use of real examples and case studies to demonstrate his thinking was also very helpful–and sometimes quite humorous. I’m wandering back to Latour to read We Have Never Been Modern based on some discussion of it in this book.

So, in the spirit of tiny ontology here are some random quotes I highlighted on my Kindle:

To be sure, computers often do entail human experience and perception. The human operator views words and images rendered on a display, applies physical forces to a mouse, seats memory chips into motherboard sockets. But not always. Indeed, for the computer to operate at all for us first requires a wealth of interactions to take place for itself. As operators or engineers, we may be able to describe how such objects and assemblages work. But what do they experience? What’s their proper phenomenology? In short, what is it like to be a thing?

Theories of being tend to be grandiose, but they need not be, because being is simple. Simple enough that it could be rendered via screen print on a trucker’s cap. I call it tiny ontology, precisely because it ought not demand a treatise or a tome. I don’t mean that the domain of being is small— quite the opposite, as I’ll soon explain. Rather, the basic ontological apparatus needed to describe existence ought to be as compact and unornamented as possible.

For the ontographer, Aristotle was wrong: nature does not operate in the shortest way possible but in a multitude of locally streamlined yet globally inefficient ways.[ 41] Indeed, an obsession with simple explanations ought to bother the metaphysician. Instead of worshipping simplicity, OOO embraces messiness. We must not confuse the values of the design of objects for human use, such as doors, toasters, and computers, with the nature of the world itself. An ontograph is a crowd, not a cellular automaton that might describe its emergent operation. An ontograph is a landfill, not a Japanese garden. It shows how much rather than how little exists simultaneously, suspended in the dense meanwhile of being.

Yet once we are done nodding earnestly at Whitehead and Latour, what do we do? We return to our libraries and our word processors. We refine our diction and insert more endnotes. We apply “rigor,” the scholarly version of Tinker Bell’s fairy dust, in adequate quantities to stave off interest while cheating death. For too long, being “radical” in philosophy has meant writing and talking incessantly, theorizing ideas so big that they can never be concretized but only marked with threatening definite articles (“ the political,” “the other,” “the neighbor,” “the animal”). For too long, philosophers have spun waste like a goldfish’s sphincter, rather than spinning yarn like a charka. Whether or not the real radical philosophers march or protest or run for office in addition to writing inscrutable tomes— this is a question we can, perhaps, leave aside. Real radicals, we might conclude, make things. Examples aren’t hard to find, and some even come from scholars who might be willing to call themselves philosophers.

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