Elena Esposito is Professor of Sociology at the University Bielefeld and at the University of Modena-Reggio Emilia. Working in a systems theory framework, she studies problems of time in social systems, including memory and forgetting, fashion and transience, probability calculus, fiction, and the use the time in finance. Her current research projects focus on the possibility and forms of forgetting on the web, on a sociology of algorithms and on the proliferation of rankings and ratings for the management of information. Esposito's recent publications include The Future of Futures; The Time of Money (2011); Artificial Communication? The Production of Contingency by Algorithms. Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 2017(46); The structures of uncertainty. Performativity and unpredictability in economic operations. Economy & Society, 2013(42), and a debate with David Stark on Observation Theory in Sociologica, 2013(2).
About
My research investigates the communicative meaning of Big Data starting from the idea that we are facing a way to process data (and to manage information) that is different from human information processing and understanding - and this is the root of the success of these technologies. The web does not realize an Artificial Intelligence but a kind of “Artificial Communication,” which provides our society with unforeseen and uncontrollable information. Maybe society as a whole becomes smarter, but not because it artificially reproduces intelligence, but because it creates a new form of communication that uses data in a different way.
Publications
Digital prophecies and web intelligence Studying divinatory practices, developed and refined over the course of millennia, one can get many hints to understand the logic of the Web and its mechanisms. But the theological setting, which was at the base of divination and made it work, has irreparably changed with the passage to modernity; this is the reason why today the ‘divinatory’ logic of the Web leads to the emergence of problems relating to the autonomy of subjects and the openness of the future. These problems are expressed in widespread concerns about the diffusion of the Web: the defense of privacy and the freedom of self-determination. I suggest how these concerns might be approached when the point of departure is not the analogy but the difference between net intelligence and individual consciousness. Pp.121-142 in Mireille Hildebrandt and Katja de Vries, eds. Privacy, Due Process and the Computional Turn. The philosophy of law meets the philosophy of technology. Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2013.
Algorithmic Contingency - Algorithmische Kontingenz. Der Umgang mit Unsicherheit im Web The text deals with the transformations in the use and meaning of algorithms, i.e. in the translation of contingency into formalized procedures, up to the recent forms of digital information processing and of management of uncertainty. It is not a technical issue but a genuine social one – it concerns the management of the contingency of the social to obtain new sources of information and new information. Our society progressively tends to deal with contingency as a resource: uncertainty cannot be eliminated but it can be used. Pp.233-249 in Alberto Cevolini, ed. Die Ordnung des Kontingenten. Beiträge zur zahlenmäßigen Selbstbeschreibung der modernen Gesellschaft. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2014.
Between Personalisation and Cloud: Mediality on the Web - Zwischen Personalisierung und Cloud: Medialität im Web The function of the mass media was (and still is) largely associated with their component of generalization, namely the lack of a complete personalization. Personalization by itself does not make much sense: it is relevant only in contrast with generalization. Personalization and generalization are two sides of the same distinction, are only given together and are mutually dependent. Digital media develope both aspects. They allow personalization because at the same time they offer the possibility of a generalized communication. Pp.231-253 in Lorenz Engell, Frank Hartmann and Christiane Voss, eds. Körper des Denkens. Neue Positionen der Medienphilosophie. München: Fink, 2013.
Artificial Communication? The Production of Contingency by Algorithms Discourse about smart algorithms and digital social agents still refers primarily to the construction of artificial intelligence that reproduces the faculties of individuals. Recent developments, however, show that algorithms are more efficient when they abandon this goal and try instead to reproduce the ability to communicate. Algorithms that do not “think” like people can affect the ability to obtain and process information in society. Referring to the concept of communication in Niklas Luhmann’s theory of social systems, this paper critically reconstructs the debate on the computational turn of big data as the artificial reproduction not of intelligence but of communication. Self-learning algorithms parasitically take advantage – be it consciously or unaware – of the contribution of web users to a “virtual double contingency.” This provides society with information that is not part of the thoughts of anyone, but, nevertheless, enters the communication circuit and raises its complexity. The concept of communication should be reconsidered to take account of these developments, including (or not) the possibility of communicating with algorithms. Zeitschrift für Soziologie 2017, 46(4): 249–265
Algorithmic memory and the right to be forgotten on the web The debate on the right to be forgotten on Google involves the relationship between human information processing and digital processing by algorithms. The specificity of digital memory is not so much its often discussed inability to forget. What distinguishes digital memory is, instead, its ability to process information without understanding. Algorithms only work with data (that is, with differences) without remembering or forgetting. Merely calculating, algorithms manage to produce significant results not because they operate in an intelligent way, but because they "parasitically" exploit the intelligence, the memory, and the attribution of meaning by human actors. The specificity of algorithmic processing makes it possible to bypass the paradox of remembering to forget, which up to now blocked any human-based forgetting technique. If you decide to forget some memory, the most immediate effect is drawing attention to it, thereby activating remembering. Working differently from human intelligence, however, algorithms can implement, for the first time, the classical insight that it might be possible to reinforce forgetting not by erasing memories but by multiplying them. After discussing several projects on the web which implicitly adopt this approach, the article concludes by raising some deeper problems posed when algorithms use data and metadata to produce information that cannot be attributed to any human being. Big Data & Society January–June 2017
Organizing without Understanding? Lists in Ancient and in Digital Cultures The paper focuses on the practice of using lists in the digitized society, where we do not only deal with lists on the web, but since a few decades tend to observe objects and services in general in the form of evaluative orderings like ratings and rankings. The difference and the relationship between lists, ratings and rankings are illustrated and discussed in historical perspective. In a second step, the paper specifically addresses the web and digital data processing, asking why lists are spreading right now, especially in the last three decades. It analyses the relationship of the form of the list with the web and with algorithms, which are its central tools of information processing. Zeitschrift fur Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41244-017-0064-4
About
My interest in fashion relies on the exploration of contingency. Fashion, born in the late 16th century, expresses the transition of modern society from necessary references to orientations that change with time with no rational reason - but precisely therefore appear convincing. Today’s fashion is different from that of yesterday and tomorrow, but we know it and can count on it. Following fashion we imitate the same models as everyone else, but do so in order to show our originality. The paradoxes of fashion express a structural change in modern society, which can be observed in many different fields.
Publications
Die Verbindlichkeit des Vorübergehenden. Paradoxien der Mode What are the social conditions of the peculiar modern tendency to take transitory aspects as binding references - to look at change as the only still possible form of stability? Why did this trend emerge in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries and how has it moved from the original broad understanding to our current limited but onmipresent interpretation? Fashion originally concerned not only and not primarily clothes, but much more radically passions, interests, philosophical and aesthetic orientations. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt a.M., 2004. Italian translation Bologna: Baskerville, 2004.
Originality through Imitation: The Rationality of Fashion Fashion, apparently irrational and whimsical, presents on the contrary a non-random way of managing the limits of rationality in the relations between individuals. Fashion is an inherently paradoxical phenomenon, as was observed at the beginning of its diffusion in the 17th century, a time that discovered, like the recent theory of organization, the necessity and the strategic role of disorder. Fashion relies on the stability of transition (everything changes, and this is the only thing we can rely on) and on the conformity with deviance (everyone wants to be original, and in this desire is like everyone else). Fashion works combining these paradoxes and neutralizing them in the form of banality. What can the theory of organization learn from the trivial mystery of fashion, that prevails on everyone just because nobody takes it seriously? Organization Studies 32(5) 603–613
Die Frivolität des Engagements und das Dilemma der ethnischen und frommen Mode Was passiert letztlich mit der Mode, Mallarmés „déesse des apparences“ und Triumph der Leichtigkeit und Oberflächlichkeit? In einer Zeit, wo es der Politik vorgeworfen wird, den Bezug auf stabile Werte zu verlieren und kurzfristige Oberflächeneffekte zu jagen, taucht auf den Laufstegen und in den Mode-Shootings eine Ästhetik des Engagements auf, bezogen explizit auf die großen offenen Probleme unserer Zeit. Frankfurter Allgemeine Quarterly, 2017 (3): 82-85.
About
My research investigates the role of time in finance, starting from Keynes’ hypothesis that the function of money is primarily to establish a link between the present and the unknowable future. I study finance as a complex mechanims to use the future in the present, selling and reselling it in the form of risk. The role of derivatives and the models of structured finance are observed in this light, making it possible to explain their successes as well as their blindness.
Publications
The structures of uncertainty: performativity and unpredictability in economic operations The paper reflects on the presuppositions and consequences of the concept of performativity (understood as the involvement of the observer in the objects and projects he/she describes). The paper proposes a broader notion of performativity, one that not only concerns theory but is also extended to the entire economy, which observes itself in all of its operations. This conception has the advantage of being connected with critical approaches inside economics, which highlight the central role of uncertainty and surprise. It can explain how and why performativity turns into counter-performativity and how financial operators exploit uncertainty when orienting their behaviour, expecting and using the unpredictability of the future. Economy and Society, DOI:10.1080/03085147.2012.687908
The Future of Futures. The Time of Money in Financing and Society. This book reconstructs the dynamics of economics, beginning explicitly with the role and the relevance of time: money uses the future in order to generate present wealth. Financial markets sell and buy risk, thereby binding the future. Elena Esposito explains that complex risk management techniques of structured finance produce new and uncontrolled risks because they use a simplified idea of the future, failing to account for how the future reacts to attempts at controlling it. During the recent financial crisis, the future had already been used (through securitizations, derivatives and other tools) to the extent that we had many futures, but no open future available. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2011 - Italian version: Il futuro dei futures. Il tempo del denaro nella finanza e nella società. Pisa: ETS, 2009. German translation: Die Zukunft der Futures. Die Zeit des Geldes in Finanzwelt und Gesellschaft. Heidelberg: Carl Auer, 2010.
Temporal Markets Money, the Future and Political Action Following Keynes and Shackle, money can be defined by its temporal nature, as a tool for managing and using the uncertainty of the future – as a problem and as an opportunity. Finance, which relies on money, can be described as a large apparatus that relates to the future while operating in the present, or the present intervention in the construction and structuring of the future. The financial crisis, in this context, can be brought into connection with an inadequate management of the future in terms of risks and its actual conceptualisation. The reference to time also allows one to interpret the approach and the effectiveness of public policies on finance This paper examines the measures of Quantitative Easing, describing it as “injection” of time into markets, in the hope of encouraging the use and construction of the future. BEHEMOTH A Journal on Civilisation 2016 Volume 9 Issue No. 2
Esposito/Stark debate on Sociologica To observe observation produces a lot of puzzles - not only when you disagree, but especially when you agree. The commentaries in this issue show it clearly. This is not surprising and not at all unwelcome, since the premise of the discussion is the mutual intrasparency of the perspectives involved. Intrasparency, however, should not be an obstacle for conversation, and here we try to take it a step forward. Actually the debate shows how conversation can make this intransparency productive, and even result in a different kind of insight. Sociologica N. 2/2013 Doi: 10.2383/74855
About
I study memory not as accumulation and storage of recollections, but as management of the difference between remembering and forgetting. An effective memory requires the ability to remember but also the ability to forget These twinned abilities develop and get stronger (or weaker) together. This applies especially at the social level. The evolution of social memory is linked to the development of media, from writing to the printing press to the mass media, up to the recent spread of the web - with the new problem of ensuring the ability to forget and to be forgotten.
Publications
Social Forgetting: A Systems-Theory Approach Sociological theory looks for a notion of memory referred specifically to society, and being a reflexive concept it must refer to the way society has to do with itself and with its own processes: it must be a social performance, that cannot be referred to external factors – so as knowing what happened in the past we don't know what are the memories of a system that observed these events. Memory must be referred to the specific structures of the remembering system. Collective memory, then, is not social memory, because its seat and its reference are not in society, but indirectly in the consciences (or in the minds) of the individuals taking part to it. Pp.181-189 in Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning, eds. Cultural Memory Studies: An Interdisciplinary and International Handbook. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2008.
Social Forgetting - Soziales Vergessen. Formen und Medien des Gedächtnisses der Gesellschaft Our society lost the traditional sense of memory of ancient and pre-modern societies: the idea that memory is needed to give the cosmos an order and to provide guidelines for thought and action. This function was even more basic than the preservation of individual memories. The forms and the power of memory are related with the available communication media, from writing to the mass media to the latest electronic technologies. These media, which allow to remember and to forget much more, require ever more complex social structures. What characterizes the memory of our computerized society? How much must it be able to forgot to still keep an orientation in a chaotic and self-referential world, i.e. to still be able to remember? Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2002 - Italian version Roma-Bari: Laterza, 2001
Tools to Remember an Ever-changing Past The traditional system of loci presupposes a unique order of the universe that is true, given, fixed and the same for everyone. For a long time, this undisputed order was the basis for many uses of ars excerpendi, which its proponents intended to help explore and confirm. However, as in many other cases, this technique operates as a preadaptive advance and goes in a direction that differs from its intentions and the awareness of those who are using it, favouring a critical approach and shifting the emphasis from preservation of the past to preparation for the future. The future appears to be an increasingly more open and unpredictable horizon located in the realm of novelty and surprise. Alberto Cevolini (Ed.), Forgetting Machines: Knowledge Management Evolutioni inb Early Modern Europe. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2016
Algorithmic memory and the right to be forgotten on the web The debate on the right to be forgotten on Google involves the relationship between human information processing and digital processing by algorithms. The specificity of digital memory is not so much its often discussed inability to forget. What distinguishes digital memory is, instead, its ability to process information without understanding. Algorithms only work with data (that is, with differences) without remembering or forgetting. Merely calculating, algorithms manage to produce significant results not because they operate in an intelligent way, but because they "parasitically" exploit the intelligence, the memory, and the attribution of meaning by human actors. The specificity of algorithmic processing makes it possible to bypass the paradox of remembering to forget, which up to now blocked any human-based forgetting technique. If you decide to forget some memory, the most immediate effect is drawing attention to it, thereby activating remembering. Working differently from human intelligence, however, algorithms can implement, for the first time, the classical insight that it might be possible to reinforce forgetting not by erasing memories but by multiplying them. After discussing several projects on the web which implicitly adopt this approach, the article concludes by raising some deeper problems posed when algorithms use data and metadata to produce information that cannot be attributed to any human being. Big Data & Society January–June 2017
About
Sociological systems theory provides a powerful tool for social analysis, combining the difference between system and environment with observation theory and second-order cybernetics. On this basis it leads to a general theory of society. The research in this section comments on some open questions about this approach, discusses its relationship with other theories, or applies it to specific sociological problems.
Publications
GLU. Glossar zu Niklas Luhmanns Theorie sozialer Systeme - Italian, Japanese, Spanish translations - Korean and English forthcoming All scholars who are entering the complex world of systems theory - inside and often also outside sociology - are confronted with the challenges of reading Luhmann’s work. It is highly complex and relies on a network of concepts mutually related and referring to each other. It is developed in many books on topics that are often distant from each other (law and arts, mass media or economy, religion, politics, general systems theory, and more), yet always presupposing the entire theoretical construction and often referring to arguments presented in other texts. In meeting these needs, this book has become a much quoted classic in many languages. In his introduction Luhmann himself points to the difficulties inherent in a theoretical frame, as required by current sociology, which must be constructed in an heterarchical and reticular way, with a complex network of references between concepts that get transformed in the very connection. The reticular structure of the theory is preserved in the glossary by a series of internal cross-references between the various items, with the effect that the book appears as a different text at each reading, according to the selected references and the resulting connections. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1997
(with Erich Hörl) Reflexivität und System. Die Debatte über Ordnung und Selbstorganisation in den 1970er Jahren / Réflexivité et système. Le débat sur l’ordre et l’auto-organisation dans les années 1970 Die in diesem Heft gesammelten Texte entstammen der französischen und deutschen Kybernetikdebatte der 1970er Jahre - einer Zeit, da Begriffe wie Programm, System, Speicher, Kontrolle, Maschine sich nicht oder nicht in erster Linie auf technische Fragen bezogen, sondern eine außergewöhnliche wissens- und theoriepolitische Reichweite hatten und zu Chiffren einer Infragestellung der überlieferten epistemologischen und ontologischen Überzeugungen avancierten. Trivium 20 (2015). URL : http://trivium.revues.org/5206 URL : http://trivium.revues.org/5132
Artificial Communication? The Production of Contingency by Algorithms Discourse about smart algorithms and digital social agents still refers primarily to the construction of artificial intelligence that reproduces the faculties of individuals. Recent developments, however, show that algorithms are more efficient when they abandon this goal and try instead to reproduce the ability to communicate. Algorithms that do not “think” like people can affect the ability to obtain and process information in society. Referring to the concept of communication in Niklas Luhmann’s theory of social systems, this paper critically reconstructs the debate on the computational turn of big data as the artificial reproduction not of intelligence but of communication. Self-learning algorithms parasitically take advantage – be it consciously or unaware – of the contribution of web users to a “virtual double contingency.” This provides society with information that is not part of the thoughts of anyone, but, nevertheless, enters the communication circuit and raises its complexity. The concept of communication should be reconsidered to take account of these developments, including (or not) the possibility of communicating with algorithms. Zeitschrift für Soziologie 2017, 46(4): 249–265
Critique without crisis: Systems theory as a critical sociology This paper proposes an extended idea of critique, bypassing the paradox of a critique of critique. It reconstructs the semantics of critique from ancient commentary to autonomous interpretation, identifying the blindness of critical theory in the claim to detect crises and to indicate how to overcome them. The critique of critique is achieved not by rejecting critique but by moving to second-order observation. In this understanding, critique does not refuse what is normal but observes it as improbable. Critical observation is understood as reflection on normality, its opposite, and its alternatives. The debate on risk society is presented and commented on as an example. Thesis Eleven 2017, 143(1): 18–27. DOI: 10.1177/0725513617740966
Publications
An Ecology of Differences. Communication, the web and the question of borders Ecology deals with the environment, but here we look to a generalization and an abstraction of the concept that have been emerging more recently (since the fifties). We speak of general ecology. And we look for a sharper problematization of the idea of environment—not as a “given,” to which an organism or system must adapt, but as a multifaceted and flexible reference, which changes with the way it is observed and with the perspective of the observer. Pp. 283-301 in Erich Hörl and James Burton (Eds.), General Ecology. The New Ecological Paradigm. London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2017