It Knows the World: What the Wolfram Language Can Teach Anthropologists about the Problematic Nature of Ontological Approaches (#AAA2014)

Here is the prezi (with audio) of my presentation from the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting for 2014.

It Knows the World: What the Wolfram Language Can Teach Anthropologists about the Problematic Nature of Ontological Approaches

As anthropologists have become deeply entangled in debates of ontology, Wolfram Research developed a new multi-paradigm programming language that knows the world. Wolfram Language is knowledge-based, meaning that “unlike other programming languages, the philosophy of the Wolfram Language is to build as much knowledge—about algorithms and about the world—into the language as possible” (Wolfram 2014). The language, with its built-in knowledge, can recognize handwriting, visualize celebrity gossip, make pop art, determine the author of a text, and identify prose from poetry (Wolfram 2014). Each of these feats is accomplishable without requiring the programmer to engage with data or algorithms directly and requiring only a handful of commands. The language is being heralded as the answer to dealing with big data, accomplishing artificial intelligence, and overcoming alienation in programming. However, despite the immense potential of the language, it also introduces new inequalities into programming and the Internet. Wolfram Research takes for granted the situatedness of the language’s understanding of the world and seems to conflate its epistemology—what it knows and how—with ontology—the infinitely complex entanglement of being and becoming. If taken up, as is predicted, the Wolfram Language will have the potential to bury alternative epistemologies and build immense swaths of the digital world in its own image. By engaging the Wolfram Language’s implications, I will demonstrate how the abuse of ontological thinking, particularly the pluralization of the ontology and the conflation of ontology and epistemology, has serious implications for thinking and making in the world and in anthropological theorizing.

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