Alan N. Shapiro - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

Alan N. Shapiro


The rise of the Internet has given us the ability to tap into an ever-growing pool of resources in various disciplines, including art, natural science, design, engineering, anthropology and psychology.

Not only that, we can now combine and cross-pollinate these fragments of knowledge, information and insight in creative ways to build and contribute thought-provoking ideas to the world. So, why is there still a divide between the sciences and the humanities in our culture? Although the divide may have lessened in the past decade, the question remains as relevant as ever.

For years, Alan N. Shapiro felt as though his life was divided between two worlds: At the age of 15 he was accepted to the esteemed MIT, where he studied science and technology for two years. Later, he attended Cornell University, completing his BA in government and history, and then NYU, where he acquired his MA in sociology. Long interested in the intersection of technology and society, Shapiro has established himself as an important scholar on French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. His texts have been recognized as shedding new light on the Frenchman best known for his ideas on consumerism, technological progress and, of course, simulation and hyperreality. After university, he worked on Wall Street for four years in addition to various media and telecommunications companies before eventually becoming a self-employed software developer. These days, you’ll find him lecturing extensively on topics central to the realm of developing technologies, from social choreography to art and design in new media.

Originally from New York City, Shapiro moved to Germany in 1991 because, among other reasons, he was drawn to European culture and lifestyle. “I find living in Europe gives me more freedom than living in the United States,” he said in a characteristically tranquil and pensive voice, “In America, the culture is dominated by money, work and consumerism, and I didn’t feel that would be a good life for me. I came to Europe to have more personal freedom.“

Since then, Shapiro has written two books – Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance and Software of the Future: The Model Precedes the Real – and is currently working as a full-time lecturer at the Offenbach University of Art and Design. We had a chat with him recently about “transdisciplinary thinking,” digital culture and how he envisions coding in the future.

The Future of Knowledge

Because of his deep background in both philosophy and computer science, Shapiro has always been drawn to the relationship between the two realms, which society has often classified as separated. “These two worlds seemed to have nothing to do with each other until I started to understand that the computer science we have is based on certain assumptions that are essentially in the area of philosophy of language,” he explained. “Digital, binary computing as we know it, which is the basis of everything that’s happening in the world, is based on the symbolic logic of Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky and implemented by Alan Turing. It’s a false prejudice to believe that computing will always be based on those assumptions.”

Much of his work deals with imagining a paradigm shift in computing, which doesn’t throw away current notions of programming, but rather aims to build on top of it. Additionally, Shapiro – who calls himself a “transdisciplinary thinker” – firmly believes acquiring a multifaceted education is crucial to pushing the frontiers of knowledge in the future. “We’re limiting our knowledge by having this fixed classification system, where each academic has his/her own discipline and each discipline has its own specialized terminology. You don’t know very much what’s going on in other fields and this is limiting progress in knowledge,” he added.

Introducing “Quantum Culture”

In our day and age, the phrase “digital culture” is thrown around constantly and casually in the media – but what does it really mean? “Many people are using the term digital culture without even thinking about the meaning of the word ‘digital,’” Shapiro argues. “What this translates to is that, without awareness, people use the phrase to describe what we are living in now with new media and technologies. But the word ‘digital’ is absurdly anachronistic when you think about what it means,” he continues.

To understand this a bit better it makes sense to go back to the foundations. The digital and the binary stem from an early phase of computing, around the 1940s, after the idea of the modern computer was first described by computer scientist Alan Turing. Essentially, “digital” means discrete values – the logic of a digital, binary computer. Shapiro expanded on this and added, “In order to understand what we’re living now, we don’t want to go back to the digital and binary. That’s irrelevant because what we’re living now is, mostly, about patterns – cultural, technical and design patterns.”

Instead, Shapiro believes there’s another phrase that better describes our culture at the moment, namely, “quantum culture.” “Quantum, to me, is basically about paradoxes. I think that’s where we’re living now – in a lot of paradoxes. Something has happened to space and time with smartphones and the Internet. Most of the time, we’re living in the place that we are physically, but we’re also in contact with many other people and the Internet,” he continued. “I’m interested in quantum physics, but also ‘quantum’ as a way of thinking taken outside of physics into a kind of quantum sociology, or quantum thinking, or quantum computing.”

“Quantum paradox,” he elaborates, “is illustrated, for example, in the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat, and in the experimentally verified physical reality of quantum entanglement. Schrödinger’s Cat exists in two realities at one time. There are two (or more) possible paths of a single event. The cat may be both alive and dead, existing in two paradoxical (not parallel) states united by the non-causal causality of chance. Twin particles in a state of quantum entanglement transcend any spatial separation between them. Distance no longer plays any decisive role that would lead them to be regarded as having distinct identities.”

Rethinking our Reality

As social media and technology continue to permeate our lives to a greater extent, it seems we’re becoming increasingly inclined to conceptualize the digital and physical worlds. “We are now in a totally new situation – for example, with the real and the virtual. What does this online and virtual existence that we have mean for thinking? How are we going to deal with it in theory and practice?” he asks. “The opportunity has now arisen to think about a future reality – I call it ‘the new real’ in my work – and it’s a hybrid. Actually, it’s more than a hybrid because it’s something we just haven’t grasped yet. We need to forget about the real and the virtual – those are prejudices and they won’t help us make the world, or society, better.”

A common refrain in and outside of the tech industry seems to be that everyone should learn to code. Regardless of whether you agree with the notion or not, it’s clear that coding will become more important and desirable as a skill in the foreseeable future.

Historically, people have had an image of a computer as a non-living object waiting for humans to issue commands and instructions to it through code, said Shapiro. However, commands or instructions are formal logic, and he sees that as the opposite of poetry, something that has ambivalence, a life force. “There’s more to a poem than just words – there’s something alive and animated – like music is more than just notes. We’ve made a binary opposition between code as formal logic versus poetic language,” he noted.

In the future, he envisions people moving away from that original model of code. Shapiro believes we should stop thinking about software as dead, and instead think about it as something that’s alive – or at least semi-alive. “We should stop thinking about instructions and formal logic only. Rather, in addition to formal logic and instructions, we should also have ambivalent logic, poetry, music and expressiveness in code. We should think about software more as a partner that has rights.”

Thank you, Alan, for sharing your thoughts with us. Read more of Alan’s many transdisciplinary essays in his text archive.

Our conversation with Alan N. Shapiro is part of Deutsche Bank’s ‘Economy Stories’. The series’ videos and interviews showcase trailblazers in the fields of technology, strategy, and research, as well as in the arts and sciences. Watch the full discussion with Alan here, and find out more about the influence of digitalization on the world on the ‘Economy Stories’ website.

Interview & Text: Charmaine Li
Photography: Peter Bender