object ¦ class

by Joel Friesen

The following paper presents a brief analysis of the concepts of objects and classes as they have been articulated in multiple contexts, through an examination of a series of selected texts ranging from the fields of software design to metaphysics. The analysis will proceed from the speculative to the explicitly applicable. The arguments and positions taken by these various authors will be synthesized and examined critically in relation to one another, and in their broader intellectual context, with a view towards how these concepts might have implications for architectural practice and software development.

When the philosopher of technology Gilbert Simondon penned the first of his primary theses, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, he did so with the resolute belief that humanity could only foster a harmonious relationship to technology if we took seriously the task of understanding technical objects on their own terms.1 Though Simondon was writing in the middle part of the 20th-century, his plea for an evolved understanding of objects rings true today, especially as we confront the increasingly black-boxed context of computation. What exactly are these entities that we are interacting with and that have come to have such a dominant effect on our lives? If one is to ask the question of the nature of these so-called digital objects, one must begin by probing their ontology, their way of being in the world, their mode of existence. In a text whose title is clearly drawn from Simondon, Yuk Hui critiques the ontological presumptions often made in computer science through a treatment of various metaphysical systems. He demonstrates how Brian Cantwell Smith, for example, links phenomenology and computation, refuting the idea that semantics can be separated from syntax, and ultimately claiming that “computational data are like sense data” and computation “acts on this flux to categorically create the objective form of it.”2 Heidegger’s rebuke to modern science is also given attention, though Hui believes the two oppositions are reconcilable and necessary for a full picture of the mode of existence of digital objects.3 The particulars here are less important than the consideration of digital objects in a mode of analysis that seeks to understand them on their own terms, apart from their use value in our everyday lives.

Hui treats categories as ontological assumptions in their own right, as always inextricable from the object is its class, which we might rudimentarily consider here to be a notion of category, or that which subsumes objects according to certain predefined characteristics. In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault wrote on how we classify our world, claiming that the epistemological shift (or the episteme, the dominant paradigm for the possibility of thought in a certain historical era) from the Baroque to Classical rationalism involved a change in the way we order things.

While the universe was previously yoked together through observed similarities between disparate elements, measurement and deduction came to the fore, and as a consequence, “the entire episteme of Western culture found its fundamental arrangements modified.”4 Through semiotics, order was now given to thought and enumeration, which served to differentiate between elements, not invoke similarities. Foucault’s text highlights the importance that signs and classes have on our modes of thought, something which can be observed even into the 20th– century, when classes, and the objects that fall under their purview, became of central importance to a certain strain of computer programming.

Object-oriented programming (OOP) is an approach to computer programming that involves the definition of computational “objects” placed into relation with one another, as opposed to a linear, sequential sequence of code to be executed. The first such instance of an object-oriented language was SIMULA, developed in Norway in the 1960s.5 In such languages, pieces of code known as classes provide a general template from which objects can be derived and further specified in a certain context. As with much software, the earlier object-oriented programming languages sought to model real-world processes, but as Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey explain, in this context modelling cannot be equated with representation, as “the complex dynamic systems and user relationships that object-oriented design models are those that are made possible by the silicon explosion,” effectively “creating models of things that don’t otherwise exist.”6 This has consequences for how users interact with the software as well,because our agency is entering into a dynamic relationship with the agency of the object, conditioning how we use the software and what operations we perform. Fuller and Goffey note that the machine can actually begin to model the user—and with that the line between object and subject becomes unnervingly blurry. The classes from which these objects derive exert their own sense of agency on the programmer as well. That the objects come pre-designed with their own sense of structure may be efficient, but may also begin to dictate how they are used. Combined with the concept of encapsulation—the black boxing of computational objects—we find ourselves increasingly estranged from a proper understanding of technology.7

It was not long after the advent of OOP that digital objects would find a place in architecture. By 1975, Charles M. Eastman detailed the C-MU Building Description System, an experimental software that aspired to overcome the shortcomings of hand drawing and physical models by facilitating the design of three-dimensional computer models of buildings, out of which all necessary drawings and information could be easily extracted.8 The objects discussed by Fuller and Goffey find an obvious connection here: the basis for the software was a series of classes of objects, such as wide-flange beams and gyp-rock, out of which a building could be formed. The same dangers discussed above are also present here, the agency of such objects and their encapsulation remaining mostly unconsidered. Today we call these building information modelling systems, and find them proliferating in architectural offices around the world. While they have surely refined the building coordination process, without a critical eye to what is beyond the black box we will become further estranged from the technology we create. My intention here is not one of resistance to technological change, only to remain vigilant and take seriously “the belief that ignorance begets oppression and understanding freedom.”9

End Notes

  1. Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, trans. Cecile Malaspina and John Rogove (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
  2. Yuk Hui, On the Existence of Digital Objects (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 12.
  3. Ibid., 16.
  4. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London and New York: Routledge, 1966), 60.
  5. Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey, “The Obscure Objects of Object Orientation,” in How To Be a Geek: Essays on the Culture of Software (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2017.), 17.
  6. Ibid., 20.
  7. Ibid., 27
  8. Charles M. Eastman, “The Use of Computers Instead of Drawings In Building Design,”AIA Journal 63, no. 3 (1975): 46.
  9. Paul Dumouchel, “Gilbert Simondon’s Plea for a Philosophy of Technology,” Inquiry 35, no. 3–4 (September 1992): 408.

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